The Racist Scapegoat

Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.

donald-sterling-clippersThe reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?

I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.

Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.

Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?

For a majority culture that refuses to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism, scapegoats like Donald Sterling will always be necessary to prove our innocence and good will. With our ire heaped on his shoulders, we can ignore things like affirmative action bering chipped away, public school segregation increasing, and new voting laws that marginalize minority voters. Is it that these things are too complicated for our minds to grasp and for our emotions to feel? Or do we know that looking closely in these directions would reveal our own privileges and prejudices?

Could it be that, instead of piling on to Donald Sterling, we should instead thank him for being our scapegoat- for allowing our more acceptable privileges and prejudices to continue unchecked?

4 comments

  1. justinmcampbell

    Great post and all true. Another angle I’ve thought of here is how it’s all about money. Now that he would cost them money, the NBA needs to out him. Even more amazing to me is that this guy was about to receive a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP. If all of this has been known – then what the heck? Money – big donor. In other words, if you can keep it quiet, then we’ll put up with your garbage for a price. But when you get caught we’ll all act shocked and kick you to the curb (not that he doesn’t deserve to be kicked to the curb).

  2. Eric A. Anderson

    Once again, Pastor Swanson, you’ve provided a clear-minded and thoughtful view of this modern world in which we live. I think Mr. Sterling is a scapegoat for many people, of all races.

  3. Dawn

    Exactly, David. This is exactly what’s been bothering me about this whole showdown. What’s important to note is that this debacle has played out publicly, both the incident itself and the NBA commissioner’s reaction. Sterling’s ban has not changed what’s going on right now down the street from my house on the Southside of Chicago….the black children sitting in a school right now that is plagued with lack of resources…, a not as public and in-your-face event, yet an everyday routine. Isn’t this too overt, disgusting, and unapologetic racism? Sterling, one man, has been busted, yet private, systemic, institutionalized racism goes on like business as usual. As much as I’d like to, I can’t believe the hype of one incident, that played out before the cameras, is going to change something that is at the root of a very old system of power that so many in this country (black and white) vie for.

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