Donald Sterling vs. Systemic Racism: It’s OK, We Can Talk About Both

Race Manners: “Why are you spending all this time trying to fan a flame that isn't worth the effort?” We unpack this and more in a Facebook Q&A about the Los Angeles Clippers owner’s alleged anti-black comments.  

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Los Angeles Clippers players sit on the bench wearing their warm-up tops inside out in Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Golden State Warriors during the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena April 27, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. The players wore theirs warm up this way in protest of owner Donald Sterling’s racially insensitive remarks.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Editor’s note: We took Race Manners to Facebook today, where The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, engaged in a live Q&A with readers. They wanted to talk about—what else?—Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s recent racist rant, how we should make sense of it, and the players’ reaction to the news that their boss didn’t want black people around.

Read a partial transcript here.

George S. Nicol: Any thoughts on the Clippers players' protest? Should they have done more or less?

Jenée D Harris: Thanks for your question. You know, I've read that a lot of people would have liked to see something more dramatic from the players, and I certainly understand that. But I also think 1) that expectation fails to take into account what's at stake for them, personally, legally, financially and professionally; and 2) Sterling has humiliated himself to the extent that a protest really isn't even necessary.

In other words, he's done the work himself, with his own statements. I could see the necessity of a protest or demonstration if, for example, the players felt motivated to expose racism or unfair treatment that wasn't known to the public. But in this case, the public has already heard the tapes and is in an (understandable) uproar. There's very little they could do to make that worse for him.

A question asked over the weekend that really resonated with me was, "Why are people only looking at the black players to do something?" Where's the expectation for the white players to denounce this? What about other owners and people who worked closely with Sterling? I think people who knew about and enabled his racism should be scrutinized much more than the innocent players.

Tinselyn S-h: I agree. A protest is great symbolically, but it's a political move that should be used appropriately. At this point everyone know. It's not hidden, and we are awaiting an official NBA response. If nothing happens, then you begin to be strategic. They have worked hard, love basketball, and aren't the only people responsible for making a "statement." If there is a boycott, it should be throughout the league because all players are offended and want to see something happen. White players have a responsibility, too.

Bobby Duvall: So he's a racist ... everybody knew that, even the feds. Why are you spending all this time trying to fan a flame that isn't worth the effort? We got a racist Congress and that doesn't seem to bother anyone ... why? Just because they don't make racist rants on recordings, they do everything they can to stifle a black president. They speak degradingly about black people in poverty, and they continue to underfund urban schools to keep poor blacks uneducated in poverty, but we seem to get bent out of shape over a white owner of an NBA team who made some not-so-smart statements to his [girlfriend].

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Right, I couldn't agree more that systemic racism is far more troubling and worthy of our attention than leaked evidence of individual racists. But I can absolutely understand the strong reaction to Sterling's comments, if only because it's somewhat rare in 2014 to hear explicit, concrete evidence of what people (with the exception of Internet trolls) think about black people. It would seem strange to me to ignore it or to not want him to be publicly scrutinized for admitting these views.

What do you think the proper reaction is? Would it not seem troubling to you if we completely ignored this incident and didn't use it to launch a larger conversation—or to find some meaning about how racism is playing out at this moment in time—simply because we know, for example, that members of Congress back policies that harm African Americans? I think it's OK, understandable, meaningful and very human for us to want to react to racism in all of its forms. But I do agree that it's also important to know what type we're dealing with.