TIME U.S.

A Legal and Moral Basis for Reparations

Unjust enrichment, and its counterpart, unjust impoverishment, give rise to the idea of restitution.

As recently as 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution belatedly apologizing for this country’s oppression of African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Sadly, these mostly white senators added a disclaimer explicitly barring African Americans from seeking reparations for the role of the government in this officially recognized oppression. Reparations is an issue that arises sporadically because of the three-plus centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on which this country is founded, and one that Ta-Nehisi Coates revives in this month’s Atlantic Monthly.

One rationale for reparations lies in the reality of the stolen labor and millions of African Americans enslaved until 1865, legally segregated from the 1870s to the 1960s, and who face much discrimination today. This theft of labor and lives was carried out for centuries by whites as individuals and by local, state and federal institutions backed by law.

A legal basis for reparations could rest in the concept of unjust enrichment, an idea traditionally associated with relationships between individuals. Unjust enrichment involves circumstances that “give rise to the obligation of restitution, that is, the receiving and retention of property, money, or benefits which in justice and equity belong to another,” according to Ballentine’s Law Dictionary. One can extend the idea of restitution for unjust enrichment to the conditions of large-scale group oppression.

Implicit in the idea of unjust enrichment is the counterpart idea of unjust impoverishment, the condition of those suffering at the hands of those unfairly enriched. From the 1700s to the mid-1800s, white families and communities were enriched directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, by slave plantations and related economic enterprises. Economist James Marketti once estimated that the labor stolen from enslaved African Americans from 1790 to 1860 was worth in the range of $2.1 to $4.7 trillion (in 1983 dollars), after taking into account lost interest.

Those who have attacked the idea of owing back wages to African Americans, arguing those are too-distant debts, ignore the huge damages done to African Americans during the century of near-slavery during Jim Crow segregation. Millions alive today suffered severe losses under Jim Crow and can actually name who did much of that discrimination and unjust impoverishing. The current worth of all black labor stolen by whites through the means of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination (plus interest) is estimated by some economists in the range of $6 to $24 trillion. And this figure doesn’t include compensation for great physical and mental suffering and millions of untimely deaths.

Most whites whose families have lived in the U.S. for generations benefit from significant racial advantages their ancestors gained under slavery, Jim Crow or post-1968 discrimination. An examination of generational histories of white families and families of color by sociologist Jennifer Mueller found huge differences in the acquisition and transfer of economic assets: compared to families of color, white families had “more than six times as many transfers of monetary assets across generations.”

Large-scale homestead acts operating from the 1860s and federal housing and veterans programs after World War II also mean that many white families have benefited and secured significant assets from “white affirmative action.” The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 246 million acres of productive land, and wealth, for 1.5 million families over seven decades. Depending on calculations for things like marriage and childbearing, social scientist Trina Williams estimates that 20 to 93 million Americans, overwhelmingly white, are current beneficiaries of this one asset-generating program. In Mueller’s family histories, whites reported five times as many instances of garnering such government-derived assets over multiple generations than did families of color. Not surprisingly, the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances found huge racial differentials in family wealth. White families’ median wealth is about eight times that of black families, and this gap has grown in recent decades.

Most whites consider reparations for damages suffered by African Americans to be too radical, but white politicians, judges and ordinary citizens have accepted the principle of reparations for certain past damages. U.S. courts have required corporations to compensate deformed children of mothers who took drugs during pregnancies without knowing of harmful side effects. That those decisionmakers were long gone didn’t let the corporations off the hook. Significantly, the U.S. government has actively pressured the German government since World War II to make large-scale reparations to victims of the Holocaust, although those making the reparations were not part of Nazi governments.

The moral principle here is similar to that asserted in arguments for reparations for contemporary African Americans, whose socioeconomic conditions reflect damage done by past and present generations of whites. Additionally, federal appellate Justice John Minor Wisdom has argued that the anti-slavery amendments to the U.S. Constitution set a constitutional principle for government remedial action: “When a present discriminatory effect upon blacks as a class can be linked with a discriminatory practice against blacks as a race under the slavery system, the present effect may be eradicated under the auspices of the thirteenth amendment.”

