What’s a twice-divorced fellow, who thinks that “third time’s charm” is nonsense, supposed to do on his fiftieth birthday? The answer was obvious – that long delayed first trip to Paris. Two weeks of kicking around Paris, solo, seemed like a fine idea, and June, 1997, wasn’t too late for that first stab at hanging around where one was supposed to be hanging around all along in the first place. That trip was fine, and French isn’t that hard a language. Any attempt to stumble through it is almost always met with smiles, and gentle and quite polite corrections, not scorn, when you get the gender or the verb tense or the words themselves all wrong. Both parties laugh a lot. That was cool, and one thing leads to another, and soon the talk was about what everyone talks about – music and movies and politics and cars and all sorts of things. People also talk about themselves, although the French are notoriously guarded and formal. Still, one explains where one is from – and that’s when it became clear that exceptions are made, and maybe the French really are snooty arrogant bastards. It seems you get points for being from Los Angeles, and you get lots of extra points for being from Hollywood. Yes, Gertrude Stein and Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol were born in Pittsburgh, but no one remembers that, so it’s best not to mention you were born there too. Say that you live in Hollywood. The French are mad for Los Angeles and Hollywood, and used to be mad for Jerry Lewis for some reason. That’s your entre, so to speak. In fact, right now, one block down the street at the Directors Guild, the annual City of Lights City of Angels film festival has just wrapped up – the sunny terraces of all the restaurants along the Sunset Strip have been filled with French movie stars and French film directors for a week.
That explains a lot, and it was the same on all the subsequent stays in Paris, sometime twice a year, and the same down south – in Aix and Arles and Avignon and such places – and it was the same with those two years working on assignment in rural Canada, running the systems shop at that locomotive plant in London, Ontario, in the late nineties. Why was that young waiter at the local steakhouse wearing that Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey? The kid said he loved Kobe, just starting out back then, and he loved Los Angeles – and in the short summers, the kids in Victoria Park downtown were doing fancy tricks on their skateboards, pretending they were in Venice Beach or something. The long cross-country flights back home to Hollywood every other weekend for two years, to water the plants and pay the bills, were a pain in the ass, but there were those who thought that was so damned cool. Go figure.
To be blunt about it, Los Angeles is a sprawling mess and not really much of a city at all – a thousand suburbs in search of a city, as they say, and surrounded by bare desert hills that catch fire every year – and Hollywood itself is pretty seedy still. The ongoing attempts at gentrification haven’t worked yet. It’s still tattoo parlors and cheesy souvenir shops as far as the eye can see. The movie stars live in green and gated Beverly Hills, and although Hollywood and Los Angeles, and most of California, is deep blue – solidly Democratic now that Nixon and Reagan are long gone and Arnold Schwarzenegger is back to making third-rate action movies – the place is not full of progressive vegan multimillionaire bleeding heart liberals. George Clooney spends much of his time at his villa on Lake Como over in Italy. There are other sorts of people out here, and some of them aren’t very nice, as the rest of the world just found out:
Major advertisers of the Los Angeles Clippers are fleeing in droves as they rush to distance themselves from comments about blacks attributed to team owner Donald Sterling.
A growing list of more than a dozen sponsors, including Virgin America, Kia and State Farm, are canceling or suspending their deals with the basketball team after a celebrity gossip site released a recording in which a man it identified as Sterling chides a female friend for “associating with black people.”
The statements could cause tens of millions of dollars in damage to the Clippers and the NBA, experts say.
Fans and even an NBA coach are calling for boycotts of games and merchandise. Free agent players may steer clear of the team, hurting future ticket sales and other income. Companies once loyal to the Clippers may reserve corporate boxes at Lakers games instead.
This is Los Angeles too, the nasty side of it:
On Friday night, TMZ released an audio recording in which a person it identified as the Clippers owner lambastes a woman identified as V. Stiviano for posting a photo of herself with Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson on Instagram. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the man’s voice says. In rapid succession Monday, Clippers sponsors began dropping from the team’s advertising roster.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be out here, and one local sports writer puts it this way:
The opinion that Donald Sterling can no longer be an owner is incorrect. He would make an excellent plantation owner.
Every bit of media noise and public anger – every statement of dismay and distrust made by anyone with a keyboard or a microphone, every written and broadcast rant – is justified in this one.
