Revelations of the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s reportedly racist comments about African Americans shine light on contemporary race relations, where, frequently, the truth is only said behind closed doors.
Sterling’s alleged remarks, about a female friend “associating with black people” was spurred by pictures that she posted to her Instagram account, posing with basketball icon Magic Johnson and baseball star Matt Kemp. Alternately pleading and scolding in a taped telephone conversation, a man said to be Sterling claimed not to want black people to even attend Clippers games. The alleged comments are indicative of what critics, such as the New York Times’ William C. Rhoden, have characterized as the NBA’s updated version of the plantation system that flourished during the era of American slavery.
Sterling’s association with African Americans is strictly a business venture—one with clear lines of demarcation. And the core of the comments being attributed to him speak at once to both fear and loathing of black humanity, even in spaces where those bodies are generating millions of dollars in profit through entertainment and attendance.
Hiring a black coach, black front-office executives and black players is OK, apparently, for Sterling. But having them seated at games or being photographed with a female friend is out of bounds.
Amid the controversy, with its predictable media firestorm, are the team’s players and coach being caught in a moral quandary about how to respond, with some suggesting a boycott of the NBA playoffs. The team did stage a protest during Sunday night’s game by wearing their warm-up uniforms backward, thus obscuring their team name and logo and symbolically expressing their disgust at Sterling’s alleged comments. The move was seen by some observers as 21st century racial pragmatism—and by others as cowardice.
The team’s actions certainly were not cowardly, but neither were they particularly courageous. In the Obama age, millions of black men and women have received wildly conflicting messages about the value, meaning, dignity and worth of black life.
On the one hand, black America has been inundated with anti-black political and cultural messages via mainstream media—and some elected officials—and subject to public policy that has made it easier to be locked up, harder to exercise the vote and almost impossible to get a good public school education.
Then there is the flip side to this message.
It says that if black America works hard, excels in school, embraces middle-class values and abandons “thug” culture, then they’ll be able to excel and fulfill the American Dream.
Sterling’s reported statements, though, while roundly condemned, illustrate that, despite rumors to the contrary, anti-black sentiment can still trump racial achievement in the minds of some—even when such sentiment concerns black folks whose accomplishments would make them seemingly immune to the ordinary revulsion and fear that regularly greets African Americans.
The genius of the civil rights movement’s heyday, and what made that era truly heroic, was that African Americans defied the odds by refusing to believe in the simplistic good Negro vs. bad Negro dichotomy. Instead, at their best, that generation embraced the multifaceted and panoramic nature of blackness, finding hope in the struggles of sharecroppers and students, prisoners and preachers.
Black bodies have, since America’s inception, represented a metaphor for slavery and freedom, citizenship and servitude, capitalism and commerce—with an ability to elicit fear and loathing, masked by the sensual, erotic and seductive tropes that made them a locus for social and political control long after slavery ended.
Historically, white elites have derived profit and pleasure from black labor, first through the toil of enslaved Africans, then through a Jim Crow system designed to control black labor and maximize profits at the expense of human dignity.
Echoes of this dynamic continue in modern sports, most notably the NBA, where predominantly black athletic grace offers escapist pleasures for predominantly white season-ticket holders and wealth for overwhelmingly white owners.
Black professional athletes, for all of their race-transcending gifts, still exist in the embattled bodies that have historically been forever marked as sites of contestation against America’s social, political, economic and cultural landscape. LeBron James found this out when Cleveland fans burned his image in effigy and mock-lynched him after he decamped for Miami.
Perhaps one day black players will consider hateful words of the like attributed to Sterling as a potent reminder of how, despite messages to the contrary, anti-black sentiment upends dreams of race transcendence. And the sooner African Americans see that shared experiences of oppression continue to bind us, the braver and more courageous will our activists and athletes respond the next time such comments are made.
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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.