In Fight for Equality, Sterling's Ban is a Drop in the Bucket

Email a Friend
A man holds a sign during a protest against racist comments made by L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling outside Staples Center before a playoff game on April 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
From and

Yesterday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the racist comments made by Los Angles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling over the weekend would not be tolerated. The commissioner moved to ban Sterling from the NBA for life and fine him $2.5 million—the maximum fine that the league allows.

Now NBA team owners are planning a vote to force Sterling to sell the team. But many are wondering why the NBA waited so long to punish Sterling, who has a well-documented history of racist comments and discrimination-based lawsuits. In 2009, Sterling was ordered to pay a $2.725 million settlement to the Department of Justice for a housing discrimination case—the largest amount ever obtained by the DOJ for such a case. 

It seems that overtly racist and bigoted speech inspires more response and outrage than actual racist policies and actions. How does the banning of one NBA owner impact the lived racism of minorities everyday? Are sports really the right arena to examine issues of racial equality and prejudice? 

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie recently published a column about the scandal, and discusses Sterling's history and what his treatment says about racism in America.

"The kind of open hatred Sterling expressed is pretty rare in the United States," says Bouie. "But the sort of things he did as a landlord, as someone who owned property, are very common, and that is aggressive housing discrimination. Maybe what's not common is explicitly barring people from color from renting or owning in your buildings, but certainly the DOJ has found many instances of disparate treatment when it comes to African American and Latino tenants."

Bouie says that when taking a closer look, one can see that the Department of Justice has consistently taken up issues of policies and exclusionary zoning rules that are seemingly designed to keep minorities out of particular areas and neighborhoods.

"Subtle institutional racism is still very much with us," he says. 

While racism has yet to be eradicated in the United States, Bouie says that sports offer a good proxy for larger dialogues about the treatment of minorities. 

"Sports is a pretty decent way of engaging race," he says. "Most Americans aren't paying attention to housing discrimination data, they aren't looking through stats on disparities in the death penalty and all of the more subtle things that you kind of have to be looking for to see. Instances of racism in sports, everyone watches sports—football or basketball, you name it. When those issues come up, they reach a huge audience and provide the potential for diving into the bigger issues."

Donald Sterling's actions and comments, says Bouie, reflect larger issues that minorities around the United States deal with. A case like this, he says, allows discussion about racism to move beyond one individual.

"I think it would be good for Sterling to lose the team, and I believe that the NBA definitely thinks that since his continued presence is a bit of an existential threat to their business," he says. "But in some sense it would be a symbolic action for Sterling to lose his team. But it might actually obscure the extent to which getting that racial inequality is a real thing, that these racial disparities still exist. Getting rid of a very loud, flamboyant racist doesn't change any of that. In fact, you could get rid of every loud, flamboyant racist—no one could ever speak a single word of racial prejudice ever—and it would still be the case that, for instance, African American pre-schoolers are punished at a far greater rate than their white counter parts for lesser offenses than their white counterparts."

Bouie says that evidence of racial disparities exist everywhere, but many people ignore them everyday because they don't have the same kind of news appeal of a racist comment from a billionaire basketball owner.

"They're not very sexy—you don't really see CNN reports on death penalty disparities," he says. "It's hard to personalize them, and there usually isn't a villain. The insidious thing is that this is just sort of how the system was set up, so it keeps on moving through its machinery without anyone necessarily putting in some racist input—there's no person behind the curtain manipulating everything."