For those of you who still held out hope that the nation that elected President Obama is a "post-racial" society, the news out of L.A. last week was an abhorrent reminder of the tenacity of racial prejudice. Donald Sterling -- owner of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers franchise -- made headlines when his surreptitiously recorded boorish racial rant went public. On tape, he tells his former girlfriend that he doesn't want her to post pictures of herself on social media in which she poses with black people. He clearly should spend more time worrying about his own image.
A friend recently commented that Sterling looks like the love child of Jack Klugman and Jabba-the-Hutt, but, like Jabba, the billionaire real estate developer clearly had clout. Now that the spotlight is more finely attuned to his disgraceful record of past prejudice and "plantation" mentality, former Clipper general manager Elgin Baylor--who unsuccessfully sued Sterling for racial discrimination -- will finally feel vindicated. And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's maximum fine and lifetime ban of Sterling sets a new tone of complete intolerance for racism within the NBA. But why did it take so long?
Sterling, whose lackluster team has long been the butt of jokes, was well-known throughout the NBA -- and beyond -- for racism. But recently, after his team finally started to win games, the NBA and the public seemed to have tacitly accepted that, although he's a bigoted lout, at least he now runs a winning franchise. All's fair in victory and profit? Gene Demby, of NPR's Code Switch, points out that Sterling's $2.7 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department because of discrimination in his rental properties was the largest payout ever for housing discrimination. After the settlement became public, the NBA issued no fines or sanctions against Sterling and seems to have wholly ignored the issue. Although the tape recording was a smoking gun, there has been enough smoke hovering around Sterling for years that someone higher up in the NBA should have long ago yelled, "Fire!"
Jay Jaffe, writing for Sports Illustrated points out that Major League Baseball took on Marge Schott -- former Cincinnati Reds owner -- when she made repeated offensive comments about African Americans, Jews, and women. Schott was the first woman to purchase a controlling share of a Major League Baseball Team, but her "status as a pioneer was buried amid her limitless capacity to offend," writes Jaffe. Like Schott was to baseball, Jaffe argues, Sterling is a blight on the NBA. Commissioner Silver must be unwavering and methodical in rebuking owners and coaches for repugnant statements and actions.
My backdrop to this Sterling and Silver scandal has been David Levering Lewis' Pulitzer prize-winning biography of African American historian, sociologist and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. I purchased Levering Lewis' two-part biography of Du Bois (each of which won the Pulitzer for biography) years ago, but had not finally cracked them open until last week -- days before Sterling's disturbing comments. After finishing Annette Gordon-Reed's recent biography of Andrew Johnson, I felt compelled to dive in. As Reconstruction foundered under Johnson, and the nation began the horrid slide into Jim Crow and unconscionable violence, there were, as always, incredible stories of African American men and women who wrought lives for themselves -- lives lived among people that would have them disappear or be shipped to Africa's distant shores.
As I read the inspiring story of the erudite W.E.B DuBois, I marvel at his talent, curiosity, and drive. DuBois never doubts that he has what it takes to achieve academic greatness -- despite constant reminders from a nation unwilling to truly grapple with hundreds of years of exploitation and underestimation of black people. DuBois, like all his African American contemporaries, yearned for respect in the broken, but not chastened, South and the gritty, unforgiving North.
Certain moments in the text force rumination on the depth and scope of suffering shaped by the weighty fear of difference. When DuBois and his wife lose their 2-year-old son to diphtheria, they follow behind the cart carrying the tiny coffin to the Atlanta train station to be brought home to Great Barrington, Mass. Even while engulfed by profound grief, they are not afforded any propriety or solemnity. White onlookers call out, "Niggers!" as they walk in a haze of sorrow and loathing. The year is 1899; the war is decades over and yet freedom never coalesces; it is a noble notion, unrealized. Because emancipation is not simply about manumission; it is about freeing the spirit and allowing it to live its true potential.
DuBois labored his entire adult life to re-frame society's beliefs about African Americans and their capacity for intellectualism. Much has been made of DuBois' clash with contemporary Booker T. Washington over whether African Americans would find salvation through hard work and industrial education or by rigorous classical study. But this famous disagreement should not obscure DuBois' most important principle: the conviction that all men should have "intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it" in order to fashion a "true life." Every man must balance the "skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life."
Despite Donald Sterling's delusions of grandeur as a modern NBA plantation master lording over his African American "slaves", he is but a "boy." I mean "boy" said with the full weight and scorn of lifetimes of derision that DuBois and millions of others have endured at the hands of ignorant men who never fully embodied the wisdom and understanding of the brotherhood of man.