Contemporary reparations might take several forms. One would be the gradual transfer of compensating wealth from unjustly enriched white communities to unjustly impoverished black communities, a government transfer linked to explicit restorative goals. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America has sought $400 million for both individual compensation and asset-generating programs enabling impoverished black communities to prosper. Substantial reparations would include providing well-funded government programs, over generations, at local and state levels for upgrading education, job training, housing and incomes for African Americans – as individuals, families and communities.

Many argue there is no money for such moral and constitutional action. Yet, the U.S. government found more than a trillion dollars to bail out private institutions in the Great Recession—and trillions for recent irresponsible military actions. A U.S. government that was heavily involved in sustaining slavery and Jim Crow, and is implicated in contemporary discrimination, can find the substantial amounts needed to meet this country’s moral and restorative obligations to long-oppressed African Americans.

Joe Feagin is Ella C. McFadden Professor in sociology at Texas A & M University, and author of Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (3rd ed., Routledge, 2014).

TIME Music

Macklemore Apologizes for Costume Deemed Anti-Semitic

The "Thrift Shop" rapper posted an apology to his website after stirring accusations of racial insensitivity for performing while dressed in a prosthetic nose, fake beard and black wig

Not long after Macklemore donned a costume consisting of a dark wig, fake beard and a large prosthetic nose for a secret performance in Seattle on Friday, critics began accusing the rapper of anti-semitism.

The “Thrift Shop” rapper was a surprise guest at an exhibit opening at the Experience Music Project museum in his hometown, where guests had been invited to “dress as your favorite music icon or video character.” But for many who saw the pictures of the rapper performing, his costume of choice seemed intended to portray a stereotypical Jewish caricature — not a musical icon.

Macklemore initially issued a Twitter defense of his costume, claiming it was nothing other than “random”:

Yet as the images and story spread, Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, must have realized that he needed more than 140 characters to adequately address the situation, so he took to his blog on Monday night and posted a longer explanation of his costume:

The character I dressed up as on Friday had no intended cultural identity or background. I wasn’t attempting to mimic any culture, nor resemble one. A “Jewish stereotype” never crossed my mind.

My intention was to dress up and surprise the people at the show with a random costume and nothing more. Thus, it was surprising and disappointing that the images of a disguise were sensationalized leading to the immediate assertion that my costume was anti-Semetic [sic]. I acknowledge how the costume could, within a context of stereotyping, be ascribed to a Jewish caricature. I am here to say that it was absolutely not my intention, and unfortunately at the time I did not foresee the costume to be viewed in such regard.

He also — wisely — issued a blanket apology, writing: “I truly apologize to anybody that I may have offended.”

TIME society

Study: Drug Testing Boosts African-American Employment

A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that because African-Americans are perceived to use more drugs, drug testing enables them to objectively prove to employers that they don’t

It’s no secret that America’s war on drugs hasn’t gone well, at least in economic and racial terms. Labor economist Abigail Wozniak investigated the relationship between race, drug testing, and employment, publishing a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research with her findings. Surprisingly, she found that the rise of drug testing actually boosts African-American employment by a significant percentage: In states with a high prevalence of drug testing, African-American employment increased between 7% and 30%, while wages increased between 1.4 and 13%.

“A common assumption is that the rise of drug testing must have had negative consequences for black employment,” she writes. “However, the rise of employer drug testing may have benefited African-Americans by enabling non-using blacks to prove their status to employers.”

In case you missed it: She’s saying that, because African-Americans are perceived to use more drugs, drug testing enables them to objectively prove to employers that they don’t, which therefore results in increased employment. Here’s Quartz:

Without the testing, employers went by their gut biases. But when testing became common and showed that black applicants were not actually using drugs, hiring rates for black applicants went up. Wozniak concludes that this is evidence of discrimination against black workers before testing, driven by some combination of racialized belief and ignorance.

Ugh.

