No, it’s NOT true that people did “nothing” about Donald Sterling’s prior racism

Well, there was the outrage about Donald Sterling’s comments, all of which is well-deserved. Some folks, including my eternal beloved Kareem Abdul Jabbar, attempted to turn the outrage into a learning moment by noting that there’s a lot of finger wagging at Sterling over his racist speech but “gave him a buy” or “never cared about” his prior racist actions, and how that emphasis on speech rather than actions makes us rather complicit and complacent when it comes to social injustice from racist actions, and a bit over-preachy when it comes to racist words.

Now, I am all for confronting people on structural racism and racist actions, I need it as much as anybody, but there is a lot of casual, assumed, default, anti-government stuff going on the “y’all did nothing to discipline Sterling when he did this and this” talk, and it needs to be confronted in the interests of fairness.

Sterling’s long, horrid-guy behavior appears here in the New York Times.

There’s a story there of a guy who does lousy mean stuff.

There is also a story there of a Justice Department who prosecuted the guy and made him cough up nearly $3 million in fines for his prior discriminatory behavior towards people of color because we–we–have rules about that sort of thing.

That is NOT nothing:

In 2009, Sterling paid a $2.725 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department accusing him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.

It was an important LA story, so I knew it. And I’m a professor in a public policy school. But there are a lot of stories out there for people to be outraged over. The fact that people in, say, Dallas or Des Moines, weren’t up in arms over the housing discrimination is that they didn’t see that item in the paper, or it didn’t get covered in their news outlets. A shame, that. But understandable.

However, and this is a BIG however, people in Dallas and Des Moines and everywhere in the US live in a country where his housing discrimination practices are illegal. And those laws were enforced. Illegal. Enforced. At the federal level. People DID do something. Residents fought. Lawyers on behalf of the clients fought. And they won. And he couldn’t just send his private rich-guy army/mafia out to gun down those lawyers or those residents. For the residents, standing up to landlords like Sterling and his corporate henchpeople is both frightening and exhausting, and it takes courage to do it. And yet they did it.

Democratic institution passed civil rights laws and expanded them to include housing discimination; citizens–impoverished, marginalized citizens, but citizens nonetheless, appealed to those laws; and bureaucratic institutions enforced those laws.

That is most definitely not nothing. The fact that Joe Smith in Random Locale didn’t know the particulars about Donald Sterling’s attitudes and past conduct? Much less important than what the civil society Joe Smith belongs to can do when it crafts just laws and institutions and then uses them for what they are for.

I’m just saying. It may not be enough; I think it’s not. But it’s not *nothing*, and treating it as such is wrong. We should be scandalized by his words and his behavior towards tenants. But we did something about the latter.

I forgive you, Kareem, not for not acknowledging that fair housing rules do what they are supposed to (sometimes, at least, partially), and I still want to be your BFF. Call me.

One thought on “No, it’s NOT true that people did “nothing” about Donald Sterling’s prior racism

  1. You’re point that the feds did take prior action against Sterling and that this has some some importance is well taken. Still, I don’t think this point undermines the argument made by Abdul-Jabbar (or Bomani Jones or especially Ta’Nahesi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/This-Town-Needs-A-Better-Class-Of-Racist/361443/). This criticism centers on silence *within NBA circles*. Sterling only got ostracized from the league when his racism became inelegant and public. The fact that he had a lifetime of far more grievous and far more meaningful wrongs in his past was not enough for the league to blink and eye. And now the same people who so resolutely refused to care in the past are able climb on their soapboxes and tell the world how outraged they are.

    In my view, this is an incredibly important point about the current state of racial politics (made beautifully by Coates, especially). I’s not, I think, negated by the fact that Sterling once settled a federal suit for 0.1% of his net worth.

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