Race Matters and Why Donald Sterling Doesn't

The leaked audio of the conversation between Donald Sterling and his girlfriend once again proves to me that he's a racist boor. He's paying for his boorishness with the loss of lifetime NBA privileges. Additionally, he's losing the good regard of just about anybody outside his family who knew or worked with him, although it appears that he didn't have much regard to begin with. Not much to pay out there.

That's all that needs to be said at this point about Sterling. Much more needs to be said about the fact that being a racist is not illegal and, unless you are a rich, powerful, high-profile person in the business of black culture who gets caught on tape unequivocally insulting African Americans, it is generally not punished. The fact is, we tend to respond to racially inappropriate comments with a flurry of indignation, and then silence or apathy. Or there is a backlash against the indignation that goes something like: he/she didn't mean anything harmful by it, has other good qualities, was exercising free speech rights, etc. (see Michael Richards, Paula Dean, George Zimmerman, Ted Nugent).

The problem is that we don't really know what racism is, or we can't or won't grasp the systemic nature of it, so we conveniently attribute all the trouble to individual behavior. Donald Sterling and his ilk are bad actors; the rest of us are innocent. That view is embedded in declarations like, "This kind of thing has no place here," or as in the case of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's recent comment, no place in Los Angeles.

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That's nice to hear, but it isn't true. Racism does have a place here, as it does in big cities across the country. Small ones, too. The kind of social and spatial separation of the races that Donald Sterling condones and actually practiced as the owner of apartment buildings is the separation on which America was built. Its legacy is in our faces every day, most glaringly in the demographics of where we live; white neighborhoods are considered the most desirable, a standard so normalized we don't even think about why that's true.

The L.A. Times ran a story yesterday about how white people are moving into the hood around USC and automatically improving it -- a process elegantly termed gentrification. But all it means is white folks re-entering formerly black or colored spaces that they fled years ago because it got too black or colored; they are still dictating, via their absence or their presence, what makes a neighborhood good or valuable.

I say this not as a condemnation of white people or as a diminishment of black people, but simply as a way of pointing out how racism functions as a system, an invisible hand that once in a great while explodes into view. As a businessman heavily into real estate, Donald Sterling saw the value -- literally -- of that system. It is why he saw no contradiction at all in loathing black people but giving money to the NAACP. It was simply a way of keeping the criticism at bay and the money flowing.

We should thank Donald Sterling in some ways. For one thing, his disapproval of his lady friend fraternizing in a photo with Magic Johnson makes clear that his disdain for black folks is both personal and political -- that is, both individual and systemic.

We can't wiggle out of this one. Magic is rich and powerful, too, but he's black, at the bottom of a racial caste system that Donald Sterling did not invent but willingly buys into. Sterling's crime was not exposing the caste system, but his willingness. It is unseemly. The world should condemn him, but the next thing we should do is take a long, hard look at our own complicity with racism, and what it is that we do -- or don't do -- on a daily basis to make that complicity happen. What we discover will likely be something we'd never want anyone to overhear.

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