This turned out to be a big national story, about the other Los Angeles:
A man, rich like a Rockefeller, has a wife of 50 years and a parade of female acquaintances less than half his age. One of the young women, who may have had an ax to grind and a plan in mind, engages Sterling in a conversation that is recorded. The recording somehow gets to TMZ, which breaks the story. Whether Sterling was taped legally isn’t clear, but in this case score one for the new journalism of getting the story out there first and thinking about it later.
The Perfect Storm continues when the recording becomes public just as Sterling’s Clippers are taking a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 of an NBA playoff series against a hard-to-beat Golden State Warriors team.
Then there is the perfect timing. The news breaks on Sterling’s 80th birthday. Happy birthday, Donald…
Before Game 4, the Clippers make some team gestures of protest, but have had enough heart taken out of them to lack the competitive fire needed at this level and time of year. They are routed by the Warriors. It may mark the first time that a sports owner has thrown his entire team under the bus during the most important time in its history.
That’s the sports story, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie covers the other story:
What’s striking about Sterling’s rant and its hours of coverage is the extent to which it isn’t new. To wit, in 2003, 19 plaintiffs sued Sterling for housing discrimination. In the suit, Sterling is accused of telling his staff that he did not like blacks and Hispanics, citing their behavior. “Hispanics smoke, drink, and just hang around the building,” he allegedly said.
What’s more, the lawsuit said, Sterling told his staff that he only wanted to rent his apartments to Koreans and forced black tenants to sign in when they entered the building. “Is she one of those black people that stink?” he allegedly asked of an elderly black tenant who needed repairs to her apartment. “I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.” His wife, Rochelle Sterling, also participated, posing as a health inspector to harass tenants and record their ethnicities.
Donald Sterling settled for an undisclosed sum in 2005 – paying $5 million in plaintiff legal fees – but faced renewed scrutiny in 2006, following federal civil rights charges. According to the Justice Department, Sterling, his wife, and his three companies engaged in housing discrimination by refusing to rent to blacks and “creating, maintaining, and perpetuating an environment that is hostile to non-Korean tenants” at their properties. Again, Sterling settled. He paid $2.65 million to a fund for people harmed by his discriminatory practices – a record sum in a federal housing suit – as well as $100,000 to the government.
These were huge offenses – entrenchments of disadvantage in a city segmented by past bias. After all, Los Angeles was heavily redlined throughout the 20th century, with blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and other minorities blocked from mortgage loans and relegated to the least desirable parts of the city.
But, despite the magnitude of the offenses and the size of the settlements, there was no outrage. Sterling caused actual harm to dozens of families, and the response was near silence.
Now there is a response, which is odd:
When it comes to open bigotry, everyone is an anti-racist. The same Republicans who question the Civil Rights Act and oppose race-conscious policy are on the front lines when it’s time to denounce the outlandish racism of the day. “I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in response to Cliven Bundy’s digression on “the Negro.” Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality who championed Bundy’s cause of free grazing rights, blasted Bundy for his “ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable” comments.
Indeed, the mere hint of racial insensitivity is enough to bring the hammer down, as we rush to refute and repudiate the transgressor. This can go too far… but it’s an understandable impulse, and on the whole, a good one.
At the same time, we all but ignore the other dimension of racism – the policies and procedures that sustain our system of racial inequality. The outrage that comes when a state representative says something stupid about professional basketball players is absent when we learn that black children are punished at dramatically higher rates than their white peers, even as preschoolers. Likewise, it’s absent when we learn that banks targeted minorities – regardless of income – for the worst possible mortgage loans, destroying their wealth in the process.
In turn, this blinds us to the racial implications of actions that seem colorblind. In a world where racism looks like cartoonish bigotry, it’s hard to build broad outrage for unfair voter identification laws or huge disparities in health care access.
We apparently need to get serious here:
Donald Sterling’s personal disdain for black Americans is less important than his racist property management, in the same way that Lyndon Johnson’s prejudice – he said the word nigger, a lot – is less important than his civil rights record. That’s not to discount the experience of hatred – it’s painful to hear and worse to experience. But when it comes to bigotry as a public issue, what you do is more important than what you say. A world where Donald Sterling hates black people but rents to them at fair prices is better than one where he loves them, but still discriminates.
