04/28/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Sterling's Gold: Roger, Donald, and Us


The ensemble cast of Mad Men is already recognized as one of the best in modern television, and the character of Roger Sterling, portrayed by John Slattery, is a highlight among them. Entitled and insouciant, the pleasure-seeking Sterling embodies the casually prejudiced and socially unperturbed Northeastern elite whose control of corporate board rooms and other chambers of power sat unchallenged until the convulsive changes of the 1960s. Many of his more memorable musings on people are compiled into a book of scene-stealing quotes entitled Sterling's Gold, in reference to a biography written by the character several seasons ago.

It would be comforting if the racist views of rich and powerful men were limited to screenplays about America's past. However, the recent release of sound bites allegedly attributed to another wealthy and influential Sterling have rekindled conversation about how far we have moved on corporate race relations since the Civil Rights Movement. More importantly, the Sterling situation has underscored the need for further action on confronting privilege coupled with prejudice.

Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner in hot water over racist comments he reportedly made during a phone call to an ex-lover, is, admittedly, quite different from Roger. First, Donald Sterling is not the cocooned product of Manhattan society, but the son of a humble immigrant household who spent his earliest years in working-class neighborhoods of Chicago and East Los Angeles. Second, the modern-day Sterling, who changed his surname from Tokowitz in an attempt at assimilation, earned his fortune speculating on Southern California real estate, as opposed to inheriting a stake in a Madison Avenue advertising firm as was the case with Roger. Lastly, while the fictional Sterling's rakish ways and blasé attitude towards life are entertaining to some viewers, the reality of Donald Sterling's shady business practices and complicated personal life are more likely to elicit disgust or comparisons to the worst sets of villains from Dickens' canon.

Despite their differences, the two Sterlings are interesting subjects for comparison because of what they have in common -- money, power and prejudice. If we think about the socioeconomic shifts that have taken place in America since the Civil Rights Era, we can easily see that such progress happened in spite of the best efforts of people like Roger and Donald who resisted change through their indifference or outright ignorance. It is Roger Sterling who, in Mad Men's opening episode, neither knows nor cares if the firm has any Jews on its payroll, and who, along with the rest of the firm's partners, quietly brings a mail room employee named David Cohen to a C-suite pitch in a blatantly forced effort to project an image of diversity to a Jewish-owned department store. Several seasons later, Roger Sterling, by then married to Jane Siegel, a younger Jewish woman who served as a colleague's secretary, entertains his work friends at a Derby Day party by donning blackface and singing "Old Kentucky Home." As the decade progresses, Roger embraces experimentation with drugs and novel sexual practices, but his increasing openness to the hedonistic aspects of hippie life is not matched by an interest in exposing himself to the sociopolitical movements sweeping the country. Left to this Sterling, any dissimilar people hired by his firm would have remained in subordinate roles, low on the pay scale, and even lower in influence. By the time we reach the late 1960s, Roger finds himself being chastised by co-workers for his prejudiced views about Japanese and Jewish people, indicating how changing attitudes have subtly shifted the ground under Sterling's feet.

It is disturbing to recognize that the latter-day Sterling experienced little comparable censure from his corporate colleagues for his racist views, despite being 50 years removed from his fictional counterpart. Sitting at the top of a basketball organization worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Donald Sterling has been sued for discriminatory practices against minority employees of the L.A. Clippers, and the nuggets of his perspectives that have leaked to the wider public through sworn affidavits reveal a man whose views would have been retrograde even by the low standards of the mid-1960s. In spite of this, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has given Sterling and his repugnant record a pass since he purchased the Clippers in 1981. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern was probably not ignorant of this man's transgressions, but similar to Major League Baseball's kid-glove handling of Marge Schott and the Cincinnati Reds franchise during the 1980s and early 1990s, the NBA was fine with Donald's behavior until it was widely exposed. Few questions have been asked about why the NBA was tolerant of a man who clearly exhibited little tolerance for people who were different from him.

Sterling's startling views on race carried over into other aspects of his life. The real estate operation he controls has been accused of segregating potential tenants on the basis of race in direct violation of decades-old laws against such practices. While Donald Sterling dismissively talked about the vulgar habits of African-Americans and Mexicans, he bizarrely brought a woman who identifies as black and Latina as his courtside arm candy to Clipper games, weirdly paralleling anti-Semitic Roger's relationship with Jane Siegel. Sterling hypocritically complained about the laziness of various ethnic groups while a diverse roster of Clipper players led by a black head coach worked its way through the playoffs, bringing a perennially basement-dwelling franchise legions of new fans in a Los Angeles desperate for a winning basketball team. Donald Sterling's horrible comments provide a window into the mind of a man who, by virtue of his fortune and influence, has the power to shape policy in one of the America's major sports leagues and politics in the funding free-for-all that the Supreme Court has created in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

I am horrified that a person like the present owner of the L.A. Clippers could wield so much clout, but I feel that the Donald Sterling tape, like Sterling's Gold, has inherent value. It reminds us that while we have made tremendous progress since the era of Roger Sterling, we still live in a country where discrimination and its after-effects remain very real concerns. If our society complacently allows power brokers like Donald Sterling to go unpunished for their prejudice, it will be maddeningly difficult for America to progress towards a more just and equitable future.