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Donald Sterling, Civil Rights, and Racism
By Kevin Powell
It was Albert Einstein who said it best, long ago: insanity is saying or doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Well, American racism is a form of insanity, a mental illness, as central to this land as the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African people, and everything from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to apple pie and Coca Cola to the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin. That there is widespread outrage and condemnation of the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner for his alleged racist rants on a telephone call with his “girlfriend” (Mr. Sterling is married too) is not surprising. Mr. Sterling disses African Americans, Latinos, and we know for sure, that he has a lengthy track record around housing and other forms of racial discrimination as it concerns communities of color; and that former Clippers executive and NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor documented, in his lawsuit against the owner, quite serious instances of unrepentant racism. The problem with us, with America, is we will do what we have been conditioned to do: we will be outraged, we will demand action, boycotts, protests, petitions; we will cast Mr. Sterling as the modern-day Bull Connor, a latter-day Klansman, and push until he has been reprimanded in a way that allows us to believe justice has been served.
The racist boogeyman gets remixed once more, and this time it is Donald Sterling, whether he was set up by his mistress or not. For me whether Mr. Sterling is suspended or even stripped of his ownership is beside the point. Do I think he should be punished in some form? Yes. But I also feel we completely fool ourselves, forever, if we actually believe that because the NBA is 80 percent Black, the National Football League similarly composed, and because we have Barack Obama in the White House, Oprah and Beyoncé as global icons, tastemakers and trendsetters, that we’ve somehow made so much progress in America that we live in a post-racial utopia with mere hiccups like Donald Sterling along the way. On the contrary, the great irony of the outcry around Mr. Sterling’s alleged statements and his real-time racist practices is that this discussion is happening as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in 2014. We in America love celebrations and anniversaries. Last year it was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation and the 50th anniversary of the historic March of Washington and Dr. King’s timeless “I Have A Dream” speech. Should we acknowledge how far we’ve come as a nation since the days of slavery, lynchings, vicious racial terrorism, Jim Crow and legalized segregation?
But should we equally lie to ourselves and act as if racial oppression has completely disappeared from the American landscape? That, my friend, would be insanity. How else do we explain things like gentrification of neighborhoods of color from New York to California, the prison-industrial complex (have you paid a visit to a prison in your state lately to see how loaded it is with Black and Latino bodies?), an explosion of voter I.D. laws across America, anti-immigration raids and expulsions, if not in the language of racism? This is why I have long argued that what we should be striving for in America is a post-racism nation, not a post-racial one. The post-racial argument is a manipulative exercise to deny or erase historic and present-day American racism, and it is why you hear so many Whites, including well-meaning ones, expressing a “fatigue” with African Americans or other people of color whenever we bring up racism, through the lens of our experiences. This is why @Pharrell, as much as I love him and his music, is entirely delusional for suggesting there is a “new Black.” No, there is not.
There are many ways of expressing Blackness, but if Pharrell or any other successful and privileged Black person is truthful to their core then they know fame and wealth will not stop you from being stopped by the police in your lifetime, well known or not. Because racism is insanity, a disease and your skin color has predetermined how you will be treated, spoken to, accessed, and denied. So it is almost as if we are being told, by White society and by Blacks who like to live with selective amnesia, that we should deny our history, our lives, our very humanity, so as not to rock the boat. Plus there is an assumption that everyone and everything is equal. If that were the case then why are these Black NBA players, including Sterling’s Clippers team, so torn about what they can and cannot say or do in response to these allegations?
To use the term post-racial nonstop, loosely, without any teeth or historic accountability, is actually a way to participate in that insanity Einstein was referring to. I do not want to be insane, and you should not want to be either.
Post-racism, on the other hand, means we have the courage, the love, and the compassion, each of us who calls her or himself an American, to get to the root of the matter here. America was built on racism (and sexism and classism, too). Racism is race plus power, and from the founding fathers (vast majority of whom were slave owners or otherwise benefited from the very lucrative slave industry) to Donald Sterling and Donald Trump, that power has largely been in the hands of wealthy White males. This is not to dis my White sisters and brothers, no; it is to deal in truth, in fact. It is also to say that anyone who has ever referred to her or himself as White in the context of American society has always had skin privilege, whether your ancestors owned slaves or not. The challenge is this: Have you ever acknowledged or checked your skin privilege, rejected it, questioned it, just like I, as a man, must be aware of my gender privilege. In other words, most African American people I know, myself included, think about being Black every single day of our lives.
The insanity of racism does that to you. Just like most women I know think about being a woman every single day of their lives because of the power and insanity of sexism. Meanwhile we men do not, because we have the privilege not to think about it, as men. So until we routinely discuss racism as race and power, nothing will change. Nothing. Racism means you have the ability to not only discriminate against or hate one individual, but to marginalize, control, dominate entire communities of people, from sea to shining sea. It means you have the power to determine whether a James Baldwin or Ntozake Shange is taught in schools on an equal level with a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson.
