Donald Sterling's alleged words about African Americans are poignant to a culture of denial. Recently in recordings acquired by several media outlets it is purported Sterling made several statements to his girlfriend on race that included the following:
It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people... 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? Do I know that I have -- who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?
These comments seem to show a thought process that epitomizes the great American contradiction. A man who on one hand has made millions through broadcasting the talents of black basketball players may not want his personal associates to publicly broadcast off-court social exchanges with those same Negroes. Yet, these words are the result not just of a man bent by racism, but also a country that post Jim Crow has done too little to resolve its historical ills. The mark of a nation that has hidden its issues behind basketballs, million-dollar contracts for few and a post-racial identity that the road of progress has not achieved. We live in a place where a man who makes his millions on the backs of black Americans like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and others can at the same time hold a belief system that looks down upon them. But to understand the value they have added to his coffers you have to understand a bit of NBA history. Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 for 12.5 million dollars, the team's value now sits north of a half billion dollars. A league that made it's bones the last 30 years projecting the physical talents of blacks to televisions across America, now sits at an impasse forced to handle a racial public relations nightmare.
Undeniably, people will say the players are well-paid, but the money they make is not enough to rectify hundreds of years of racial injustice. These athletes should use their microphone for more issues of social justice, particularly because despite their oversized presence in the American psyche they and their financial success represent an infinitesimally small part of the black population. It is likely Sterling's alleged statements will be swept over as though he is a rogue individual, rather than a representation of a broader belief system. But these comments sit at the apex of America's great challenge. As the NBA presents a surreal post-racialism at sports stadiums like Staples Center several nights throughout the year, millions suffer in its shadow. Places like skid row (which has the highest concentration of homeless in the nation) exist, but a few miles away from the Los Angeles arena. The population of which is predominately homeless black males, despite black men only being 4 percent of the Los Angeles population. Being honest, most indicators show racism's vestiges are unresolved. From high black male prison rates, to endemic poverty African Americans are suffering. At the same time athletes, entertainers and others who traditionally represented social justice are silent. By turning a blind eye, they fail to use the platform of their celebrity to further the community's greater needs. In addition their lack of action creates a false sense of racial progress and projects a statement of black complacency. This allows the masses to follow suit, validating them also turning a blind eye to the dire conditions of the black community.
As I stated in a prior piece "From Muhammad Ali to Charles Barkley, How Black America Lost Its Way"
We elevated entertainers and athletes to the status of cultural giants... Unlike Ali many have not done the work to understand the current realities of a Black America that is so clearly out of focus. As our cultural heroes moved from rejecting being product spokesman, to being nothing more than products, we lost a voice for social inequity that we had in prior years in Harry Belafonte, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. These civil rights activists were replaced with "entertainers" who either through silence or screams echo an ignorance about the current state of our culture.
Is the solution for players to boycott in mass? Is the answer for every mother to have their children stop buying Clippers jerseys, or is it more? Simply turning jerseys inside out is far from enough to deal with this issue. The reality is the first answer is to stop denying the persistence of deep racism; it will take more than race-neutral NBA Cares messages, we need a a call for real change. To demand social action on racial issues is our responsibility, more important than any other game. While Clippers coach Doc Rivers' reply to questions on Sterling led to the below clear response, it is far from adequate.
We're trying to win a title and we're not going to allow something to get in the way. The league is going to handle this. The player's association will handle this as well. The biggest statement we can make as men, not as black men, but as men, is to stick together and show how strong we are as a group, not splinter, not walk. It's easy to protest. The protest will be in our play."
Sorry Doc, playing basketball and making Sterling more money won't fix this complex issue. In this game basketball championships are irrelevant. At this moment it is important for players to remember in this country you are black men, not just men. The depth of history, darkness of present and need for future change for all blacks hangs in the balance.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Martin Luther King, Jr.