Excess Rhetoric as Camouflage: Donald Sterling

Most of those reacting to “the Donald Sterling tapes” (an ancient, notoriously racist owner of a National Basketball Association team makes racist comments in private, is recorded, recordings are released, all hell breaks loose, but not really) may not mean to obscure deeper problems with race in the U.S., but the combined excess of their rhetoric serves to camouflage those problems.  One might even trace the problem of camouflage to an earlier point, the one at which people decide what to write about in response.  For, arguably, if you decide to write about X and not Y, no matter how persuasively you write about X, you will have obscured more significant issues. 

The responses/reactions so far:

1. He’s an ugly racist. Shame on him.

2. The NBA knew of his racism for decades; why is it reacting only now?

3. The Justice Department fined him twice for “slum-lord” practices in L.A., he often made disparaging remarks about Blacks and Korean-Americans to support such practices, and he’s an ugly racist; shame on him.

4. Wow! The Commissioner of the NBA came down as hard as possible on Sterling! Banned for life! Will be forced to sell team. Hurray!

5. It was a private conversation; there are “free speech” issues. (Actually, there may be “privacy” issues, but not
“free speech” ones.)

6. The recorder is a a gold-digger in her 20s, and he’s in his 80s! Shame on her!

7. We’re a society obsessed with the scandal du jour! Shame on us. This is sportswriter Dan Levitar’s take.  My take is that scandal-obsession goes way, way back in societies, and that the main difference now concerns chiefly technology, not some kind of sudden epidemic of scandal-obsession.  More outlets mean more people can react.

So, what is being camouflaged?  Well, much bigger problems in the U.S. and globally–obviously.  The rest of the world and many in the U.S. will be forgiven if, colloquially speaking, they don’t give a shit about the NBA and one of its disgusting owners.

Second, the deeper problems with race, as suggested above.

In a press conference after the NBA Commissioner announced the punishments, Doc Rivers, the coach of Sterling’s team, had this to say (I paraphrase): Some people thought the players (on his team) should have forfeited a game in protest. Others thought they should play.  What I find interesting is that the targets of such things (in this case, racist comments directed, by extension at Blacks, including Black players) are the ones expected to respond.

Great point. Great point almost no one seemed to pick up on.

White folks position themselves as spectators and arbiters of the event, not as ones responsible for responding–immediately or more broadly.  Thus has it ever been so.  Of course, some White folks (and folks from a variety of ethnicities) may imagine that they are taking responsibility by tweeting.

So that’s one deeper point camouflaged by excess rhetoric and by writers’ and broadcasters and tweeters decision as to what to express themselves about.  –How White people tend to wait for Blacks to respond, how White Americans, collectively, historically, have never quite summoned the will to address the widespread, lingering effects of racist American history.  They start to go in that direction, but then–surprise!–the judiciary, the legislature, and/or the economy steps in to maintain the status quo–with assistance from the punditry, of course.

More: Culturally and economically, the NBA is intertwined with big cities, many of them suffering horrible economic and infrastructural decline. Basketball is a big part of African American culture.  African American culture, after the Great Migration, is intertwined with urban culture.  So I, for one, thought of the NBA’s announced punishment as only a starting point, not the end of the affair (assuming Sterling eventually sells the team).  Immediately I thought that the NBA should seize the moment and begin to lead the way to help rebuild neighborhoods and urban sections in Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans, New York/New Jersey, and so on.  And to promote improvement in Black education, as only a sliver of a micro-percentage of basketball players can a) go to college based on their b-ball skills and b) turn pro.  Silly me, I even thought (pragmatically granting that the NBA is a business) that such an undertaking would be a form of good PR.

More than a few commentators observed that the NBA came down so hard on Sterling because star Black players were seriously considering a work-stoppage.  So, pressed to do the max, the NBA did “the max,” but as to accepting, happily, greater societal responsibility?  Not so much.

And finally: selective outrage.  Journalists pretending to channel outrage over Sterling’s racism have, more likely than not, chosen to ignore the racist response to Obama’s presidency–the official GOP response (“We will break him,” said Jim Demint) and the unofficial response from “the base” and beyond. 

For the font out of which Sterling’s racist comments and deeply held beliefs spring is the same as the one out of which anti-Obama racism has sprung.  Does this mean every critique of Obama is racist (he wrote, anticipating an objection)?  No, of course not.  It does mean that racist critiques, actions intended to show that “we” will “stone-wall” the Black man, and quietism regarding racist ploys (he’s Muslim, he’s not American) are essentially racist. to go tautological for a moment.

Anyway: how refreshing it would have been to see a sportswriter, a pundit, or a non-sports journalist write that the real Sterling scandal is the slum-lord part, or that Sterling’s views are all of a piece with regard to one major political Party.  One can imagine another camouflaging response: What? That’s ridiculous! He’s just one guy. He’s crazy! How dare you politicize this!

Bill O’Reilly even went so far as to cut that kind of argument off at the pass, asserting that The Factor believes Sterling’s racism is only Sterling’s racism, utterly isolated, and that the U.S. in general has no problem with race.  Flip almost any Factor Assertion to the opposite, and you will most likely have the truth. To pretend to be fair to Bill, it had been a tough week for Fox, as they had initially supported a Nevada cowboy who refused to pay grazing fees to the Gub-ment.  Alas, the cowboy turned out to be a raving racist.   What a shocker.


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