SAN DIEGO — Are we enlightened now? Does anyone believe that Americans are better off now than they were before they heard the peculiar racial musings of Donald T. Sterling, the 80-year-old married billionaire who didn’t want his 31-year-old girlfriend flaunting her relationships with African-Americans?
Are we more sensitized to issues of race now that the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers may be forced to sell his basketball team — a transaction that could bring him an estimated $575 million for a franchise he bought in 1981 for a mere $12 million?
In the past, Sterling — who owns thousands of apartments in Southern California — was rightly criticized for refusing to rent units to African-Americans or Latinos. In a lawsuit, he was accused of saying that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
That’s disgusting. I think we’re all clear by now on who it is in this story that most resembles vermin. But has the socioeconomic condition of the affected groups now been improved because of the possibility that the new owners might include multimillionaires who are African-American or Latino?
Boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar de la Hoya have separately expressed interest in joining forces with partners to buy the Clippers. So has NBA great Magic Johnson. Is this the least bit empowering to the hardworking African-American and Latino citizens who are trying to scratch out a living for themselves and their families?
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that we’re a “nation of cowards” because Americans supposedly don’t talk enough about race. I don’t know about that. I think we talk about it all the time, and yet we still somehow manage to avoid the most important aspects of the discussion by choosing most often to focus on the tawdry and the trivial. Besides, if the Sterling fiasco is what talking more about race sounds like, maybe we’re better off keeping quiet.
This whole ugly “Guess Who You Shouldn’t Bring to Dinner” drama leaves one craving a long and hot shower. It’s hard to decide what element of it is more troubling. Was it hearing someone who has made millions of dollars from being part of a league whose engine is African-American athletes admonish his girlfriend not to associate publicly with African-American athletes? Or was it the fact that so many of Sterling’s critics seemed to revel in the cheap progressivism that comes from piling on this sort of buffoon?
The real estate mogul reminds us that there are some things money can’t buy, and that at the top of the list are class and character.
Stories like this always tend to bring out the best and worst in people.
In the latter category, you’ll find the NAACP. The Los Angeles chapter had already given Sterling one community leadership award, and the organization was poised to give him a lifetime achievement award before it quickly scuttled those plans when the controversy erupted. When asked at a news conference why the group was cozy with the Clippers owner, chapter president Leon Jenkins bluntly admitted that it was about the money that Sterling has given the organization over the years.
“Mr. Sterling has given out a tremendous amount of scholarships, he has invited numerous African-American kids to summer camps, and his donations are bigger than other sports franchises,” Jenkins said. “That is something that shows that there is a consciousness of the plight of African-Americans in this country.”
While calling Sterling’s taped comments “devastating,” Jenkins was gracious enough to give the mogul a chance at redemption “after a sustained period of proof to the African-American community that those words don’t reflect his heart.”
A “sustained period of proof”? One has to wonder how many zeroes this entails.
For an example of better behavior, take a look at the Clippers team and their inspirational coach Doc Rivers. The Clippers players banded together and sent their owner a clear and powerful message by wearing their practice shirts inside out at a playoff game. The professional and dignified Rivers refused an invitation to sit down with Sterling for a face-saving meeting amid the controversy.
These athletes managed to somehow make their views heard without joining in the frenzy. Neither the players nor their coach asked for the cards they were dealt, but they played them gracefully.
And in doing so, despite the misfortune of working for a loser, they wound up the big winners.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.