After months of resistance, I finally saw the Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio film The Wolf of Wall Street and it was everything I feared it would be: a steaming pile of shit that could double as the recruitment video for sociopathic dude-bros eager to enter the dwarf-throwing, woman-shaving, parasitic world of high finance.
Part of making leading character Jordan Belfort vile but also enticing was to ensure that he and his “Merry Men” weren’t presented as open racists. I highly doubt that in the real world, these people were proudly sexist, bigoted and cruel but drew the line at racial slurs. I think it’s far more likely they wallowed in whatever piggery their bank accounts and attendant arrogance allowed.
The film also made me think a great deal of a different kind of wolf. Maybe not the Wolf of Wall Street, but the Wolf of Crenshaw: Donnie Tokowitz a k a Donald Sterling. Both made fortunes by decimating the lives of ordinary people because their fortunes acted as societal sanction for their activities. If they were getting rich, then it must be all right.
The difference between Belfort and Sterling is that one wolf made his money looking at numbers flit across a screen and cold-calling anonymous voices. While the other wolf—Donald Sterling—drove around his projects, looked his tenants in the eye and, close enough to smell their breath, treated them like they were less than human because of the color of their skin. Yet Sterling’s great sin, as we are seeing, is that he couldn’t contain the outlet for his bigotry to the poor. When Donald Sterling left the projects and made his way to the Staples Center, he would also look at his millionaire players, alternately ogle their bodies or curse them and treat them like they were less than human because of the color of their skin.
Fellow NBA owners, no matter how many people their businesses harm—and new Clippers CEO Richard Parsons has certainly harmed his share—are supposed to leave those hatreds at work and discard them at the locker room door. You are supposed to love your star players and point out that Colin Powell/Condi Rice/Magic Johnson deserve color-blind admiration. (As for how the wealthy see President Obama, that is a more complicated discussion.)
It is here we see Donald Sterling’s cardinal error as a racist. It is not the people harmed on Crenshaw or in East LA. It is the fact that he is, as my colleague Mychal Denzel Smith described, “an impolite racist.” Burying the poor is just business. Hell, Mayor Kevin Johnson—that voice for Sterling justice—has slums. But if you insult Magic Johnson, wealthy white people act like this is their “I am Spartacus” moment.
For those who may have missed it—and it is difficult to wonder how anyone has—Sterling was interviewed by Anderson Cooper and delivered a master class in anti-public relations. People have described this interview as a profile in dementia, but there was nothing, to my eye, off-kilter about Donald Sterling. He was exactly who he has always been: blunt, nasty and animated by his hatreds. Most pointedly, Sterling went after the person he sees as the reason for his troubles, Magic Johnson.
Among many other things, Sterling said of Magic Johnson, “He’s got AIDS. Did he do any business? Did he help anybody in South LA?… What kind of a guy goes to every city and has sex with every girl and he catches HIV. Is that somebody we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself.”
There was certainly more, but once again, it was specifically the attack on Magic that immediately brought NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to the barricades. Silver said:
“I just read a transcript of Donald Sterling’s interview with Anderson Cooper and while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack. The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible.”
And yet, the question still lingers every time Adam Silver issues another apology to Magic Johnson. It lingers as owners find the highest of possible high horses to condemn Sterling’s latest embarrassment. It lingers when former Commissioner David Stern—assumedly from retirement in Colonel Kurtz’s old compound—praises Silver’s actions: Why was Donald Sterling coddled for so long? Why were all of his words and deeds—deep in racism, rich with misogyny—ignored by the NBA? Kevin Johnson demanded answers to that last week, and then quickly forgot that he even asked the question. The answer, unfortunately, can be found in The Wolf of Wall Street, when Jordan Belfort says, “There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.” As long as the objects of Sterling’s pathologies were the poor, his fellow owners didn’t blink. But mess with Magic, you are now messing with someone in the club. Selective morality: without it, the money just doesn’t get made and the world doesn’t spin. But rarely do we see it open and naked to the world, on such a grand stage as we are with the NBA vs Donald Sterling.