Welcome to the real Los Angeles, not the one the French imagine, and Slate’s Josh Levin explores the other dynamics at play here:
The average NBA player makes more money in a single season than most Americans will earn in a lifetime. The average NBA owner made more money while you were reading that first sentence than your children will accrue if they live to be 150 years old. LeBron James has a mansion. Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen has a yacht equipped with two submarines and a music studio. And if he gets bored with lying around on one of the world’s longest superyachts, he can console himself by spending time on another of the world’s longest superyachts. Which superyacht does he like best? These are the questions that try NBA owners’ souls.
For a billionaire like Allen, though, a big boat isn’t all that special – they’ll sell one of those to anyone these days. There are a mere 30 franchises in the NBA, meaning there are just 30 opportunities to buy in to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. An NBA team is the ultimate middle-aged-rich-guy status symbol, an instant ticket to cultural cachet.
That’s where things get tricky:
The owner of a sports franchise acquires his cultural cachet by basking in the reflected glory of his players. There’s a dark side to that owner-player relationship that we don’t really think about, an uncomfortable truth that’s particularly fraught when you consider the racial dynamics at play in the NBA. A white plutocrat like Los Angeles Clippers owner/Hall-of-Fame-caliber bigot Donald Sterling doesn’t just own a basketball team. He owns the black players who suit up for that team, too.
For the men who control the NBA, great basketball players are another kind of expensive toy – superyachts that can dunk.
That would explain this exchange:
Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black – that plays for you?
Sterling: 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? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?
Sterling is not a typical NBA owner. I’d have to imagine that his basketball-world brethren see their employees as remarkably talented human beings rather than the needy, subservient recipients of charitable food donations. Even so, it’s impossible to ignore that pro basketball is a business in which most of the employees are black and the vast majority of the owners are white. A whole lot of NBA players are incredibly rich, and a bunch of them are cultural icons. But like Sterling says, it’s the super-duper-rich guys who control the league while the players provide the entertainment. When an NBA owner tells his players to jump, the guys in sneakers are contractually obligated to ask how high.
They all would make excellent plantation owners, but Levin argues that sports fans and sportswriters don’t just ignore this power dynamic but actually celebrate it, so there’s a bit of a charade going on here:
If Sterling is sanctioned severely, that will send a message that the NBA won’t tolerate virulent racism, so long as it’s preceded by years of comparable bigotry, it’s captured on tape, and everyone on Earth gets really angry about it. But no matter what happens to the Clippers owner, we shouldn’t lose sight of who controls the NBA. The players can wear their warm-ups inside out or upside down, but they’re still serving at the pleasure of the owners, still raining in jumpers as the guys with music studios on their yachts clap their hands. That’s not going to change, whether Donald Sterling’s running the Clippers or not.
Josh Marshall sees that but all sees that it’s not that simple:
Race and racism are complex. White families who were the linchpins of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South and in the days of slavery could still have deep and intimate relationships with African-Americans. And I’m not just talking about the well-known and often brutally exploitative sexual relationships. (After all, remember that Strom Thurmond had a mixed race daughter.) Obviously, in this day and age you can work with, have civil relationships with black people, even employ African-Americans and still be totally racist. But in this day and age it’s a little hard to figure how you can have such visceral racism (as opposed to just having a low opinion of black people) and manage to operate in the pretty black world of the NBA.
That is a puzzle, and at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw in this item compares Sterling to last week’s poster boy for racism, Cliven Bundy:
What do Bundy and Sterling have in common? First of all – aside from the obvious fact that they are white – they are old. And I don’t mean old like me… we’re talking really old. And second, both in their own way are old men who live in a form of isolation. Bundy lives in a geographically isolated, rural region. Sterling lives in the rather insular world of the very wealthy. They also come from a different generation, growing up among attitudes which were common beyond notice in their day but which would probably shock many people today. Without going into graphic detail, I’ll just say that I can relate to that, being raised by a member of that same generation in a rural, farming area.
At the Daily Caller, Matt K. Lewis runs with that:
Bundy is 67 and Sterling is 80. In a way, the age disparity makes sense; you could argue that an urban (and rich) 80 equates to a rural 67. So age does seem to be a common denominator – and if one accepts this theory, it is a bit of good news, inasmuch as it implies a lot of this stuff will be resolved through attrition.