TIME Basketball

Sources: Donald Sterling Refuses to Pay NBA Fine, Threatens Litigation

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on Dec. 22, 2008.
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, on Dec. 22, 2008. Landov

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has reportedly hired prominent antitrust litigator Maxwell Blecher, who has written a letter to the NBA's general counsel about denying any wrongdoing and rejecting the league's fine, following Sterling's leaked racist comments

Sports Illustrated is reporting that L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is poised to unleash renowned antitrust litigator Maxwell Blecher in order to avoid being reprimanded by the NBA.

The 80-year-old property tycoon has been slapped with a $2.5 million fine and ordered to sell the team — eliminated from the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday — after his racist rant was leaked to the media.

Sources told SI.com that Blecher filed a letter on Sterling’s behalf to NBA executive vice president and general counsel Rick Buchanan. The missive denies any wrongdoing, argues “no punishment is warranted” and warns that the controversy “will be adjudicated,” suggesting a lengthy legal battle could lie ahead.

“We reject your demand for payment,” the letter tells Buchanan, basing its assertions on two key points: first, that Sterling has not violated any article of the NBA constitution, and second, that his “due-process rights” have not been met.

Read more from the Sports Illustrated story here.

TIME Religion

One in Four People Harbor Anti-Semitic Beliefs, Study Says

BELGIUM-POLITICS-JEWS-ANTISEMITISM
The leader of "Debout Les Belges!," far-right lawmaker Laurent Louis (C) perform the 'quenelle' gesture ahead of the anti-Semitic congress, "First European Conference of Dissidence", organised by Chamber member Laurent Louis in Anderlecht, outside Brussels, on May 4, 2014. NICOLAS MAETERLINCK—AFP/Getty Images

The Anti-Defamation League's first global survey of sentiment towards Jews finds that anti-Semitism is "pervasive and persistent" worldwide, the group's national director says

The Anti-Defamation League’s first ever global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes has found that one-quarter of its survey’s respondents, representing 4.1 billion adults around the world, harbor negative stereotypes about Jews.

The ADL surveyed 53,100 adults in 102 countries, presenting them with a list of 11 Jewish stereotypes, ranging from fear of Jewish control over banks, media and world affairs to theories of group psychology. One in four adults responded “probably true” to at least 6 of the 11 stereotypes.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said of the findings, “For the first time we have a real sense of how pervasive and persistent anti-Semitism is today around the world.”

The survey found widespread regional variations, with 74% of respondents in Middle East and North African countries agreeing with a majority of the stereotypes, compared with 19% of respondents in the Americas, and 14% in the islands of the Pacific Ocean (Oceania).

Respondents often proved to be ignorant about Jewish culture and history. Nearly half had never heard of the Holocaust, and the trend was rising among young adults.

But the surveyors highlighted one bright spot among the findings: more than a quarter of respondents did not assent to a single one of the stereotypical statements, slightly outnumbering those who had embraced them.

 

TIME Race

Dear Privileged-at-Princeton: You. Are. Privileged. And Meritocracy Is a Myth.

Princeton Drug Royalties Lead to Challenge of Tax-Exempt Status
Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey , U.S. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

While Tal Fortgang is not responsible for white male dominance in society, he should at least recognize that this social hierarchy is not a mere coincidence.

When I read The Princeton Tory cover story “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” written by my classmate Tal Fortgang, I realized that I had just witnessed an attempt at checking privilege that was so unsuccessful it was borderline satirical. Fortgang, a fellow Princeton freshman, complained about the overuse and misuse of the phrase “check your privilege,” and asserted that the phrase was “toeing the line” of reverse racism. To prove this, he detailed his family’s history of persecution under the Holocaust, their journey to America and their ultimate rise to entrepreneurial success. He claims that the only privilege he has is that his ancestors made it to America, were hard-working and passed down wonderful values such as faith and education.

This so-called “privilege check” would have had a much better start had the author first Googled the meaning of privilege, because he holds a fundamental misconception about what it actually is. Privilege is not an idea aimed at muting opinion or understating the worth of accomplishments. It is not a stab at personal character, nor is it something for which one needs to apologize. But it is also not a myth. Privilege refers to the very real benefits that society affords certain groups over others, and it is manifested in many ways. This country has a history of overall preference for white males, and Fortgang even complains that people prompt him to feel “personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.”

