Racist rancher and welfare cowboy Cliven Bundy got some help from an unexpected quarter over the weekend, as a far more wealthy and powerful racist grabbed the national spotlight, and mercifully tore it away from him.
As I write, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is still disputing the authenticity of a taped conservation with estranged girlfriend V. Stiviano, in which he purportedly berates her for attending Clippers games with Magic Johnson and other black celebrities, and for posting pictures of herself with blacks to her Instagram account.
“Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo – broadcast that you're associating with black people,” the man alleged to be Sterling said on the nine-minute tape reported on Saturday by TMZ Sports. A longer, 15-minute tape released on Sunday morning by Deadspin contained further damning details.
With breathtaking negative skill, Sterling — through his club — has managed to dispute the tapes' authenticity in a careful manner that will likely turn out to be a lie. In a statement, Clippers president Andy Roeser said of the recording that the club does “not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered. … Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.”
Now, it's true that Sterling may have been able to buy not one, but two “lifetime achievement awards” from the local NAACP chapter — plans for a second appear to have been pulled — but more shame on them for that. They appear to be just about the only ones around who share in his delusion.
Everyone else familiar with Sterling's actual record can be excused for laughing out loud in response. “We all knew that Donald Sterling was a “racist and an overall horrible human being,” Deadspin wrote in its initial story based on TMZ's original report.
“We do know the history of Donald Sterling, there's nothing new,” said veteran L.A.-based commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, on "Disrupt With Karen Finney," shortly after the second tape was released. “Here in Los Angeles, we're very familiar with Sterling. I mean, he's been sued, he's actually been accused of harassment. There have been a number of things over time about Donald Sterling that are well-known in this community, in terms of his not only bad behavior, misbehavior, but also racist behavior. So when you hear this kind of tape, when you hear Sterling — and that's Sterling, it is him, there's no doubt about that — simply because the history has condemned him the history has proven that this man is capable of doing these things.”
Indeed, Sterling's individual, personal racism is so clearly and publicly established that the incident provides a too-rare opportunity to focus less on his racism, and more on the social structures, context and expressive dynamics that make racism — or, more specifically, white supremacy — a much bigger deal than just the bad attitudes of a few scattered bad actors here and there.
Since I already mentioned him, I'll let Hutchinson get the ball rolling on this.
“Yes, Donald Sterling's a racist. Yes Donald Sterling's a bigot. Yes Donald Sterling should be maligned for everything, not only now, but in the past,” Hutchinson said. “But also, we really have to look at the NBA. (Commissioner) Adam Silver. The board of governors. And also the owners in the NBA. At the end of the day, Donald Sterling is your baby. So, really, the ball is in your court. And really the question that everybody is asking right now — and [a] legitimate question — what are you going to do about it?”
The question of league responsibility is further highlighted and problematized by Sterling's own comments on the tape. Here's an excerpt:
DS: Well then, if you don't feel—don't come to my games. Don't bring black people, and don't come.
V: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?
DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league? (emphasis added)
Excuse me. Donald Sterling gives the players on his team food? Clothes? Cars? Houses? They don't work their asses off earning what they buy for themselves, building on a lifetime of hard work and practice, and years of unmitigated exploitation as unpaid athletes along the way?
Does anyone other than Sterling have the slightest difficulty in hearing how much he sounds like a classic 19th century slave owner, talking about everything he's done for his ungrateful slaves?
Certainly his question, “Who makes the game?” recalls the slaveholders' delusion that they alone created the enormous wealth they enjoyed. It was a believable fiction, I suppose, if first you absolutely convinced yourself that the slaves who did all the actual work were not people at all, but mere property, nothing more than livestock, really. One has to wonder: Is that what Sterling thinks of the men who play on his team today?
If you have to ask, “Who makes the game?” it's a very interesting question, really, with many different possible ways to answer it. The sub-question, “Is there 30 owners, that created the league?” is a good deal easier to answer: No. The current owners did not create the league. In fact, the NBA's creation seems to have been designed specifically to demonstrate just how absurd the notion of creation is. Officially the NBA says it was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946. But it only took on its current name in 1949, when it absorbed some teams from the rival National Basketball League, which was founded a decade earlier than the BAA, in 1937. Actually, the NBL was founded two years earlier than that, in 1935, as Midwest Basketball Conference, but changed its name and expanded its size to reach a larger audience.
Really, though, all that history is beside the point, because when it comes to professional basketball as it's played today, the team that created the league as it is was never a part of it: the Harlem Globetrotters. They were the ones who pioneered the style of audacious, mind-bending individual athleticism, combined with incredible teamwork, which makes the game today as far removed from its 1940s form as it is from ice hockey on one of Saturn's moons.
Which is why the idea of any owner carrying on like Sterling did is enough to make anyone die of laughter.