Can we wait that long? Marc Ambinder doesn’t address that, but he focuses on the scam Sterling had been running:
An article about Sterling in ESPN’s magazine called his life “uncontested.” That’s an apt description. The reporter followed Sterling to an NAACP gathering, where he proceeded to brag about how easy it was to pull the wool over the eyes of the organization. Referring to the reporters tailing him, he asked other attendees, “Do you know why they’re here? They want to know why the NAACP would give an award to someone with my track record.”
Yeah. Good question.
The answer is apparently that he gave the organization money. In fact, he gave a lot to organizations devoted to the poor and to helping minority groups.
That explains all the cheesy and quite large display ads he runs for himself in the Los Angeles Times every other day – showing him accepting another major award he paid for – but at Talking Points Memo, Peter Dreier understands why the local NAACP out here was just about to give him a Lifetime Achievement award:
Of course, many nonprofit groups rely on charitable donations from wealthy donors and corporations. Often their philanthropy is altruistic and heartfelt, but sometimes their gifts are self-serving, designed to help a company or a billionaire cleanse a soiled reputation or peddle influence with politicians. Many donors expect to see their names on buildings or to be rewarded with public celebrations of their philanthropy, including receiving awards. The NAACP-Sterling relationship raises the larger question of whether nonprofit organizations should have any standards for bestowing honors on their donors. When is a donor such a disreputable person or corporation that its donation – and the strings attached to it – soils the reputation and moral standing of the nonprofit group, despite its many good deeds?
That just happened. He won’t get that Lifetime Achievement Award now, but the damage was already done. The NAACP out here really was going to give him that award. They have been soiled. It’s too late for them now.
Somehow this local Los Angeles sports story became much more than just a sports story, and at the New Republic, Marc Tracy explores that:
As the league begins to move against its longest-tenured owner, the moment feels positively catalytic. The National Basketball Association is the sports world’s most progressive league. Its 30 teams are 30 businesses out to make money, but they do it in a game that finds its greatest popularity among the lower and middle classes and as a league with the second-highest proportion of Democratic fans. More specifically, the NBA is society’s cutting edge as far as race is concerned – it’s the league that birthed the first black head coach (Bill Russell, with due respect to football’s Fritz Pollard); first black superstar (Wilt Chamberlain); first black sneaker brand (Air Jordan); first black general manager (Wayne Embry); and only black owners (the Charlotte Bobcats were owned by Bob Johnson and are now owned by Michael Jordan). Its recent surge in popularity and value has been due primarily to an unusually talented and charismatic inventory of superstars who are overwhelmingly young black men.
Did he say unusually talented and charismatic inventory of superstars who are overwhelmingly young black men? The Tea Party folks, who want their Ozzie and Harriet country back, and all those Republicans who work for a system that rewards the job creators at the top and ignores those who do the few new jobs that have been created, need to wake up:
Over the past several years, NBA players have seized the athletic and cultural zeitgeist, in the process making a ton of money for themselves but even more for ownership, who have seen their properties appreciate at rates not normally experienced outside the top echelons of Silicon Valley and Wall Street – according to Forbes, franchise values have increased 25 percent just in the past year. This imbalance – between who is responsible for the profit and who reaps the profit – makes less sense with each passing year, and incidents like Sterling’s make it seem absurd. So this is a moment of reckoning for the league, and, since the league has always seemed to represent more than just itself on matters of race and of labor, it’s a moment of reckoning for everyone. Will Sterling be allowed to stick around just because he’s the guy who owns the team? Or will the laborers responsible for Sterling’s success get their way? To put it more bluntly: Will the moribund old white guys win another round, or will the young wealth-creators triumph?
Let the revolution begin! The French would understand that, even if no one is going to guillotine moribund old white guys in public squares. No one does that any longer, but then the French never did get Los Angeles and Hollywood right. This is not a world of endless glamour and sunshine. This is a world of powerful moribund old white guys full of bile and fear, with lots of cash, thinking they own the world, because, as they see it, they created this world. It seems they won’t own this world much longer – still, being the obviously fascinating fellow from Hollywood in Paris will probably continue to work wonders. But maybe the underlying assumptions will change. Liberté, égalité, fraternité! Why not?