By now the vast majority of you will have heard of the racist comments made by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, an NBA team. Sterling was taped during a phone conversation with his girlfriend V. Stiviano, asking her not to bring black people to games with her. This is, apparently, part of a long history of racist comments made by Sterling over the course of this conversation and over a number of incidents stretching back many years. The response has been quick and severe, with players, owners, sports fans, and team sponsors all moving to condemn the comments and the man who made them.
Is Donald Sterling a racist?
Whether or not Donald Sterling is “a racist” is a question that I find profoundly boring. As I have said many times before, I do not recognize the validity of the category “a racist”. There seems to be no behaviour or set of behaviours that we can agree on to define what “a racist” is. All we know about “racists” are that nobody who is ever accused of being one, nor anyone who supports or is otherwise allied with the accused, will accept the label. Then there is something about how many bones in that person’s body are racist. And then some jiu-jitsu about who is really “a racist”. The pattern is as predictable as it is tiresome.
I am similarly not interested in writing a personal condemnation of Donald Sterling. I doubt he (or anyone else) would care if I did, and that ground is pretty well trod already. If you heard what Sterling said, and you don’t already think he’s a total scumbag, then I doubt that any combination of consonants and vowels could possibly convince you.
What I do want to do, however, is unpack what I think is a really revelatory statement made by Sterling in his recorded conversation. When Stivilano presses Sterling on the blatant racist content of the comments he’s made, and how it stands at odds with the fact that the players of the team he owns are predominantly black, Sterling is recorded as angrily responding:
Do I know? I support [the black players] and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?
Now, before I launch into the actual thesis of this piece, I want to take a moment and clear something up. Mr. Sterling doesn’t give his athletes food and clothes and cars and houses (unless he is a ludicrously profligate gift-giver). The players on the team earn those things through their labour. The fact that Mr. Sterling is contractually obligated to pay his players for their work is not at all the same thing as him “giving” them their salaries, any more than the fans “give” Sterling their money as a little gift whenever they come to the stadium to watch the Clippers play.
Also, the fans come to see the Clippers play, not their owner. To suggest that team owners “make the game” is so pants-crappingly nonsensical that it beggars belief that an adult human being would believe it in the privacy of his head, let alone say it aloud to another adult human being.
Okay, lowest-hanging fruit dealt with. Moving on to the real thing now.
Racialized Benevolence as a product of racist beliefs
To follow the best version of Mr. Sterling’s argument, he appears to be claiming that because he doesn’t field the only all-white team in the NBA, that he is thereby proven to be “not a racist”. The logic is pretty simple: a racist would not employ black people, let alone pay them so handsomely. Sterling cannot be racist as a necessary consequence.
Sterling apparently wishes his audience to see an inherent tension between the idea that a person could put themselves in a position of authority over black people and still harbour racist ideas about them. I am not sure if I have to spend any time explaining why those two ideas are not in tensions at all, but on the off chance that there’s anyone who is confused, I will give it a try.
A person with racist ideas about black people will not, I would think, see such people as equals. As people fully deserving of the same rights and consideration as other people. As peers, with whom that person can and should co-operate. A person who treats black people as full equals would not appear, at least at a superficial level, to harbour any ideas that would suggest the belief that black people are lesser than hirself.
A person who believes that black people are useful animals, from whom labour can be extracted, and from whose labour profit can be reaped, would not have any problem employing or otherwise exploiting the value of black people. It would merely require enough self-control not to vomit uncontrollably in the presence (direct or implied) of black bodies.
Indeed, it would be a strange person indeed whose racist beliefs would somehow conflict with their ability to be in an exalted position over black people. Adopting a role of authority over black people, to the contrary, seems to be consistent with the idea that one believes themselves to be better than them. I can find no contradiction between the idea that a wealthy white man would derive his profit from black labour and the idea that such a man is racist.
Now, while the implication is strong, and the parallels are many (more on this later), I would strongly disagree with the conclusion that well-paid basketball players are slaves. They are elite labourers, compensated fairly (I would argue) for their skill and effort. Indeed, much of this compensation owes its size to the fact that professional athletes are unionized, but that is incidental to my argument so I won’t bother to mention it again.
What I will say, however, is that paternalistic and authoritative attitudes toward black people are not, in any way, evidence of benevolence. I would put it to you, dear reader, that the opposite is the case: the belief that authority over black people counts as an act of benevolence is, itself, a racist one.
We recognize it as racist when poorly-educated and grossly underqualified white college students spend thousands of dollars to travel ‘to Africa’ to ‘teach’ as a way of ‘finding themselves’ (hint for these students: if you’re trying to find yourself, there is almost zero chance that you’re secretly in Africa somewhere. Check closer to home). What Sterling has done is found a way to make the White Saviour Complex both cheaper and more convenient. Indeed, Sterling makes millions of dollars from his ‘benevolent’ employment of the black people that he doesn’t think are good enough to be seen in the company of his paramour. That’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me.
It is worth noting that Sterling is not the first or only person to claim that assuming a position of authority over black people is an act of benevolence. He’s not even the only one to make that suggestion this week.