But there's more. In a very different sense, the game is made by a complex web of legal and financial arrangements, not least those making it a legal monopoly, more like the British East India Company than anything America's Founding Fathers might have conceived of as an American way of doing things. If Sterling or any other owner thinks that he's the one giving the players everything they eat, wear, drive, live in, or otherwise consume or save—then who exactly does he think gives him his own vast wealth?
Back in 2010, Forbes described the Clippers in fairly underwhelming terms. Sterling bought the team in 1981 for $13 million; in 2010 it had a player-costs-to-win ratio of 75 -- far below 100, which is the norm. The team was valued at $305 million — a dramatic explosion of value since 1981 — but not because of any particular excellence, particularly on the part of Sterling. In the roundup section, “The skinny,” Forbes said:
The Clippers posted a mark of 29-53 during the 2009-10 campaign, missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. Since Donald Sterling bought the team in 1981 the Clippers have made the playoffs just four times, the worst record in the NBA over that span. The Clippers have one of the lowest payrolls in the league year-in, year-out, but still manage to get less bank for the buck than most teams. During each of the past four seasons the Clippers had a wins-to-player-costs ratio below 100, meaning the franchise generated less victories per dollar spent than the average NBA team. But the Clippers are also one of the NBA's most profitable teams because they pay very little rent at the Staples Center, consistently draw over 16,000 fans per game and have a decent local television deal with FSN Prime Ticket, despite their horrific performance on the hardwood.
The team is having a much better year this year, but no one other than Sterling thinks this has anything to do with him.
The stadium the Clippers play in, Staples Center, was not built with taxpayers' money, due to heroic resistance by the City Council in the mid-to-late 1990s, but it was still utterly dependent on city condemnation, property management and tax-increment funding (story here). So once again we have a story of billionaires building their fortunes via government aid, the way it's almost always done.
In short, Sterling's wealth as a team owner is almost entirely due to the complex web of financial and political arrangements that shield him from the normal vicissitudes of free market competition.
And this is the man who thinks he is the source of everything the Clippers are? Could there be a better poster boy for everything wrong with the 1 percent? Or, rather, the 1 percent of the 1 percent.
But let's not forget the typical self-pitying, conservative “I'm the victim here” mentality that Sterling so richly displays on the tape itself. The shorter version posted at Deadspin begin like this:
V: "Honey, I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?"
DS: "No, you can never make me feel better."
V: "I'm sorry."
DS: "You're just a fighter, you want to fight. And I'm not the man who wants to fight."
The words alone only tell half the story. V. Stiviano's tone throughout is soft and supportive, Sterling's tone is harsh, embittered, softening only for purposes of self-pity. When he says, “I'm not the man who wants to fight," he sounds like a character on "Justified" who of course means exactly the opposite — and not one of the good guys.
It goes on in a similar fashion for some time, Sterling acting wounded, trying to start a fight, V. Stiviano trying to lick his wounds for him, which only makes him madder.
V: "I'm sorry, honey, can I get you a little bit more juice? I don't want to fight with you."
DS: "Of course you do, you love to fight."
V: "I don't fight."
DS: "That's all you do, you fight with everybody."
V: "I'm sorry you feel that way, honey. I don't know how this conversation even came about.
This corrosively self-pitying stance that Sterling has locked himself into forms the background to the racially ridiculous quotes you may have seen. In his mind, Sterling isn't racist — the world is. And he is just trying to live in it “realistically” — it's all their fault! At the same time, V. Stiviano is being terribly mean to him, because she refuses to be his 100 percent compliant sock-puppet, but instead tries to be an autonomous, but deeply caring friend, who is trying to see the world in a different light, as a more open-minded place — and to put him in touch with his own power to do the right thing, even if the world were as bad a place as he thinks it is.
But the powerless mega-millionaire will have none of it. Hence, there's this interchange:
V: "I'm sorry, I didn't do anything."
DS: "You NEVER do anything, and NEVER do anything wrong."
V: "But I didn't do anything."
DS: "You upset me, and made me crazy."
V: "You made yourself upset."
DS: "No, that's not true. You didn't start off by saying, 'Honey, I understand, we're living in a culture we can't change--'
V: "Because I don't understand. I don't see your views. I wasn't raised the way you were raised."
And later, this:
DS: We don't evaluate what's right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.
V: But shouldn't we take a stand for what's wrong? And be the change and the difference?
DS: I don't want to change the culture, because I can't. It's too big and too [unknown].
V: But you can change yourself.
DS: I don't want to change. If my girl can't do what I want, I don't want the girl. I'll find a girl that will do what I want! Believe me. I thought you were that girl—because I tried to do what you want. But you're not that girl.
So, long story short: he's breaking up with her, because she won't be his dutiful white supremacist yes woman.
Don't look now, but V. Stiviano is the luckiest person in the world today. Cliven Bundy is a distant second.