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The Sterling Effect

POSTED: April 29, 2014, 10:30 am

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By now you have probably become aware of the firestorm created by the owner of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling. His patently racist views of Black people were captured in an audio recording of a conversation with his girlfriend unbeknown to the longtime franchise owner. Sterling has a long history of racist relapses as former team executive and NBA legend Elgin Baylor made known in a lawsuit several years ago. Though Baylor’s discrimination claim was knocked out in court, his accounting of Sterling’s racist attitude aligned with a history of the Clippers owner exhibiting such bias. Despite Sterling’s history the Los Angeles branch of the N.A.A.C.P. was set to honor him. Although that now aborted honor defies belief it certainly fits a pattern of impotency in some quarters of today’s civil rights leadership.

While anger mounts at Sterling and there are calls for the NBA to strip him of his ownership of the team, all reasonable reactions; he remains simply the latest validation of the workings of institutional racism in America. It is evident in Sterling’s comfort level in exhibiting racist behavior through the years as it is in rancher Cliven Bundy’s sense of entitlement in violating federal law and threatening violence to defend his illegal trespassing. The mindset of Sterling is also seen in the actions of the nation’s highest court as it aggressively rejects remedies to address discrimination and bias. Donald Sterling is simply the individual manifestation of a system of white privilege and entitlement.

If the NBA somehow takes the Clippers franchise from Sterling, it will only serve to create the appearance of justice. The NBA and other institutions is the real problem because they are the reservoirs of bias and white privilege, and set the table of discrimination and injustice from which Blacks and Latinos are force fed. It is the leviathan of institutional racism that must be defeated to make the Sterlings and Bundys, and thousands of other franchise owners of Racism Inc., operationally irrelevant. It’s one thing to have a single kook espousing racist vitriol, it is quite another when institutional power is used to oppress. A new owner is like a fresh coat of paint over an ugly building. It’s still the same building, just outwardly more appealing because the paint is masking the eyesore. What we need in America is some industrial strength paint stripper to reveal the ugliness of our institutions.

Seeing racism or hearing racist thoughts is one thing, really confronting it and not settling for momentary outrage is another matter. When these incidents occur we have a tendency to exhibit flash mob behavior; the call is sent out, the mob assembles and then dissipates after the period of fashionable outrage dissipates. In this instance, the players on the Clippers, the majority of whom are Black, showed their disgust with Sterling by wearing their warm-up shirts reversed, hiding the team name, and piling their warm-up jackets on the court during their game over the weekend. In addition, current NBA superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and game legends like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson voiced their outrage over Sterling’s comments and his continued ownership of the Clippers franchise. These symbolic gestures are important but they are just that, symbolic without any strategy to attack the underpinnings of institutional racism.

A far greater and more fatal blow to the league would have been the boycott of all Black players from part or the entirety of games played over the weekend. It would have sent a strong message to NBA owners and the league’s front office to address its failings, from the retention of a racist like Sterling among its ownership circle to its hiring practices on the bench and front offices. Similarly, the companies that advertise with NBA franchises and on the league’s multiple media outlets need to hear from Black consumers and know that our continued purchasing of their goods and services is contingent upon their alignment with nondiscriminatory values and standards; in their businesses as well. The purchasing power of Black Americans is far too great for our dollars to be used against us.

“We can’t wish away institutional racism or outrage it away. It disappears one of two ways; the reform of the institution or its destruction.”

We have to look inward too. We allow Black youth to fall prey to the frenzy over the release of a new line of Jordan brand basketball shoes and spend dollars on a product of no intrinsic value. There is no effort to educate parents and youth over their purchase decisions so a higher value than deserved is placed on a product made with cheap and oppressed overseas labor, and often serves as the flashpoint for violence between Black youth. Worse of all is the current outrage of Hall of Famer Michael Jordan flies in the face of the wealth he has accumulated on the exploitation of Black youth. At some point we must call out these inconsistencies and separate our affinity for athletic stars from their moral shortcomings.

What really undermines our ability to eradicate institutional racism is two things; it is sometimes invisible and works covertly, and when we do identify it too many of us remain silent. It is hard to attack what cannot be seen as we use to see in those old “Invisible Man” movies from yesteryear. However, once institutional racism is exposed we persistently fail to take it on. Instead, we opt to be angry over the individual pawns, some powerful and some not, who are like single trees in a forest fire. Our momentary anger puts out the single fire but our collective silence has made institutional racism fire retardant. And we keep getting burned at the very time when we are moving quickly toward the day when whites will be a minority in America.

What we need right now to go along with the anger is some courage. Black people need to stop spending money that is used to oppress us and keep us economically dependent on those who seek our permanent impairment. We need to disrupt business as usual and return to the day when we were willing to use civil disobedience to interrupt daily activities and inconvenience the course of civic life. We need to be vocal when we see racism at work and quit fearing being accused of playing the ‘race card’ when we are simply dealing from a racial deck that has been stacked against us since Africans were sold into slavery and brought here in chains. Too many of us have quietly acquiesced and surrendered, settling for some false sense of “acceptance” instead of asserting our equality; freedom can’t be given, it must be boldly asserted. The only reason Blacks have achieved a modicum of equality in America is because our forbearers were willing to fight and die for their freedom.

We can’t wish away institutional racism or outrage it away. It disappears one of two ways; the reform of the institution or its destruction. America needs to know that there is still an opportunity to reform and that is the method that provides security to everyone. It is when we are left with no other option than to destroy institutions that no one is safe or secure. I’m not talking about an NBA franchise but those institutions that matter – public schools, colleges and universities, corporations, banks, criminal justice system and the courts and representative government. We are treading dangerously close to the brink when institutional racism is going to erode the last modicum of respect and residual confidence Black people have in this nation. However frightening the urban unrest of the 1960s might have been, there is a new anger out here that we already see inwardly projected that if unleashed outwardly is going to bring this nation to its knees.

We are at that moment in America and I state that with the intent of being alarmist. It is the moment similar to that in Philadelphia in 1776 when slavery could have been abolished but wasn’t and we paid dearly for the moral failings of the Founding Fathers. It is the moment that mimics Reconstruction when we could have permanently aligned institutions toward justice and we surrendered to hate. It is 1954 all over again when we could have moved with all deliberate speed and instead dragged our feet and allowed Jim Crow to kill real integration. It’s the mid 1960’s all over again when we allowed militarism to crush any chance of constructing the beloved community so eloquently articulated by Dr. King.

We only get so many chances and my fear is that Donald Sterling and his merry band of racist zealots is a sign that time may have run out.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of Follow him on Twitter @WFields.

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