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.