The jolting racial rantings last week by Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, and the swift and definitive response by the NBA, may be both a testament to how far society has come and a reminder that there is still a ways to go. The sentiment of an incensed and vocal denouncement of Sterling’s viewpoints is captured succinctly in the “WE ARE ONE” response posted on the Clippers official website.
Procedural and legal matters aside – severe financial and employment penalty on the strength of private comments, surreptitiously taped and disclosed by purported girlfriend, V Stiviano – the words, for which Sterling has allegedly claimed ownership, seem in utter discord with the times and environment they occupy. In admonishment of Stiviano for posting her Instagram photo taken with Magic Johnson, the tape apparently captures Sterling saying “it bothers me a lot you want to broadcast you’re associating with black people.” He later adds, “you can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.” Within days of the public disclosure of these and assorted other racial slurs, Sterling was issued a lifetime ban from the NBA and fined the maximum penalty of $2.5 Million. The immediate public reaction appears to be overwhelming supportive of the timeliness and severity of the penalty.
My first reaction to this story was to write it off as an abhorrent exception – the twisted views of an ignorant man trapped in an era of bigotry, that for the rest of us, has been left far behind. In the sports world, any of basketball, baseball, football, or soccer would seem bizarre platforms for racist remarks, given the demographic balance of participants. Even the relatively anemic NHL has come a ways since the Boston Bruins signed Willie O’Ree in 1958, the first black player in the hockey league. Thanks to the courage and perseverance of pioneers, like Jackie Robinson in 1947, major league baseball was forever enriched. James Harris became the first black starting quarterback when he suited up for the Buffalo Bills in 1969. Perhaps strangest of all about Sterling’s outrageous remarks, a good chunk of his wealth is derived largely from the talents and labours of the very people he blanketly maligns.
If the colour of professional sport isn’t enough to time-launch Sterling into the present, look at how the complexion of Hollywood has evolved since Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge changed the face of leading roles on the silver screen. On the subject of Hollywood movies, I recently endured the emotional battering of the Oscar winning film, 12 Years a Slave, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. It was a masterful production and the performances were riveting. I found the watching of the shameful truth of the story both excruciating and imperative. The eventual ‘we are one’ gesture from the character played by Brad Pitt was the lone flicker of human decency. It brought a modicum of relief for the penitent viewer and mercifully hinted at the rejection of slavery in America and the ultimate freedoms for the generations that would follow.
It seems my generation had its own influential role to play in matters of racism and interracial respect. We grew up in an era when Sterling’s comments would not have stood out as the boorish exception they represent today. Many of us will have seen the ugliness of bigotry up close in our lifetimes. We will have had the choice to consciously reject it – setting an example for our own children – or to condone it, either actively or tacitly. The difference may be as basic as speaking up against racial comments or jokes rather than laughing, or tolerating them in silence. My children and those of my circle of family and friends grew up seeing people, not colours. They made friends – or didn’t – based on interests, personality and character, not ethnicity. Indeed the flags and skin tones of Jamaica and Guyana are proudly represented in my extended family portrait. At least as measured by circumstances close to home, Sterling’s words seem shockingly out of synch with the reality of the times.
But we also tend to view the world through our own somewhat myopic prisms. The attitudes and tolerances found in one person’s family, work, recreational, and social circles is not necessarily reflective of the larger community, and certainly cannot presume to represent the experiences of an ethnic group, or any individual. There may be geographic, demographic and socioeconomic influences that intervene to paint an entirely different picture at regional or community levels. For example; how might attitudes differ between large urban areas, where ethnic diversity may be the norm, and small town or rural communities where visible minorities are exactly that? To what extent does proximity and interrelation lead to understanding and acceptance?
Whatever the case, it seems clear the evolution of interracial harmony and progress made can no more be diminished by the proclivities of one belligerent basketball team owner than they can be substantiated by the experience of one white, Anglo-Saxon blog writer. But what is reassuring, is the swift and resounding denouncement of Sterling’s view of the world, which a generation or two ago, would not even have been news. The swift actions and vehement outcry go a long way to bring credence to the words and intensifying mantra originated by the suitably defiant Los Angeles Clippers:
We Are One.