The End of Donald Sterling and the Perils of Satisfaction

Apr 29, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Demonstrators hold up signs in front of Staples Center demanding the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers prior to game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. The NBA handed down a lifetime ban on Clippers owner Donald Sterling after it was confirmed that he made racist comments captured on a recording by his girlfriend. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

There was no good to be had here. Accepting that comes first. Even now, with the unrepentant racist exposed (again) and publicly shamed (finally) and banished from the kingdom (good riddance), there is no good. There are only the people who remain and the world that built them and the world that they still must actively choose to build.

Satisfaction (n.) – Fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this.

There’s a dangerous temptation to claim victory here. Resisting it comes next. It can be exhilarating to watch a hateful thug be lashed for his bigotry. But don’t lose sight of what happened here:

One product of a culture that still suffers from systemic racism was (re-)outed and caught in the most red-handed way possible. For that, he was booted from one aristocracy but will get a big payout on his way out the door, through which, once opened, he will find quarter in another aristocracy. And the culture he represents moves on unimpeded.

That’s what happened.

A white commissioner banned a white racist with the support of mostly white owners and to the near-universal acclaim of majority white media and fans. And even if the decision was right, the process that generated the result and will generate the next result and the one after that and the one after that continues to largely concentrate power in the hands of a privileged majority, even when that power is wielded over the “predominantly black league” about which we have all heard so much these last several days.

That’s what happened.

Fans and journalists took to the Internet to debate whether the mostly-black Los Angeles Clippers should or should not take to the court and do their jobs and continue to work toward the goal that they had set forth for themselves even in the face of the dehumanizing hate espoused by the man who signs their paychecks. In the event, the Clippers and Warriors alike decided to play Game 4 but were ready to walk before Game 5 if Silver hadn’t done what he did. And I don’t know whether one or the other was the right choice or the wrong one — I don’t fucking know — but I do worry that as long as would-be revolutionaries (well-meaning as many may have been) with so much to say and so little to lose believe that they have the right to any agency whatsoever in the players’ collective decision, our society is going to continue producing people like Donald Sterling, whose power transcends words on a message board and who believe that as long as they keep signing the paychecks and pulling the strings, they have a right to judge how black human beings express or defend their blackness and enjoy their humanity.

That’s what happened. And as much as I can identify that apparent hypocrisy and get angry about it, I do so knowing that every day in my own life I overlook entrenched inequalities and undervalue privileges that make me hypocritical in my own right. We all have blind spots, things we miss until they are laid plain before us. And the NBA as an institution is no different.

Complacency (n.) – A feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements.

There’s a calculation cloaked as principle in these blind spots. Unmasking it comes next. Sterling’s truest sin was not a conversation but rather the well-cultivated hate that permeated it, a hate that he, the alleged slumlord, has purportedly long-wielded in far more meaningful arenas and to far more destructive ends. But that destruction happens off-camera and affects poorer victims who don’t work for the NBA and probably don’t buy enough tickets or jerseys to make anybody nervous. And if that story doesn’t gain much traction in the court of public opinion, spotlighting it — even through punishment — might create a bigger headache than letting it be. Even when the victims of the apparent hate were his employees — even when Elgin Baylor claimed wrongdoing — tempers didn’t flare up enough to force any hands. The cases were brought and ran their course and the league let the parties and the courts handle it.

But when that same hate affects the brand and threatens the bottom line? When the harm of prolonging the spotlight is outweighed by the goodwill purchased by meting out the punishment? Then mighty retribution saturated with high-minded rhetoric becomes a matter of simple accounting. None of which is to say that the NBA’s power-brokers weren’t absolutely disgusted by Sterling’s words. I’m sure they were. His views are objectively repugnant and became so utterly in-your-face that there was no ignoring them. And he deserved to be punished. And he was.

But he wasn’t punished for being a racist; he was punished for finally being a racist in a way that pissed off enough wealthy players and coaches and middle-class fans and lucrative sponsors to make the cost of inaction greater to the NBA than the cost of action.

That’s what happened. And the moment that we (We as consumers, we as fans, we as both products and actors within the same society that created Donald Sterling and the countless other Donald Sterlings who linger below the surface. We who are not only following this story and reacting to it but living among its byproducts every day when we walk out our front doors.) the moment that we allow ourselves to conflate that calculation with the NBA standing on principle, we lose the unifying logic behind what actually went on. The logic that will continue to prevail as long as we look at what happened yesterday and name it justice.

It’s difficult to begrudge Adam Silver anything. He was presented with his first chance as commissioner to deal with the festering boil that was Donald Sterling’s ownership tenure and he did so quickly and decisively. It is probably fair to say that the punishment he dealt out was the strongest and best of which he was capable. He has nothing to answer for, at least not now.

But what makes it all so hard to swallow — so relentlessly unjust — is that even the right decision still comes up short of anything you could call progress. Progress happens when the right is identified as the right because it’s just fucking right and not because a system built on concentrated self-interest founds its way to an acceptable outcome. Social health happens when the world doesn’t just punish its Donald Sterlings but stops creating them, just as medical health is best served by treatment of the cause instead of just the symptom.

The sins of Donald Sterling — the ones that built him and the ones that nurtured him and the ones, whatever they may be, that he himself should truly have to answer for — weren’t just committed this week. They were committed last week too, and last year, and centuries ago. In the face of such confirmed and insurmountable brutality, Adam Silver surveyed his arsenal and found only half measures. Weapons that rose to the level of the moment but not to the issues lurking behind it — issues that are bigger than Sterling, bigger than the NBA. And he chose the best weapon he had and he delivered it with poise and conviction and evident passion. He did as well as he could have before an impossible task.

Silver can’t be blamed for the task’s impossibility. But if the response ends here — not to Sterling but to the destructive hate that his words truly stand for — we all can be blamed. You and I and every other shareholder in a country built on many things that are good and many other things that are abhorrent. We need fuller measures, but the only full measures I know about for this particular issue would require a time machine and a pen and a sword and a good bit of luck.

We don’t have those things. We have social media — a force that brought the events of this week to pass in a way that simply would not have been possible even a decade ago. We have anger — an emotion that can be harnessed to great effect if exercised peacefully and focused on true threats and not superficial ones. We have hope — hope that we can find in the aftermath of this week the momentum to stand vigilant against the pervasive and cancerous effects of racism and privilege in our every day lives and not just when a visible bigot does something stupid and disgusting. And we have fear — fear that the lethal temptation of settling for the half measure will snuff out all our disgust and vigilance and righteous anger before it makes a damn bit of difference.

I don’t have answers. I have neither criticism of the NBA’s response nor great enthusiasm for it as an ultimate end. I’m a white guy from a middle class family who knows that society afforded me a number of advantages that not everybody had. I didn’t give enough thought to Donald Sterling’s racism before this week, despite knowing who and what he was. That makes me complicit to some extent — hypocritical, even — and all I can do now is admit it openly and try to understand it and work like hell to be better. That’s all any of us can do when faced with a situation so indicative of humanity’s potential for casual destructiveness and so laser-focused on the places inside all of us that harbor ignorance and selfishness. We can think about it and talk about it and listen to people who, as Bomani Jones put it, “have a more trained eye” for the poison of bigotry. We can know that sometimes we’ll be wrong and sometimes things will seem too hard to solve but that the worst thing we can do is decide that the problem is either fixed or unfixable.

Monday’s press conference was a necessary, well-executed moment that existed in a gray area between progress and hypocrisy. It wasn’t inherently good and it wasn’t inherently bad. It was just whatever we decide to do next.

Kevin McElroy