While Fortgang is not responsible for white male dominance in society, he should at least recognize that this social hierarchy is not a mere coincidence, nor is it a testament to the power of hard work. Such a micro-level explanation, when applied to our country’s current state, would imply that white males have by and large outworked most women and minorities in the many fields in which they dominate.

The reality is as follows: White men are the only ones who have been afforded political and social rights since the founding of this country. In a sense, this constitutes a head start, or a privilege. Women and minorities, on the other hand, have had to fight for equal status. Moreover, that fight still rages today. Women earn only 77% of what men are paid, and it’s worse for women of color. There’s also unconscious bias, which undoubtedly affects behavior, but is more difficult to address due to its subtlety. For instance, a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school found that white males are more likely to receive a response from professors than minorities and women report. If Fortgang can’t accept that his gender and race are beneficial to him, then he should at least concede that they are not a hindrance, which is more than can be said for women and minorities.

Fortgang’s privilege is evident in his erroneous assertion that America is “a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.” Such a statement fails to acknowledge that an equal protection clause in the law is not enough to effect equal treatment, nor does the law even promise that every violation will be properly handled. People of color know all too well what it means to be neglected and abused by the justice system, rather than protected by it. With racism becoming more covert, there is declining protection against it. The I, Too, Am Princeton Tumblr is a response by Fortgang’s own classmates who feel they are victims of mistreatment and micro-aggressions because of their race. Fortgang’s privilege is, in essence, the inability to not see these things as problematic because it doesn’t affect him.

The real myth here is meritocracy. Fortgang’s major issue with being told to check his privilege is that it “diminish[es] everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.” How about this: No one is saying Fortgang did not sow seeds, but checking his privilege is just acknowledging that the ground he tilled was more fertile than the ground others tilled. They could have spent the same amount of time in the hot sun, watering these seeds, but Fortgang might still reap better results because of certain advantages. For example, he says his value of education is a privilege, and it might be. However, his African American counterpart in an underfunded, under-sourced school with the same value of education and work ethic may not be afforded the same opportunities at the end of his high school career. Ultimately, success is when hard work meets opportunity.

Speaking of hard work, let me now address this touching story Fortgang presented about the hard work of his ancestors. For one, white privilege contributed to their ability to build a legacy for him. Standards for citizenship have been historically discriminatory, with U.S. naturalization originally limited to “free white persons.” Just because the “American Dream is attainable even for a penniless Jewish immigrant” doesn’t mean it’s equally attainable for all other groups in America. Additionally, Fortgang’s ancestors’ past struggle in no way negates the existence of his societal privilege today. He doesn’t have to fear racial profiling or employment discrimination. The closest thing to racism that he cites is someone calling him privileged.

Calling a white male “privileged” in a country with such a clear history and continuing pattern of preference for white males is about as wrong as calling a rich person “advantaged” in a capitalist society. The word privilege isn’t a negative judgment about Fortgang or his character, but simply a recognition that our society’s institutionalized racism and sexism isn’t aimed at white males. And for that Fortgang is privileged.

Is that clear? You. Are. Privileged. It is OK to admit that. You will not be struck down by lightning, I promise. You will not be forced to repent for your “patron saint of white maleness” or for accepting your state of whiteness and maleness.

Common sentiment on campus is a sincere desire that Fortgang open his eyes to reality, not only his own but that of the people around him. This lack of touch with reality was probably evident in the comments he made about welfare that prompted one of our classmates to suggest that he check his privilege in the first place. If he did, maybe then would he understand that there are people on welfare who work just as hard as he does but don’t have the same opportunities. Maybe if he were keen to the realities of racial profiling and discrepancies in convictions of homicides that shift depending on the race of the victims and defendants, he wouldn’t want to punch people angry over the Zimmerman verdict in their “idiot faces.” Fortgang’s understanding of so many issues and people would increase if he took the first step towards recognizing his own privilege. Even as a black woman, whose race and sex has posed unique and difficult challenges, I have done a privilege check. I am privileged to come from an upper middle class family, to belong to the religious majority and to have both my parents in the home. I acknowledge this because it allows me to empathize more with others and remain humble and grateful. Fortgang can do the same, and I highly recommend that he does. If he takes the time to really check his privilege, people will be able to tell, and maybe he won’t be instructed to do so again.

