Donald Sterling Isn’t a Closet Racist. He’s a Porch Racist.

Think again.
April 28 2014 10:58 AM

Donald Sterling, Porch Racist

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Donald Sterling at the California Gold Star Awards dinner gala, April 5, 2003.

Photo by Robert Mora/Getty Images

For years, people said Donald Sterling was a closet racist. Now, from an audio recording released by TMZ, we know that’s not true. Sterling isn’t a closet racist. He’s a porch racist, obsessed with maintaining the appearance of segregation.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Racists, like the people they stereotype, come in many varieties. Paula Deen’s version is coarseness. Cliven Bundy’s is ignorance. Sterling’s is cowardice. He has a long track record of bigotry. But again and again in the conversation with his girlfriend, Sterling—or a man who impersonates him perfectly, while the real Sterling mysteriously fails to deny that the voice is his—invokes society’s opinions. You have to practice racism, he argues, because otherwise people will think ill of you.

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Sterling seems to have told his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that somebody close to him saw her on Instagram with Magic Johnson and said something critical about it to Sterling. The comment, or Sterling’s interpretation of it, focused on the fact that she was with a black man. Maybe Sterling saw a sexual overtone in the picture or in his friend’s perception of it. What’s clear is the focus of Sterling’s distress. As he puts it to Stiviano: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.”

At its core, this is plain old racism. But its form is peculiar. What upsets Sterling is that Stiviano is “broadcasting” her associations:

I don’t want you to have hate. … I want you to love them—privately. … But why publicize it on the Instagram, and why bring it to my games? … 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 [Instagram] and not to bring them to my games.

It’s one thing to talk such filth about people you don’t know. What elevates Sterling above Bundy on the creep scale is that he thinks and talks this way even about a man he knows: Magic Johnson.

I’ve known him well, and he should be admired. And I’m just saying that it’s too bad you can’t admire him privately … Admire him, bring him here, feed him, fuck him, I don’t care. You can do anything. But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see, so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games. OK?

What a bizarre objection. Sterling, in private, claims to admire Johnson. Yet he insists that Stiviano keep this sentiment to herself. What Sterling is shoving into the closet isn’t racism. It’s interracial friendship.

Intertwined with this racial anxiety is sexual anxiety:

Sterling: You’re perceived as either a Latina or a white girl. Why can’t you be walking publicly with black people? … I guess that you don’t know that. Maybe you’re stupid. Maybe you don’t know what people think of you. It does matter, yeah. It matters.
Stiviano: Do you know that I’m mixed?
Sterling: No, I don’t know that. … [I]t bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?
Stiviano: You associate with black people.
Sterling: I’m not you, and you’re not me. You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.

This is slut-shaming with an interracial twist. But again, what’s peculiar is Sterling’s obsession with appearance. He chides Stiviano, telling her she’s perceived as Latina or white. She informs him that she’s part black. He is unmoved. “You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl,” he insists. What matters is perception, not reality.

Repeatedly, Sterling attributes racism to the world, not to himself:

Sterling: It's the world. You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.
Stiviano: So do you have to treat them like that too?
Sterling: The white Jews, there's white Jews and black Jews, do you understand? …
Stiviano: And is that right?
Sterling: It isn't a question—we don't evaluate what's right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.
Stiviano: But shouldn't we take a stand for what's wrong? And be the change and the difference?
Sterling: I don't want to change the culture, because I can't. It's too big and too [unintelligible].
Stiviano: But you can change yourself.
Sterling: I don't want to change.

What a wretched moment. Sterling, a rich man with immense power over a city and millions of fans, pleads weakness. But eventually he admits it’s a matter of will. He has surrendered not to the world, but to the worst in himself.

The conversation continues:

Stiviano: I don’t understand what? That racism still is a lie?
Sterling: No, that there’s a culture. That people feel certain things. Hispanics feel certain things towards blacks. Blacks feel certain things towards other groups. It's been that way historically, and it will always be that way.
Stiviano: But it’s not that way in my heart and in my mind.
Sterling: But maybe you want to adjust to the world.
Stiviano: But why, if the world doesn’t do anything for me and they don’t make me happy? … I can’t be racist in my heart.
Sterling: Then that’s good. I’m living in a culture. And I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is. … You live with your heart. You can’t be flexible.

To Sterling, flexibility is a virtue. Yet for some reason, it’s the nonracists who have to adapt to the racists, rather than the other way around. The conversation then turns to respect:

Stiviano: I am flexible. I understand that that’s the way you were raised and that’s your culture and I’m respectful—
Sterling: Well, why do you have to disrespect them, those that are--
Stiviano: Who am I disrespecting?
Sterling: The world before you.

In Sterling’s mind, respect, like flexibility, is owed to culture, not to individuals. Conscience must bow to the community.

And the saddest thing is, he got it wrong. The world has changed. Sterling, born during the Jim Crow era, finishes his career in shame, despised by fans and rebuked by his country’s first black president. He sold his conscience for the respect of decent people—and ended up with neither.

Read more about Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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