Scapegoating the Racists

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

My family moved to southern California the summer before my freshmen year of high school. That was the summer the Lakers lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. I think that loss was totally incidental to my decision to become an LA Clippers fan because the Clippers were so much worse than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers may have lost to the Bulls but at least they got to the finals. Or made the playoffs. Or had a winning season. Oh man, the Clippers were horrible.

(Why did I choose the Clippers when most of my new friends were Lakers fans. I’ve no idea, though it probably reveals something about a contrarian personality that persists to this day.)

We all knew the Clippers were bad – it was so gratifying, and surprising any time they won – but most of us casual fans didn’t know about the particular badness of their owner, Donald Sterling. I had pretty much forgotten about my days as a Clippers fan until Sterling fell into the news a couple of years ago, his racism on public display thanks to recorded voicemails courtesy of his mistress. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with – walking with black people.”

Apparently Sterling’s racism was an open secret and eventually he was forced to sell the team. (The Clippers are now consistently decent. I was a couple of decades early.) All of this came back in vivid detail as I listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about the Sterling saga. It’s a really interesting look at the backstory that led to Sterling and his wife owning the team, the shady ways they build their fortune, and the racism that shaped how Sterling thought about his players, the black players particularly.

One of the things that caught my ear was how the host described the racist things Sterling was recorded saying. I’m not sure it was quite hyperbole – it was, after all, terrible stuff – but I got this sense that she wanted all of us to understand that she understood just how terrible it was. In a later episode one of the players who was on the team when Sterling’s racism broke into the open talks about his confusion about everyone’s reaction. He says something to the effect of: Everybody knew this guy. Why are you acting shocked now? Just because it’s public? It was an interesting contrast with the host’s disdain.

I thought about the collective reaction to Sterling back when the story broke. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.

Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?

All of this is a long way of getting at a tendency those of us who pursue racial justice should aim to avoid, especially those of us who are white and Christian. Scapegoating the obvious racist feels good for how I’m distanced from racism, but it does very little beyond feed my self-righteousness. The good work comes when I wonder about the similarities between Sterling and myself. Where is the propensity toward (racist) sin shared between us? Where might his public shame provoke personal repentance and confession?

Self-righteous scapegoating feels really nice for a few minutes, but it does nothing to address the racial injustices that persist long after Sterling was forced to sell his team. For that, we need a bit more honesty and humility.

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