If his girlfriend hadn’t recorded his hate-filled diatribe, racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling would be getting his second (not a typo) lifetime achievement award from the local chapter of the NAACP.
That would be the venerable civil rights organization known in full as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Unless the tape is proven to be fraudulent or doctored to remove mitigating context—both scenarios seem highly unlikely—Sterling is no fan of such advancement.
Nevertheless, if TMZ hadn’t obtained the audio, Sterling would have shared the stage with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Reverend Al Sharpton. (On second thought, maybe Sharpton isn’t such bad company.)
Sterling didn’t really deserve his first lifetime achievement award from the NAACP. It came in 2009, shortly after he agreed to a $2.765 million settlement in a case where he was accused of discriminating against blacks and Hispanics in apartment buildings he owned in Los Angeles County.
In sworn testimony, a top property manager claimed Sterling made racist comments about his minority residents. A typical Sterling vignette: “That’s because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they’re not clean. … And it’s because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day.”
When an elderly black tenant who was paralyzed on one side and legally blind complained that her apartment was flooded, the billionaire Sterling didn’t want to hear it. “Is she one those black people that stink?” he asked, according to the property manager’s testimony. He flatly refused to reimburse her for damaged property: “I am not going to do that. Just evict the bitch.”
This is the man who received an NAACP lifetime achievement award. Even the California state chairwoman thought a second was a bit much: “I thought to myself, ‘A second lifetime award? That’s kind of unusual. He hasn’t died and come back to life. He already has one lifetime award. Why the second one?’”
The LA chapter chairman was remarkably frank about why the group honored Sterling. Speaking of Sterling’s “body of work,” the NAACP’s Leon Jenkins said, “Compared to other L.A. franchises, his organization gave more money than the others.”
Checkbook aside, Sterling’s body of work contains many past allegations of racism. He reportedly said to a candidate for a coaching job, “I want to know you think you can coach these n—gers.” NBA legend Elgin Baylor claimed in a lawsuit that Sterling told him, “Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players.”
At the very least, Sterling’s tendency to behave boorishly and jeer his own players was well known. But the man’s Cliven Bundy-like approach to race relations was an open secret long before the current controversy.
Sterling owns a predominantly black team run by a black coach. He is the longest-tenured owner in a league whose players are approximately 76 percent black. On the receiving end of his racist rant was Magic Johnson, one of the preeminent sports stars in American history, period.
The NBA and its recently departed longtime commissioner David Stern are receiving much deserved criticism for having tolerated Sterling for years. It’s now widely expected that the league will find a way to liberate the franchise from the oaf.
But it’s also worth asking if liberal civil rights groups are essentially allowing rich bigots to pay them protection money. Perhaps the minority charities on the receiving end of Sterling’s largesse so worthwhile that it was better to look the other way. Nevertheless, it is highly unusual for organizations that have been known to throw around the r-word to ignore the actual racism of someone like Sterling.
Instead of asking the Clippers players who have taken the team from one of the perennial bottom-feeders in the NBA to a legitimate contender to boycott the playoff games in which they have earned the right to appear, we should punish the actual wrongdoers.
The NBA owes its players and fans real sanctions against Sterling, at minimum. And it’s time to cast a critical eye on those who have swept his questionable comments and behavior under the rug for so many years—including, it seems, groups that raise money to fight racism.