The recording released this weekend, a bigoted rant, has raised questions about the racial attitudes of the speaker, Donald Sterling. The outcry has been swift and ubiquitous--and considering Sterling’s past legal troubles with racial discrimination--the outrage is justified. It’s rare that we hear such unchecked and overtly bigoted comments these days from a public figure, and when do, we’re right to act quickly, loudly, and decisively.
Of course, Sterling knew better than to air his opinions openly. The rant comes from an hour-long recording made by Ms. Stiviano, a girlfriend in the middle of litigation with Sterling’s wife, Rochelle. It seems the recording was done in secret, of a private conversation. The relationship between Sterling and Stiviano (and Sterling’s wife), is complicated and contentious. It seems Ms. Stiviano may have had motive to catch Sterling making ugly statements--perhaps to use against him in the future--and in the context of the recording, it seems she’s coaxing him to say the kind of racist statements she knew him to be capable of.
Now that that recordings are public, Sterling been judged harshly in the court of public opinion, and we soon may find Stiviano judged in a court of law because recording someone without their knowledge may be illegal.
But what this mini-melodrama of an aged billionaire really speaks to is the state and nature of racism in the United States today. Racism is taboo. Racism is the deep, unhealed wound that’s marred our country since before its inception. Racism has made us a nation of guilt and fear, frustration and anger. An accusation of racism, if substantiated with even a shred of circumstantial evidence, is enough to ruin reputations, destroy careers, and decimate fortunes (which is reason to take pause when we hear such accusations, as they could all too easily be fabricated, manipulated, and used intentionally besmirch the image of a targeted individual).
This taboo has forced racism below the surface, and that has had two effects. Firstly, it makes racism harder to see; racism still affects lives, but it works covertly, and it is, in a way, more nefarious than the blatant Jim Crow laws of last century. Secondly, people are afraid to talk about race for fear of the swift and devastating consequences that await should they accidentally reveal an inherent racial bias. If we cannot see it, and if we cannot talk about it, then we’ll never get past racism.
Whenever I speak publicly about race, I am told by some that I have no business being part of the conversation. Some consider me a racist for defending George Zimmerman, and they feel emboldened to tell me so. What happens next is almost magical: because they’ve broken the taboo about talking about race--because they have demonstrated the courage to express their true feelings about race--we then get to have a rare, honest conversation about racism. After I explain a little about myself, and after I dispel few myths about the Zimmerman case, I find that I’m often successful in opening a meaningful dialogue regarding racial inequities, and how we can and should address them. Thirty years of representing citizens accused, including a great number of young black males, does afford me unique insight, at least into that facet of our society.
What I get back is even more valuable. People tell me about their personal experiences with racism. People tell me about their experience of being black in America, and I’ve come to understand, far more intimately than I ever imagined, the state and nature of racism in America today. The lesson: we still have a long way to go before we achieve the racial equality we long for.
We’re not going to get there with guilt and fear, with frustration and anger. We’re not going to get there unless people of different races, with different experiences, are willing to speak candidly about it. We cannot let someone like Donald Sterling--a man of wealth, power, and influence--to allow his racist attitudes to work contrary to our goal of racial equality. We have a right and a duty to protest his ownership of the Clippers basketball team. The NBA has a right and a duty to act against Donald Sterling.
No one is born a bigot, so this is an opportunity to figure out where it comes from and to attack that source. He may well be a good case study of how someone becomes bigoted. Was it from age 5? From the parents? Age 10, from the friends? Age 20, from business and self-interest--me against them? Maybe a trauma--beat up by a couple of black kids--or laughed at? I would truly like to talk with him, if it could be an honest conversation, to find out where it came from, and why the wisdom of years and the freedom of great wealth didn't temper it, or tamp it out. Maybe age and wealth simply cemented the bigotry. I'd really like to know.
There is a chance to have a thoughtful, productive conversation here. We can turn the vile poison of racial ignorance into a learning opportunity. Even without Sterling’s involvement--which would require extraordinary courage--we can use his story by exposing it, by acknowledging it, and finding a way to overcome it. If he has the courage to explain honestly how and why he feels the way he does, then the rest of us should have the courage to listen. We may be offended by what he has to say; we may find his positions hurtful--but if they are honest, they will make it easier for us all to understand the state and nature of our race problem. We always learn best from our challenges, and from our enemies. Let’s make this a case study, learn from it, and vow never to sit by in complacency.