Briana Payton is a Princeton freshman studying sociology and pursuing certificates in African American Studies and American Studies. She is the project manager for Princeton’s Black Student Union, and serves on the university’s Black History Month Committee. She is from Detroit, Michigan.

TIME Racism

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Obama’s Election Gives False Sense of Achievement

"It's a surprise to many white Americans that discrimination and bias can affect people's lives"

NBA Legend and TIME columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar believes “more whites in America believe in ghosts, than believe in racism. That’s why we have shows like Ghostbusters and not Racistbusters.”

Talking about the election of Barack Obama in 2008, he said some people viewed that “as the end of racism,” but warned that we still have a long way to go. When people see Obama talk, as a black man “they assume he has an agenda. White Americans are not a group that is targeted.”

Read Abdul-Jabbar’s full column here.

TIME Racism

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How to Tell if You’re a Racist Like Donald Sterling

Here's a hint: If you've ever said, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple," you might be a racist

Polls show that more whites believe in ghosts than believe racism is a problem in America. I guess that’s why Ghost Hunters is so popular but my show, Racist Wranglers, never got picked up. Maybe the reason is how we define racism.

Donald Sterling is not a racist.

In his own mind.

Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, Don Imus. Not racists.

To their family, closest friends and adoring pets, they’re just plain-speaking Americans who have probably said the phrase, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple.” (FYI: You might be a racist if you’ve used that phrase.)

That’s why their faces have that shocked “Who me?” expression at the public outrage over their statements.

All of them could probably name several people of color among their friends, close acquaintances and business associates. All could probably cite minority folk they’ve personally helped through their generosity. Sterling was about to receive a second NAACP award (since canceled) for his work with minority children. He had a mixed-race girlfriend. What more proof can the public want of his “I don’t see color” purity!

What’s that? You say you need further proof that he can’t be a racist?

Commentator Bill O’Reilly informed us that discrimination is “all in the past.” Fox News’ Eric Bolling seconded that by saying, “Is there racism? I don’t believe there’s racism.” A Republican National Committee tweet on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest confirmed the body of racism had been buried: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” Bam! Done! Mic drop!

Still not convinced?

How about the U.S. Supreme Court, you skeptical naysayers. The Justices (all wearing black gospel robes in support of racial equality) confirm Sterling and Pals’ assertion that they are not racists by proclaiming, “Racism is dead!” Well, if not dead, at least suffering from debilitating acid reflux. Several of their recent decisions, invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and striking down affirmative action, were based on the court’s assessment that “We’ve come a long way, baby” since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I’m surprised they didn’t close their decision with a wink and a “Can you dig it?”

Well, go tell it on the mountain, Justices, because down here in the flatlands of daily living, racism isn’t just alive, but it’s cloning faster than Sean Hannity can backpedal his support of Cliven Bundy.

Racism today isn’t like the racism pre–Martin Luther King Jr. Today we are faced with “situational racism.” This is similar to situational ethics, a philosophical and theological movement that argues that rather than having fixed, one-size-fits-all ethical rules of behavior, the context of each situation must be considered before determining the correct moral choice. Situational racism applies this flexible principle by declaring we must act according to a realistic analysis of race as it is in our society right now, not as we wish it were.

The clichéd example: You’re walking down a dark, deserted street and a bunch of black teens adorned with dagger tattoos and carrying bongs made from human skulls are walking toward you. If you cross the street, are you being a racist or a realist?

That’s what Sterling meant when he said on the tape, “It’s the world! … We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture … I don’t want to change the culture because I can’t. It’s too big …” He didn’t see his attitude as racist, just a practical reaction to a racist world.

Basically, he’s saying, “It’s not me. It’s Society! It’s the Man! I’m just a helpless pawn, a clump of toilet paper caught in the swirling toilet bowl of history.” The housing discrimination he was convicted of wasn’t racism, it was just practical business sense. After all, he’s in business to make money, not history.

