Donald Sterling and the ‘nation of cowards’

May 21, 2014 at 5:00 am

In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder (or, as I like to call him, “The Obama you’ve been waiting for”) boldly proclaimed, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

Even though Holder has taken many a lashing in America’s town square for the remarks (as truth-tellers often do), he stood firm and said he “would not take that back” when questioned about it earlier this year at the University of Virginia. Incident after incident proves Holder is not a “card player” who will not let the dead issue of race die. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling provides us with the latest affirmation that America’s racial monster indeed lives on.

Unlike many, I am enthusiastic about the Sterling saga continuing as long as possible. Why? Because the contradictions it accentuates force our “nation of cowards” to answer questions and choose sides on race, humanity and propriety. To be clear, both camps involved in this situation have occupants. If you think Sterling is alone, read many of the racially charged comments of support for him on the almighty Internet — even after Sterling doubled down in his strange but honest interview with Anderson Cooper.

Unfortunately, many people woefully miss the instructive discussion points the Sterling moment presents. Reductionism and bifurcation plague much of the analysis. On the one hand, some observers reduce the issue to the demonization and deification of individuals. Of course, Sterling wears the horns in this story. Michael Jordan, LeBron James and others don white hats because they made early and firm anti-Sterling statements. Magic Johnson is lionized even more because he has been the target of Sterling’s ire on more than one occasion. Wait! Enlightened, politicized black athletes? This must be cinema! NBA Commissioner Adam Silver rounds out our cast in his role as the conscientious white savior/lawman who must bring the dastardly Sterling to justice.

To be sure, it is rare that today’s real world public figures — especially athletes and entertainers — take stands. The current lot is certainly not Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali or Cookie Gilchrist. But they are a far cry from the 1990 Michael Jordan who reportedly said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too” after refusing to support Harvey Gantt’s run against notorious racist North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. Be these individuals good, bad or indifferent, we would gain more from discussions centered not on them, but on the enduring problematic philosophies, ideologies and cowardice surrounding race and marginalization.

The other problem is bifurcation. One extreme group argues that Sterling is anomalous and his insanity does not prove that race is still a substantive issue in America. The opposition submits that Sterling affirms “nothing has changed” for the better. Both neat categorizations are wrong. Intelligent and engaged people did not need Sterling, his estranged wife or the “silly rabbit” V. Stiviano to let them know race still matters. There is no obligation to embrace post-racialism to reify the stand that, even though cowardly, America’s “public” response to racism has improved.

In the majority opinion on the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford case, Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney opined that blacks “have no rights which the white man (is) bound to respect.” It goes without saying that there was a time when Sterling would not have been punished, reprimanded or ostracized for his sentiments and comments. Today, it’s no longer acceptable to be a racist — at least not a public one. We’ve come a long way but, admittedly, have a ways to go. We will get there only by talking more about the infinite nuances of America’s original sin and its consequences — not less.

I’ll admit it was encouraging to hear Magic Johnson state, “I will always defend myself and my people.” Righteous. I’m sure NBA Hall-of-Famer and former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor wishes Magic and others would have stood up when Baylor sued Sterling for racial discrimination in 2009. To his credit, Magic apologized for not doing so. Baylor must remember that it is easy to stand up when everyone else does. It’s infinitely more difficult when one stands alone. Like Eric Holder, those of us who live with, study and teach race know this and are often solitary. We’re just happy that a few members of our “nation of cowards” are keeping us company for a while. We welcome you to your temporary visit to the struggle.

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