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Punishing Donald Sterling Is Good, But It Doesn’t Mean Racism is Dead

5 minute read

The ugly racial statements of the Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling sparked a series of hopefully historic events over the last several days. The press conferences on Tuesday by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and the player’s representative in this crisis—are worthy of deeper reflection.

With both passion and outrage in his face, NBA Commissioner Silver banned Sterling for life from both the L.A. Clippers and the NBA for his racist comments about African-Americans. Sterling’s despicable racial opinions, made him the ugly and ignorant face of white racism, a dishonor undoubtedly earned due to a his personal history of hateful racial discrimination.

It’s now clear that current players were planning to boycott the play-offs that night if the official response to Sterling was not strong enough. But Silver was adamant that Sterling’ views had “no place in the NBA,” that he would never be allowed to set foot in any NBA facility, and that the commissioner would call upon the other owners to remove him as an NBA owner. The punishment for Sterling’s blatant racism was a lifetime ban from the NBA and that he will lose his team.

All this took place just days after Cliven Bundy, an outspoken Nevada rancher and anti-government conservative favorite, told the world that black people might be better off if they were still slaves. Again such utter stupidity and blind racism was given a particularly ugly face. Former Republican supporters and Fox News commentators disowned Bundy after his embarrassing comments.

But as adamant as the response to such overt racism must be, it is also the easiest kind of racism to oppose. Underneath the racial bigotry revealed by such extremes is a history and pervasive presence of racism in America that runs deep and gets painfully complicated. Kevin Johnson, the former point guard and present mayor of Sacramento put it this way in his press conference, “There will be zero tolerance for institutional racism, no matter how rich or powerful.” But we are a long way from that.

What would a “life-long ban” on institutional racism mean in our economy, our politics, and in our own hearts and lives?

We acknowledge that an NBA owner telling his extremely young mistress that she can sleep with other black people (as she herself is black and Hispanic) but not bring them with her to “his” NBA games—is sick and wrong.

And we acknowledge that saying that black people would be better off as slaves and that “their” young men should be taught to pick cotton again—is also sick and wrong.

But let’s be honest here. Maintaining a criminal justice system where people of color are more often arrested, convicted, and sentenced for much longer than whites —often for the same crimes—has created a racially biased mass incarceration system which is also wrong.

Accepting an economy where structural inequality and lack of opportunity follow clear racial lines and tolerating an educational system that virtually imprisons low-income young people of color in generational poverty is also wrong.

Political gerrymandering of Congressional districts that excludes minority voters and keeps whites in power, or using voter ID laws to suppress the votes of poor, elderly, or young minority citizens is also wrong.

And in all of our hearts and minds, to refuse to recognize and resist the implicit racial biases we have from being raised in a racialized society is also wrong.

Who among us is willing to be as adamant against all of those wrongs , especially when racism can become so nuanced, subtle, and complicated—but no less real?

In a press conference before Tuesday’s game, Doc Rivers, the legendary and coach of the Los Angeles Clippers commented: You know you learn over and over that when something like this happens with the burden of racism, it always falls on the person who has been offended to respond. I’ve always thought that’s interesting. I felt the pressure on my players. Everyone was waiting for them to give a response. And I kept thinking they didn’t do anything, yet they have to respond. So Adam (Silver) responded and I thought that was the sigh of relief that we needed. Is this over, no it’s not over; but it’s the start of a healing process that we need….and that’s very important. The 14 guys that are players, they did nothing wrong and they need support and I think that will happen.

Why is it that those who have been offended are the ones always expected to respond when they again are attacked or undermined by white racism? Why do we whites so often leave the response about racism to black and brown people? Why do white churches leave that to African American, Hispanic, or Asian American churches?

Wouldn’t white people, leaders, and churches speaking out against racism, vowing not to tolerate it, and “banning” institutional racism, be as Doc Rivers said, a sigh of relief to those who are always the ones who suffer the racial offenses?

Any honest response to racism requires admitting what is obviously true: racism damages us all and thus requires all of us—not just the African-American community– to respond. The sin of racism is a societal one and it demands a collective response. All of us are implicated. None of us are immune. These recent episodes remind us how much work is left for all of us to do.

Jim Wallisis president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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