In 2008 as America was on the verge of electing the first Black president in Barack Obama, I met with Nobel Laureate and freedom icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Tutu was making a rare visit to Michigan to deliver a lecture and receive the University of Michigan’s distinguished Wallenberg Medal from U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, when I got the call for a sit-down interview with the global statesman, and preeminent moral voice of the anti-apartheid movement.
I was looking forward to the interview because Tutu has been at the forefront of the movement for global justice and equal rights using liberation theology to challenge the hypocrisy of governments shortchanging the masses of people who vote for them.
I had many questions for Tutu, the man that Nelson Mandela spent his first night of freedom with at Bishop’s Court in South Africa after a 27-year prison sentence.
So in my conversation with Tutu, the former chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said something that stood out in his casual, non-imposing but rather sagely conversational style. He said you can remove racism by constitutional means, but it can still remain in the hearts and minds of people.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, embodies what Tutu said, and it further shows that despite efforts in improving where America was decades ago, to where it is now in 2014, there is still a segment in the country that will not accept an America that the latest U.S. Census Bureau results say is rapidly becoming more diverse no matter what one’s personal and political views are.
Consider this: Sterling owns the Los Angeles Clippers where the majority of the players are Black as is the case with many NBA teams, and he continues to make money off the players whose performances has increased the equity and value of his team.
Yet he says in a recorded conversation with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, a Black-Mexican, made public this past weekend that he doesn’t like Black people and he specifically points out American sports icon and businessman Earvin “Magic” Johnson whom he has disdain for because he is Black.
In the Sterling conversation, which will make any conscientious person sick, the LA Clippers owner warns his girlfriend about an Instagram photo she took with Johnson.
“In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with … walking with Black people,” Sterling says in the recording and tells his girlfriend not to bring Johnson or any other Blacks to his games, saying, “You can sleep with (Black people). You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is … not to bring them to my games.”
Of note in the tape Sterling, who is Jewish and according to the Jewish Daily Forward born to Jewish immigrant parents as Donald Tokowitz, tries to justify his racist views of African Americans by telling his girlfriend that there are “White Jews” and “Black Jews” and that in Israel, “the Blacks are just treated like dogs.”
After his claiming that “Black Jews” are lesser than “White Jews,” his girlfriend tries to put a moral lens to his insanity and Sterling fired back in reluctance and in defense of his racist diatribe.
“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,” Sterling said.
Well, his America is no longer governed by a dominant culture. We have a melting pot, and that climate is what ushered in an Obama era.
To understand the history of slavery and the Holocaust is to commit not to return to that low point in human history. Apparently, Sterling considers that history insignificant and is willing to mortgage it on the altar of racism.
As someone who has been invited to keynote functions of several Jewish constituency groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, American Jewish Committee, Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit, etc., I know individuals in these groups committed to the opposite of Sterling’s world view.
There are more insulting and dehumanizing rants of Sterling contained in the tapes that are too hurtful to print in this commentary.
President Obama addressed the issue while on his Asia tour.
“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk,” Obama said, noting that this firestorm over Sterling shows how “the United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation.”
The president noted that the NBA has “an awful lot of African-American players, it’s steeped in African-American culture. And I suspect that the NBA is going to be deeply concerned in resolving this.”
Sterling remains one of the last vestiges of racism and anti-diversity that we still have to deal with in making our society more tolerant and the nation a more perfect union. It is symptomatic of a longstanding problem: our reluctance to discuss race openly and to achieve meaningful diversity.
But the Sterling saga is a clarion call to not only challenge the last structures of racism and intolerance that are refusing to melt away, but to work to ensure that diversity is part of our everyday lives.
It was just last week that the U.S. Supreme Court further cemented an anti-affirmative action decision that will adversely impact the number of African Americans enrolling in Michigan colleges. Michigan State University, for instance, has a 5 percent enrollment for Black students, compared to 10 percent before the fall of affirmative action.
The University of Michigan recently reached an agreement with the Black Student Union to address diversity concerns because its Black enrollment is also down after affirmative action was gutted by a 2006 dubious ballot referendum called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.
But race still matters, even if old rich men like Sterling don’t think so. Given how he feels about African Americans, we shouldn’t be surprised if old dragons like him celebrated any effort to deny Blacks enrollment at universities across the country.
His private denunciation of morality, dismissing the universal principle of right and wrong in the conversation with his girlfriend really uncovers the nakedness of Sterling’s moral turpitude.
As he reflects on the coming days what his legacy will be, I recommend that Sterling spend some time reading the powerful and incisive dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor regarding affirmative action and about why we can’t pretend as if race is just a footnote in the continuously evolving landscape where diversity is central to the future of our society.
Beyond Donald Sterling, the question remains: How much of America still represents his racist views and his moral turpitude?
How much of America still believes there is no right or wrong, and that the nation should remain as it had been since its founding?
How much of America believes that Blacks and other minorities should not be guaranteed “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
Well, we now know that if Sterling was to write the opening words of the Declaration of Independence that says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…,” he would write the opposite.
Thank goodness, he did not.
But we saw how Sterling’s views were reflected in the extreme opposition that greeted President Obama when he first occupied the White House.
We witnessed with unbelievable eyes how some prominent hypocritical religious leaders went on national television and claimed the president was a Muslim, when none of the 43 presidents before him ever faced that kind of hatred and public humiliation, masking as policy difference or perceived apprehension of the Obama presidency.
It won’t be a surprise if Sterling sees Obama in the same light. But men like Sterling are chameleonic. They change temporary to fit the climate. If the tapes had not busted him, he was on his way to receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles NAACP, which received so many checks from his foundation.
If the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd can change from being a member of the Ku Klux Klan to a voice of conscience and morality in Congress, Sterling’s redemption is also possible. But only if he wants to change.
No matter what happens, good people continue to uphold and live by the inescapable truths contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, among other things, asserts that “every human being is born free, equal in dignity and right.”
This is my moniker, and it prevails over Donald Sterling’s world view.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of a forthcoming book on Detroit. His most recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, Black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a senior political analyst at WDET-101.9FM and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.bankolethompson.com.