All of a Piece: Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy and the Supreme Court of the United States

Beginning with the April 22 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States allowing affirmative action’s fate to be decided at state ballot boxes, followed 24 hours later by rancher Cliven Bundy’s comments on slavery’s positive attributes, followed 48 hours later by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s plantation master attitude on display in a recorded telephone conversation attributed to him, this past week has been hell for African Americans. So much for post-racialism.

During the conversation in which a man said to be Sterling demands that his girlfriend not be seen in the company of African Americans--nor even attend Clippers games in the company of black friends--saying: “We live in a culture.”  He goes on to argue for adherence to the rules of prejudice that exist within the culture.

Yet another aspect of that culture, the one Sterling says we all live in, is a news cycle that enables each of these stories to supersede the other solely on the basis of chronological occurrence. Bundy’s comments knocked the SCOTUS decision off the front page, and Sterling has knocked Bundy off the front page. But no one of these incidents should overshadow the other, and, instead, be examined for their intersections.

Immediately after the Right was embarrassed by Bundy’s remarks, the conservative Twitterverse, sought, and has found, so its participants think, the Democratic-Liberal-Progressive-Left equivalent to Bundy in Sterling. However, neither liberals nor Sterling are mutually defined by the other, nor is Sterling a cause célèbre promoted by the Left, as Bundy, who claims federal land as grazing turf for his cattle, was promoted to legendary hero status by the Right.

The Right’s glee at the revelation that Sterling has donated to Democrats was short-lived, as voter records disclosed that he, in fact, a registered Republican.

Despite the body of evidence of racism that has come to light in the past few days, Sterling’s net worth is one-fortieth of that of Charles and David Koch--the financiers of Sean Hannity’s radio show and the campaign to transfer federal lands to the states for drilling and mining,a campaign with Cliven Bundy as its current face.

Devolving regulatory control to the states is central to the Right’s agenda, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the current Supreme Court, with at least two justices who have benefitted from the Koch brothers’ largesse, and another three who bend toward the brothers’ ideology, should render such a ruling striking at  affirmative action. In its June 25 decision, SCOTUS already gutted the Voting Rights Act, permitting states with a history of discrimination to change election laws without the federal approval enforcement of the VRA once required.

So now, with even those states with the most egregious histories when it comes to the suffrage of African Americans in control of poll access, there are 50 different sets of voting guidelines, and potentially as many ways to suppress the vote.

Voter suppression affects future affirmative action ballot measures, and other ballot measures, such as Proposition 8, the measure that overturned a California State Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and was later deemed unconstitutional by a federal appeals court. (When SCOTUS declined to hear an appeal of a federal appeals court decision invalidating the results of the ballot measure, same-sex marriages recommenced in the state.)

In the recording that exposed the Clippers owner, Sterling also says, “We have to live within that culture.” Certainly, we do live in a culture, but we do not have to live there within the bounds of the narrow culture that Sterling perceives as his own.

Affirmative action’s purpose is to affect our culture--introducing cultures to one another and building relationships between the diverse cultures within America. The theory is that a Bundy or a Sterling, schooled in an institution of higher education where they encounter peers of a different race, would characterize African Americans neither as better off as slaves, nor as slave-like commodities on the modern-day cotton field of NBA hardwood. No better accounting of this reality exists than in William Rhoden’s 40 Million Dollar Slaves.

In higher education, affirmative action allows African Americans and other minorities to compete for careers beyond the inevitable welfare line in Bundy’s world, and beyond the basketball court in Sterling’s. In fact, any loss of affirmative action in higher education ensures Sterling’s world exists even longer, as the opportunities for success will remain limited to sports.

The exploitation of athletes both academically and financially is rife in college, and Sterling made it plain that African Americans are unworthy of association with whites, unworthy of being fans in attendance at NBA games and no better than the mythical Mandingo fighters in Django Unchained, or the non-mythical abductees brought from the slave ship’s hull to dance, drum and fiddle on the hardwood deck for the crew--property purely for the entertainment of whites.

Sterling says, “I don't want to change the culture, because I can't.” But we can. The NBA can.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver should immediately ban Sterling from the NBA. While there is no precedent for this action in the NBA, there is precedent in professional sports. Major League Baseball suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for surveilling Dave Winfield--doing so in the “best interests of baseball.”The same justification was used by the baseball league when it suspended Cincinnatti Reds owner Marge Schott after her racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments. Silver could suspend or ban Sterling in the best interests of the NBA.

The concept and culture of ownership in the NBA, if not all professional sports, must change. I am sure that Sterling is not the only owner in professional sports who feels as though athletes are his property. (Growing up, I never liked those t-shirts that read “Property Of” one’s favorite team.)

At the very least, NBA athletes, while they are active players, should be allowed to own stock in the teams for which they play. These athletes make the the team prosperous. Just like any other company, they should be allowed to be shareholders.

But if the likes of Sterling cannot be rooted out, then perhaps these professional sports teams should no longer be privately held. Maybe they should function like the Green Bay Packers, as publicly-owned, non-profits. In fact,’s Dave Zirin suggested last night on Make It Plain, the radio show I host, that the Clippers be given to the people of Los Angeles as reparations for Sterling’s years as a landlord who sought to keep out black and Latino tenants.

It is horrible enough we have had to endure recent racism from some in the general public toward a legend like baseball great Henry Aaron. Now to have to endure such from the owner of a professional sports team, a SCOTUS ruling and a figure promoted daily on a basic cable channel is a bit overwhelming.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I was mentored by former coach John Thompson, Jr., whose trademark was a deflated basketball, which he used to encourage young people to imagine who they might be or what they might do without basketball. The events of the past week give us an opportunity to deflate the power of racism, and to imagine what we will do and who we will be as we struggle to finally be without it.


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