Maybe the worst racism of all is denying that racism exists, because that keeps us from repairing the damage. This country needs a social colonoscopy to look for the hidden racist polyps. And we aren’t doing ourselves any good by saying, “I feel fine. Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here.”

The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds and experiences. But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.

One symptom of the malady is the many apologists using the election of President Obama as proof that racism doesn’t exist in the U.S. Yes, his position truly is a sign of the distance we’ve all covered in the last few decades. But, as recent events have proved, this race is a marathon and President Obama is merely a milestone, not the finish line.

The finish line is when racism no longer exists, not when people claim it doesn’t exist because they personally don’t notice it. Why is it that the people who are declaring racism dead are mostly white? Because if you’re not a targeted group, you don’t notice it. A 2006 CNN poll showed 49% of blacks saying racism is a “very serious” problem, while only 18% of whites agreed. A 2012 Associated Press poll showed that 51% of Americans expressed anti-black attitudes, up from 48% in a 2008 survey. Also, 52% displayed anti-Hispanic biases.

Every time the media call attention to racism, it raises the awareness of those who otherwise might not have noticed it around them. It’s a variation of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, in which someone learns a new bit of information and suddenly sees the information being used in multiple places in a short period of time. The reason for this is that the brain is constantly inundated with so much information that it rejects what it considers uninteresting (“uninteresting” being things that don’t affect you personally). This process is known as “selective attention.”

That’s why the best way to combat racism in the face of selective attention and situational racism is to seek it out every minute of every day and expose every instance we find. And not just racism, but also sexism, homophobia and every other kind of injustice that lessens the principles of inclusion that define this country.

We can’t let others control the perception or the message. We’ve got to go tell it on the mountain ourselves.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Basketball

L.A. NAACP President Quits Over Sterling Row

Leon Jenkins, right, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, announces that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not be receiving his lifetime achievement award, at a news conference in Culver City, Calif., April 28, 2014.
Leon Jenkins, right, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, announces that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not be receiving his lifetime achievement award, at a news conference in Culver City, Calif., April 28, 2014. Nick Ut—AP

Leon Jenkins, head of the Los Angeles chapter, resigned amid backlash over his plan to honor disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling admitted to making racist comments in a recorded conversation that leaked last week

NAACP Los Angeles chapter president Leon Jenkins resigned his position in the organization on Thursday after controversy erupted over his plan to award the now disgraced owner of the Clippers a lifetime achievement award for promoting civil rights.

Jenkins had planned to give Donald Sterling the illustrious honor on May 15, before racist remarks made by the Clippers owner were published late last week. Earlier this week, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned the Clippers owner from the NBA for life and fined Sterling $2.5 million. Silver also stated publicly that he wants the league’s board of governors to force Sterling to sell the franchise.

In a letter sent to the organization’s CEO on Thursday, Jenkins said his decision was made to safeguard the “history and reputation” of the NAACP.

“In order to separate the Los Angeles NAACP and the NAACP from the negative exposure I have caused the NAACP, I respectfully resign my position as President of the Los Angeles NAACP,” wrote Jenkins in a letter to the organization’s interim president Lorraine C. Miller.

The decision to award Sterling the lifetime-achievement prize drew some ire because of his troubled history with race relations. In 2006, Sterling was on the receiving end of a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department over alleged housing discrimination.

In 2009, the real estate magnate paid out $2.7 million in a settlement over similar allegations.

Sterling was already the recipient of an award from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP in 2009 — the first year of Jenkins’ presidency.

MORE: Will Donald Sterling Give Up Clippers Or Fight?

TIME

Los Angeles Is Too Weak to Make Donald Sterling Repent

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game One
During Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 19, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

The controversy surrounding the Clippers owners' alleged comments lays bare how impotent the city is, and how accountability comes only with outside intervention.

Late in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, Marsellus Wallace—a criminal boss played by Ving Rhames—banishes prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) from Southern California. “You lost all your L.A. privileges,” Rhames says with lethal menace, and Willis quickly leaves the Southland on his motorcycle.