It means that I went to the so-called best schools in my hometown of Jersey City, kindergarten through the 12th grade, and what I learned about Black people on the planet was that we were slaves, that Dr. King had a “dream,” and maybe three or four history lessons the length of this paragraph, and that was it. Racism, its insanity, similarly means the Los Angeles chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., America’s oldest Civil Rights organization, was about to give Mr. Sterling his second-second-lifetime achievement award, obviously ignoring, out of political convenience and probably because of the donations from him and other super-rich Whites to the group. Racism, its insanity, means historically Black colleges and universities invite racist White right-wing leaders to be commencement speakers at their schools, even as these leaders have done everything possible their entire careers to erase the very miniscule victories of the Civil Rights Movement. And race plus power means you can determine what kinds of images are presented for certain communities in the mass media culture-the local news, television shows, films, magazine covers, you name it-and it means that even if the NBA is 80 percent Black it is incredibly odd that only one majority owner, Michael Jordan, is Black, and that most of the folks who run the NBA likewise are White.
I am a huge sports fan, but I also cannot act as if I, as a Black man, do not see how Black male bodies are used in America’s two most successful sports, the multi-billion dollar National Basketball Association and the National Football League, not very different from how Black male bodies were used on those plantations to build the economic infrastructure of this country. A stretch to those without a deep knowledge of history or an imagination, but very real to those Black like me. Justice would be Donald Sterling and his family stripped of their ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers. Justice would be the NBA, and the NFL, using the Sterling situation as a teachable moment for every single employee and owner in the NBA. Justice would be a Rooney Rule for the NBA and NFL that extends to people of color ownership, not just the hiring of Black coaches. Justice would be community ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers in the way the people of Green Bay, Wisconsin owned their beloved Packers. Justice would be a real and honest network of support for these majority Black players so that most of them, as Magic Johnson once told me in a phone conversation, do not wind up broke and broken once their careers are over.
There needs to be a consistent mentorship program for these players. Any conversation about race and racism that does not address this landscape holistically is nothing more than yet another Band-Aid put on what is a very serious bullet wound. Insanity- But this is for everyone, too: Most families (of any race) offer little to no education in the home about race and racism, about history, and the value of the contributions of all people to America. We leave it to our local school systems which themselves have huge gaps, misinformation, and, often, outright lies and complete omissions.
So people of all backgrounds are left with the information provided by the mass media culture, which more often than not focus on the sensational. Little wonder, then, that ignorant views rear their ugly heads again and again. And the insanity kicks in when we do everything we can to isolate that one person, as if she or he is some sort of aberration beyond the norm. No, Donald Sterling, and before him Marge Schott and Al Campanis and the many millions more without any major platforms are actually very much the norm. But, yes, of course there has been progress. I can see it in my own life. My great-grandfather Ben Powell was killed and his land taken by racist Whites in South Carolina at the beginning of the 1900s, because he had the nerve to own property as a Black man. My mother, born in the midst of World War II, grew up in a world where “Coloreds” and “Whites” signs were everywhere, where work began for her at age age as cheap, exploited labor picking cotton for the rich Whites, where those same Whites called my mother and other Blacks, in spite of age or generation, any kind of despicable racial slur you can imagine, as if those slurs were their names, as a way to undermine and destroy their humanity. My mother never got out of grade school because of America’s racial oppression. Yet because of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, I made it to college, and have been able to see things and achieve things generations of my family could not have deemed remotely possible.
I am so clear of my debt to the Civil Rights Movement. But imagine, also, if the Civil Rights Movement had never happened, if people had not shaken off the fear, the acceptance of business as usual, and simply gone along to get along? I say these words often as I go from state to state in America, nearly all 50 at this point, as a public speaker, discussing topics like diversity and multiculturalism and how we as Americans relate to and understand each other: with love, with compassion, and with the ability to talk and listen even when it makes us mightily uncomfortable. One thing is completely clear to me: so many of us have been so grossly mis-educated or under-educated about race and racism in America. We ignorantly interchange words like “racism” and “prejudice” as if they are the same things, and they are not. I have had White sisters and brothers ask me why Black people, for example, are not outraged by Black-on-Black violence and my response is always the same: most Black folks I know are and speak about it regularly, in many settings, but are you listening?
