“That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society–to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others. Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.” President Lyndon Johnson at Howard University
A country stuck on Sterling and the Clippers now sees itself at a cultural impasse. After celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Bill earlier this year, we were left with an ugly reminder of racism’s remnants when Donald Sterling uttered remarks that harkened back to the days of Bull Conner. Leaving us to deal with America’s dark history, and the true fall out since Lyndon Johnson spoke the powerful words above into existence.
We in too many ways hid steps forward behind the success for the few, rather than the true correction of history’s horrendous mistakes. In the process, we redefined the progress of African Americans to fit our hope, rather than our great nations reality.
When President Johnson spoke at Howard University in 1965, the Civil Rights bill was less than a year old, and racial justice for American Negroes was just forming. But it was clear from the tone and content of his speech that midsummer day in Washington, D.C., that the President had retribution for the American legacy of discrimination toward Blacks on his mind.
For too long an entire section of America existed in the shadows, forced to endure a second-class existence. Negroes for a time that stretched back past the Declaration of Independence were unable to participate in the American Dream, and were forced to lie in its nightmare of racial boundaries. By enacting sweeping legislation, Johnson gave force to the dreams of activists like Martin Luther King Jr. LBJ’s vision of Civil Rights was grounded in recognition of the historical cost borne by American Black families as a result of Slavery and Jim Crow.
This new legislative energy for civil justice that was birthed in the 1960’s did not find its justification in blind equality, rather it was a first step in the attempt to make Black families damaged from 1619 well into the 20th century whole and competitive.
The catalyst for this change was the need for us to start dealing with one of the greatest wealth transfers in modern history. A transfer of wealth from Blacks, who saw their free labor create immense fortunes in steel mines for companies like U.S. Steel in Alabama during the 1930’s, on Cotton fields in South Carolina in the 1830’s and working Tobacco Fields in Virginia throughout the 1730’s.
For several hundred years African Americans were left out of the American dream. The NBA, more than any other sports league represented equality’s great hope for advancement. Since the drafting of the Black boy from Michigan Magic Johnson and the White kid from Indiana, Larry Bird, the NBA exuded the dream of Dr. King in action.
Their friendship represented the ideal of what America could become. It is through that lens that the NBA magnified its great image across the globe, a visual of post-racial progress. In this light owners like Sterling prospered greatly. While a share of the profits fell to the players, the great bulk went to the owners accounts.
Donald T. Sterling became a billionaire in the process, in 1981 he bought the Clippers for 12.5 million dollars, and may now be able to sell the team for 100 times that amount reaping his share of the billion dollar ball game.
Yet all this progress was being projected despite the fact, during the same time frame African American male prison rates skyrocketed and places like skid row, which houses the highest ratio of homeless in the nation popped up down the street from the Clippers home court Staples Center.
Note: African American men are the predominate group living on Los Angeles’s skid row, despite their being a small percentage of the city’s population.
This all done as Sterling’s racist views reached beyond the effects on an NBA team, and well into the economics of a city.
The idea that I don’t want to be near those people, led to housing discrimination, Black ghettos and poverty nationally. These are the active ways that race rears its ugly head in modern America. Places like skid row did not occur by accident, according to the nonprofit organization Union Rescue Mission, “In 1975, a Redevelopment Plan was adopted, which included a “Policy of Containment.” This policy concentrated social service agencies and people experiencing homelessness in one section of the city, where many of them naturally congregated.”
In 2008 the LA weekly published the article, “Donald T. Sterling’s Skid Row Mirage”, detailing Sterling’s personal shadowy past with the homeless of skid row. Donald Sterling’s recent words are a simple reminder for players in the NBA, that all is not well, a peephole view into private discussions on race that can happen in the dark corners of circles of power.
The looming question being, when are private conversations protected from judgment by society at large? Recently an article written by 1st Amendment attorney Mark Randazza entitled “What Happened to Sterling was Morally Wrong” was posted on CNN.com. It looked at Sterling as a victim, and attempted to analyze the free speech impacts of the NBA’s action’s against the owner. Randazza wrote “We all say things in private that we might not say in public. Sometimes we have ideas that are not fully developed — we try them out with our closest friends. Consider it our test-marketplace of ideas. As our ideas develop, we consider whether to make them public. Should we not all have the freedom to make that choice on our own?”
The issue with allowing statements of bigotry involving African Americans to occur in this context is that America’s ideal view of itself can’t hold the weight of the country’s past actions. President Lyndon Johnson knew it on that faithful day at Howard University in 1965, recognizing it in ways we seem to have forgotten today. That is until Donald Sterling reminded us all with his hateful words.
He reminded us that a singular Magic Johnson does little to impact the racial archetype that founded this country. Sterling’s words resonated because they were a reflection of history forcing America to look into the mirror, and see itself for its past.
While these last fifty years have been a whirlwind of change, they are in the end just fifty years. Without truly contextualizing Sterling’s statements against history we don’t see their true magnitude. As stated by Lyndon Johnson freedom “… is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity”
We must all demand, and give that dignity in our homes, as well as in public to receive it back.
Antonio Moore graduated from UCLA, and Loyola Law School. He is a former Los Angeles County Prosecutor.
He is now a practicing Los Angeles based entertainment attorney with several celebrity clients.