Letter from the US: Sterling racism reveals systemic problem

May 9, 2014
Cliven Bundy, who became an icon among some right-wings for his refusal to pay the federal government grazing fees, said Black p

A racist rant by billionaire Donald Sterling, owner of professional basketball team the Los Angeles Clippers, was broadcast on national TV last month, sparking widespread discussion lasting weeks.

Sterling's views eclipsed another racist rant that got national attention just before that by Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy.

For years, Bundy has grazed his cattle on land in Nevada owned by the federal government. Normally, the government charges a modest fee for such practices. But Bundy, who holds far right views, has not paid that fee for years as he does not recognise the government.

The far right blames the federal government for passing laws and regulations recognising labour unions, setting up social security and unemployment payments, ending Jim Crow racial segregation, supporting women’s rights, and other social gains.

In reality, these things were not imposed by the government, but by mass struggle from below, which the government was forced to recognise. These gains are all under attack from both parties of big business.

When right-wingers like Bundy denounces “big government”, that is what they mean. They are also against paying taxes because they do not want any funds to go to alleviate poverty or otherwise help those suffering the most under capitalism.

Bundy’s accumulated unpaid grazing fees amount to more than US$1 million.

When federal marshals recently showed up to remove Bundy’s cattle from government land, they were met by an armed band of rightists who threatened to shoot. The marshals backed off.

The stand-off drew the attention of right-wing radio and TV blowhards, as well as politicians, including Republican Presidential hopeful Rand Paul. They promoted Bundy as a hero the “little guy” standing up for his rights.

Bundy began using his notoriety and new national TV stage to expound his right-wing views. At one point, he said that “negroes” were lazy people who lived off government handouts.

He said they were better off picking cotton as slaves.

These comments were broadcast nationally. Given a chance to apologise, Bundy dug himself in deeper.

Paul and Sean Hannity, the Fox News blowhard who had been lauding Bundy up to that point, beat a hasty retreat.

On top of that performance came Sterling’s rant. It was contained in a video discussion between himself and a female friend, apparently recorded with his consent.

The circumstances of how the recording became public are murky.

In this discussion, played over and over on TV and social media, Sterling takes his then-girlfriend to task for posting an innocuous photo of herself online with Magic Johnson, a well-known retired African American basketball star.

Sterling became increasingly abusive towards his girlfriend. The gist of it was that he forbade her from being publicly associated with Blacks. He ordered her to not bring any Black people to “his games”.

She tried to reason with him, explaining that her ancestry is Black and Latino.

Some commentators have expressed confusion over this how could such an open racist have a mixed race girlfriend? But such relationships are not uncommon; indeed many racists have had such relationships. In their twisted minds, it can express their power over those they consider racially inferior.

Indeed, the whole conversation reveals Sterling’s belief that he has the right to tell his girlfriend what to do.

The background to this is that in the National Basketball Association (NBA), African Americans comprise 70 to 80% of players, and an even higher percentage of Sterling's Clippers.

The reaction of the NBA players was swift and sharp. One after the other, they publicly demanded that Sterling be removed as the Clippers’ owner and be banned from the NBA.

The Clippers had a scheduled game shortly after the video was first shown. The players came out with new uniforms without the team’s logo and dumped their sweatshirts on the floor.

This was deeply embarrassing to the NBA. Its commissioner, Adam Silver, publicly blasted Sterling and banned him from attending any games or having any dealings with the Clippers. Silver said he would seek to have the owners of the NBA teams force Sterling to sell the team.

The owners operate under rules that are secret, but apparently three quarters of them have to vote in favour of forcing Sterling to sell. At time of writing, they haven’t yet made a decision.

But the hypocrisy of Silver other owners has been exposed as it has come to light that they knew of Sterling’s racist background well before the video was broadcast. They are only speaking out now because they fear the scandal will affect their profits.

Sterling and his wife Rochelle are co-owners of the Clippers. Their billions, however, came from their real estate holdings.

The Sterlings’ role as racist slumlords is a case in point. In 2006, the Justice Department brought a lawsuit against them, charging: “Defendants Donald Sterling and Rochelle Sterling, and their agents and/or employees have engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and familial status in connection with rental dwellings owned by the Korean Land Company [a Sterling front], the Sterling Family Trust, and Donald and Rochelle Sterling, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”

In 2009, they admitted guilt and settled with the Justice Department, paying a fine of $2.76 million.

Sterling’s statements about his Black and Latino tenants, whom they evicted, have now come to light. He said Black tenants “smelled” and that Latinos were always drunk, citing these as reasons for evicting them.

A legal problem has now arisen concerning whether other NBA owners can force the Sterlings to sell the team. After all, owning a basketball team is just another business.

Can a business owner be forced to sell their business? This goes against the rules of capitalism.

In this regard, there is another revealing quote from the video discussion between Donald Sterling and his girlfriend. She raised the fact that the large majority of the Clippers’ players are African American, asking how can he hold such views about Blacks given that fact?

He relies: “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? …

“Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is (sic) there 30 owners that created the League?”

Spoken like a true capitalist. Who makes automobiles? The owners of the auto companies or the autoworkers? The capitalists think they do.

This exchange underscores that major sport in the US have become big businesses in the past 50 years. Capitalist encroachment on sport, which should be an arena for all, corrupts sport at every level.

It turns sports into a vehicle for corporate advertising and money-making. It also empowers rich racists to own and control teams made up of mainly Black players.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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