But I will admit to the insanity of internalized racism when we launch mass protests for a Trayvon Martin, or another Black male done an injustice, but hardly say or do anything when a Black women has experienced similar injustice, especially at the hands of a Black male. I will admit the prejudice that I see in my Black community, toward Whites, toward other people of color. I challenge that, too. I must. I am not just going to speak about things that are applicable to me. My humanity is your humanity and vice versa. Moreover, many of us, regardless of our race, culture, and ethnicity, fear and hate others because we simply do not even know ourselves. I challenge Black folks and other people of color all the time about knowing our history, where we came from, what we’ve achieved, what we are doing now. I challenge my White sisters and brothers all the time, asking them What were you before you became White or were told that you are White? Where did you come from, how did you get here, why did you simply accept Whiteness as a fact of your identity, without any questions whatsoever? On another level, because we mistakenly think we are equals here 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, there is the mindset that Black people, people of color, are the ones who have to fix or end racism, by themselves.
That is like expecting a female victim of rape, to be the one to fix sexism, to end gender violence, like men play no role in this, although most of the victims of sexual assault in some form on this Earth are women and girls, at the hands of men and boys. No form of oppression will ever end until those who most benefit from the oppression participate in it ending. I make this analogy because it was deafening for the first few days how quiet the most outspoken White NBA owners – like Mark Cuban – have been on this Sterling situation, God knows Mr. Cuban seems to have an opinion on everything, including things he is utterly unqualified to speak about.
Or how the well-meaning Whites who have spoken out on social media, rich and famous or not, have not gone deeper than how embarrassing it is, or how we must love and respect each other as equals. I share that vision as well. I really do consider every single human being on this planet, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or disability, or religious faith (or not), as my sister and brother. I truly do. But I am also clear, when it comes to race and racism, that nothing will change until we step up collectively and say enough is enough. And not just when it is something high-profile or sensational like Donald Sterling or Trayvon Martin, but when it is the absence of people of color from your child’s education, including if there is not a single kid of color in school with your child. It is also when you do not take the time to sit with your White child and say there is something profoundly wrong with the constant barrage of negative and stereotypical images of Black people, in music videos, on reality television shows, just as there was with the once hugely popular minstrel shows of yesteryear.
It means having the courage to understand the same folks who controlled those minstrel shows now control these present-day images, with the same devastating effects to you, to me, to everyone. It also means that diversity is not a destination but a shift in mindset, a shift in values. It means even if there are not people different from you in your environment you still have an obligation to discuss, honor, respect, and highlight people who are different from you, consistently. And not simply during specially designated weeks or months either. And it means understanding that the modern Black male athlete particularly, whether we want to hear this or not, has been so coddled, so isolated, so stripped of his voice by the White power structure in this country – the people who pay them these massive salaries and endorsement deals – that he does not even think he can speak out, in these times, the way a Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown or Bill Russell once did, for fear that he will lose everything, instantly. So we are left with the Clippers reversing their workout shirts to cover up their logos instead of bolder acts like John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their black-gloved fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics or Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam, or Black athletes coming together to use their collective power to demand a true sharing of power since the NBA and NFL would not exist without them. But that too speaks to the power of racism that it leaves the victims of it so afraid of fighting back that we will do as little to nothing as possible to change our conditions. Or we fear being called “divisive.”
Well, what is more divisive than us being in the second decade of the 21st century still having the same conversations we had 100 or 200 years ago, so divided from what is right and just that we would rather be silent bystanders watching our society continue to unravel before our very eyes? Or what is more divisive than the hate tweets and emails I am certain to get as I’ve gotten many times before, generally from angry White males, who will call me names, including “nigga” and “un-American,” because of this blog? Meanwhile at this stage in my life I would never tweet or email someone in such a manner, even if I disagree with them. I am interested in being a bridge-builder, not a bridge destroyer, and you should be too. But it means we’ve got to be willing to walk across that bridge, it means we understand a rainbow does not occur until after the storm. And the storm we’ve been avoiding in America since its inception is truth, reconciliation, a redistribution of wealth, of power, sharing in democracy, instead of you against me, us against them, as echoed by Donald Sterling.
The above said, being stuck on a Donald Sterling, a George Zimmerman, is an easy and convenient way not to deal with the real problem of power and power structures run amok, that allow these sorts of ugly things to happen over and over again. Suspending or removing Sterling as owner ultimately does about as much good as signing a petition protesting George Zimmerman’s ill-fated celebrity wrestling match. We feel good, in that moment, yes. Important gestures, yes, but the necessary work to be done involves as many of us as possible having the audacity to have real and honest conversations about race, about racism, about skin privileges and skin preferences in our America, still here in the 21st century.
To do anything less than that is to dishonor the countless lives sacrificed and lost just to get America to 2014, with some shred of dignity in spite of it all. And to do anything less, in our times, on our watch, is to cowardly hand over to the children, and the children not yet born, the work we refused to do ourselves.