[UPDATE, May 2] My conversation with Donald Sterling
My head is spinning from watching the horror show of Donald Sterling’s racist rants and his subsequent lifetime banishment from basketball. In case you’ve been on Mars the past week, Sterling is the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who was recorded spewing racist bile to his mistress, telling her, among other things, not to bring “black people” to his games.
The sin of cheating on a spouse is bad enough, but in today’s world, the sin of racism looks even worse. It’s not simply that bigotry of any kind has become so frowned upon. It’s also the new media environment we live in.
Put it this way: If you want to be a racist today, you’d better keep it to yourself. We can’t legislate decency, but we can shame bigotry like never before. In a digital world, where millions of sound bites can spread in seconds and never go away, unleash your bigoted impulses and watch your legacy go down in shame.
When Donald Sterling’s great-great-grandchildren Google his name a hundred years from now, the first thing they’ll see is that their famous ancestor was famous for being a racist. They’ll learn that he was sued by the Department of Justice for refusing to rent to minority tenants, and that the bigoted rants revealed in April 2014 were only the latest in a long pattern of racist behavior.
They may also learn that he grew up in Boyle Heights and saw his father wake up every morning at 2 a.m. to buy produce and resell it to local restaurants. And that he picked up his father’s strong work ethic to work his way through law school, and when the big firms did not hire Jews at the time, started a thriving practice to help everyday people get legal assistance.
They may learn all that, but in the end, it is the bigotry and racism that will stick.
His descendants may also learn that Donald changed his last name from Tokowitz to Sterling to give himself an aura of success. The name Tokowitz, apparently, sounded too Jewish.
I guess you can say that his name change was good for the Jews.
Can you imagine the anti-Semitism that would have been rekindled today had it been billionaire Donald Tokowitz spewing these racist rants? Not that people can’t do quick research and figure out that Sterling is Jewish, but in our Twitter-dominated world, “Tokowitz the racist” is exponentially worse for the Jews than “Sterling the racist.”
How’s that for delicious irony? By selfishly worrying about his own reputation, he ended up protecting — somewhat — his own people’s reputation.
There is something pathetic about a wealthy old man caught in the vise of bigotry. Of all that I’ve read about this saga, maybe the saddest thing is that Sterling doesn’t have any tenants in his Beverly Hills office building. Apparently, that’s so he can ride up in his gold-plated elevator alone. God forbid he should come into contact with ordinary people.
It makes you wonder: Was there anyone he respected in his inner circle who could confront him? Or did they all laugh at his jokes, funny or not, as cronies are wont to do?
Beyond the issue of Sterling’s personal failings, there is also the hypocrisy of those who have enabled his behavior — groups such as the National Basketball Association, which for 30 years failed repeatedly, until now, to punish his misconduct.
Another group that comes to mind is the NAACP, which gave Sterling a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 — the same year he paid out a record $2.75 million to settle allegations of discrimination against minority tenants — and recently announced that it planned to give him another award at its 100th anniversary gala this month.
Of course, after this latest eruption of bigotry, complete with smoking gun, the NAACP’s leaders have seen the light and announced they will not honor Sterling this month and are taking steps “to rescind the previous award they bestowed on him.”
Sorry — nice try, but too little, too late.
It’s no secret around town that organizations desperate for funds have been honoring Sterling and his wealthy connections for years while closing their eyes to his racist indiscretions. All these groups were playing with fire, but the NAACP, for obvious reasons, should have been extra careful not to associate with someone with such a shady record in race relations.
If the NAACP is looking for someone to honor at its gala event, I have an idea: Honor the Jews who helped start the NAACP a hundred years ago — names like Julius Rosenthal, Henry Malkewitz, Lillian Wald, and Rabbis Stephen S. Wise and Emil Hirsch.
Those Jews never felt a need to make their names sound less Jewish. They didn’t have to — they had nothing to hide.
The memory of these heroes may not raise as much money or sell as many tables as a billionaire slumlord does, but their great-great-grandchildren will have no shame when they Google their names.