If only it were that easy to kick Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of L.A. But, alas, Tarantino’s film is pure fantasy. There is simply no person, institution, or network in today’s Los Angeles with the clout to force powerful Angelenos to repent their sins—much less drive them out of town.

The racism heard on the leaked tape (which multiple people have confirmed is Sterling himself) may be news around the country, but Sterling’s discrimination against renters in his apartment buildings, and his anti-black, anti-Mexican, and misogynist views, have been well-known facts of Los Angeles life for 30 years. Despite that, no one has sought to dislodge Sterling from his role as owner of a major sports franchise. And now, with his bigotry a national news event, Sterling has become an outrageous example of the inability of L.A. to police itself, and its elite.

Even after the public release of an audio tape of Sterling demanding his girlfriend stop associating with black people, it’s safe to bet that no Southern Californian will pull a Marsellus Wallace and kick him out of L.A. If Sterling faces any consequences for his racism, they will come from the outside—the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Sterling’s fellow team owners, or corporations that sponsor pro basketball.

Who here would have the juice to force him to sell the team?

Prominent business leaders? L.A.’s rich corporate types are more engaged nationally and globally than locally, and they don’t have the public profile, or leverage, to threaten Sterling or his team.

City political leaders? L.A.’s charter keeps mayors and city council members from having too much power, and the state holds tight to municipal purse strings. Ironically, the mayor of Sacramento, former pro basketball star Kevin Johnson, could have more of a role than L.A.’s own mayor since Johnson has been retained by the players’ union for advice on dealing with Sterling.

The town’s newspapers or TV stations? They’re shrinking in ambition and staff, and their audiences have splintered so much that grabbing the attention of a plurality of Angelenos through the media is nigh impossible.

In L.A., accountability almost always requires outside intervention. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had mismanaged the jail for years, but only resigned earlier this year after the federal government began investigating. When Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was sabotaging the team, it took the commissioner of baseball, in Milwaukee, to force the team’s sale. In the past generation, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s special education program, and the Los Angeles Police Department all have required forms of federal receivership.

Outside intervention, of course, is no panacea. But the alternative is unchecked defiance, the best current example being Brian D’Arcy, head of the biggest union of L.A. Department of Water and Power (DWP) employees. For months, he has refused demands from city leaders, the courts, and the media that he turn over financial documents on two nonprofits that received $40 million from ratepayers. Even as he stonewalled, D’Arcy served on the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of distinguished L.A. citizens, as they issued a report complaining about a lack of accountability in city government. Did I mention that defiance is a close cousin of shamelessness?

In Sterling’s case, it’s unclear whether other powerful Angelenos would have moved against him—even if they could. For one thing, he’s got the kind of hallowed, homegrown personal narrative—poor kid from the Eastside (Boyle Heights) who becomes a Westside titan (real estate) —that buys plenty of second chances here. And Sterling bought social status by becoming a major player in the phony, philanthropic Beverly Hills hotel chicken dinners that always make rich people look charitable and sometimes raise money for a good cause.

By handing out money to many different people and organizations across all lines of geography, cause, and ethnicity, Sterling incentivized much of Los Angeles to ignore his racism. Among those who looked the other way was the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which was about to give him a second lifetime achievement award when the recent news broke. It didn’t hurt Sterling that he advertised his charitable exploits in the L.A. Times, a paper that has portrayed him more as creepy uncle than as unrepentant racist.

This particular moment exposes the underbelly of Southern California’s open culture. Weak institutions and weak leadership free people here to do as they please and be who they are. But when someone powerful, by being who he is, does real damage to Los Angeles and its reputation, there’s no one able and willing to protect us.

Sterling’s conversation with his girlfriend—who, as a 30-year-old multiracial gold digger, was the perfect companion for the wealthy 80-year-old Los Angeles racist—was offensive and nonsensical. But Sterling did say one thing that hit close to home. When his girlfriend asked why he wouldn’t stand against racism in the world, Sterling said on the tape: “We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.”

For all the criticism of Sterling that you hear from Angelenos now, he is decidedly the product of Los Angeles culture. He has thrived here. Now, he defines us.

This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

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