The Tale of Cliven Bundy
Cliven Bundy is a rancher from Nevada who has decided that he deserves to be able to use federal land but does not need to pay for the privilege. He is, in other words, a moocher and a thief. But because his sponging is wrapped in belligerent hostility toward the federal government, a claque of simpletons has crowned him a “hero” and a “patriot”. However, Bundy’s complete lack of basic sense took on a much uglier aspect when he (apparently unprompted) decided to make to the world a gift of his opinions about “The Negro”:
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
You didn’t misread that, readers. Mr. Bundy believes that a system of racist subjugation, unimaginable physical and psychological torment, and absolute moral depravity, should best be seen as to the benefit of those subjugated. The Negro, says Mr. Bundy, was better off when hir life, the life of hir children, of hir loved ones, hir language, hir culture, her basic dignity, even hir status as a human being deserving of dignity, was stripped away based on the profoundly evil opportunism of an invading society who wanted the value of hir work without having to exchange anything for it.
But beyond the nearly-unfathomable moral depravity of Mr. Bundy’s beliefs (and, let us not kid ourselves, he is far from the first to express such a sentiment) lies the same belief that exercising authority over black people is an act of benevolence. That black people would do best to surrender their basic freedom – a freedom Mr. Bundy claims to be a defender of for himself – to white people. That the exalted position claimed for whites is not an act of oppression, but an act of kindness.
I am nearly certain that Cliven Bundy doesn’t think that he is “a racist”. After all, what he wants is what he sincerely believes is best for The Negro. What’s racist about that?
We could very well ask this question of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who himself is not above claiming racial enlightenment by virtue of the fact that he deigns to place himself above black people who so obviously need his expert guidance:
In 2008, Rob Ford told the National Post he was “absolutely sure” Jerome Miller “would be dead or in jail” if not for his two years playing for the Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School football team.
Which was news to Jerome Miller.
Miller, now the offensive coordinator on the Ford-led Don Bosco coaching staff, says Ford’s assertion was “untrue.” He says he has never been in any trouble with the law, was on the honour roll in Grades 9 and 10, and had a present and supportive father.
“Even my dad said something about it. He didn’t like it at all,” Miller, now 28, said in a Thursday interview. “But we kind of just left it alone and let it sink under the bridge.”
So Ford, fond of touting his work with football players as evidence of his great white benevolence, has apparently exaggerated his role as football coach into a fairly literal version of the White Saviour. Saviour, as the article notes, of even those that require no saving. Ford, if he is to be believed (I assure you that he isn’t), represents the last hope of black boys whose lives would be irretrievably lost if not for his benevolent intervention.
Again, we see the arrival of the Great White Bwana, dispensing glittering prizes (in some cases quite literally) to the teeming black masses. Ford, in his great mercy, has bestowed upon the undeserving Negro the greatest gift of all: the attention and supervision of a white man. Not, mind you, because of anything so prosaic as a recognition of the fact that many black Torontonians are poorly served by a city whose services for the most needy are regularly cut (by whom? We may never know). No, Ford is guided by a much higher cause: the knowledge that all the Negro needs is the guidance of a benevolent white man.
I will also, briefly, mention that no less a saint than the murderer George Zimmerman uses this same defence of benevolent authority when he touts the “tutoring” work he’s done with black youth in his former neighbourhood in Florida. Could there be any greater lover of The Negro than Zimmerman? The mind strains to fathom such a thing.
Is this a conservative failing?
It is tempting to point out that the four aforementioned men are conservatives. Indeed, when people point out that black people overwhelmingly reject conservative ideology, the popular response is to claim a sort of modern-day drapetomania – claiming that the reason black people align with liberal policies is because they have been lulled into complacency by the masters of the “liberal plantation”.
Consider, for a moment, the implied conclusion: that slavery and subjugation to whites is evidently a good thing, unless liberals do it, in which case it’s the ultimate sin. Then again, ideological consistency is the Godot of conservative political opinion – long anticipated, but never to arrive.
Tempting though it may be to assign the shared iniquity of the Sterlings, Bundys, Fords, and Zimmermans of the world to their conservatism, the reality is likely not so simple. As we might more directly conclude from the way the beliefs of slave masters are echoed in the aforementioned statements, it is far more parsimonious to lay this at the feet of white supremacy. It is, quite literally, a belief that whites are superior to blacks (or, if you prefer, that blacks are inherently inferior).
Insofar as conservatism is the sanitized political expression of white supremacy (and I don’t think it would be fair to claim a complete overlap – but not totally unfair either), it should be no surprise that we find this “benevolent” paternalism nestled comfortably alongside conservative beliefs. But it would be too pat, I think, to claim that it is conservatism per se that drives the beliefs of these men. It is more accurate, I think, to conclude that there is no great conflict between conservative axioms and white supremacist ones.
And, lest we liberals get too comfortable here, White Saviours of the kind that “find themselves” in countries devastated by white supremacy and colonial capitalism aren’t exactly rabid Tea Partiers.
You may be asking, as I reach the coda of my argument, if any attempt to help black people is racist as long as it comes from white people. After all, whatever else you may say about the men, one could not reasonably argue that Sterling, Bundy, Ford, and Zimmerman do not, in their own twisted way, wish to assist black people (although the case is pretty hard to make with Bundy). Should white people just stop trying to combat racism altogether?
One of my favourite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, quipped that “there’s never been a single thing wrong with black people that the total destruction of white supremacy would not fix”. I share his assessment. Any anti-racist action whose aim is the abolition of white supremacy and its constructs is laudable. Working for economic and social mobility in black communities, tearing down exclusionary stereotypes and networks, finding ways to recognize the talent and drive of black people, and working to correct systemic disparities – these are laudable.
But conversely, no action rooted in and fueled by white supremacist beliefs can be anything other than racist, despite the frantic protestations of those who wish to gift us with their “benevolence”.