Playing ball with Donald Sterling

Shame on the black groups that took his money and looked the other way

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A secretly taped telephone conversation posted last week on the website TMZ has caused a furor because billionaire Donald Sterling purportedly was heard telling his now ex-girlfriend, who has identified herself as black and Mexican, to stop appearing in public with black men.

“I’m just saying, in your lousy f------ Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people,” says Mr. Sterling, the 80-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, to V. Stiviano, 31, a bikini model. “Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f--- 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.”

I can understand why basketball great Magic Johnson would be upset with the disclosure, he being the “him” who Mr. Sterling was referring to.

I can understand why the Miami Heat’s LeBron James wanted all NBA players to boycott Clippers’ games until Mr. Sterling’s fellow owners forced him to apologize and then sell the team.

And I can understand why the NBA commissioner Adam Silver got the message and banned Mr. Sterling for life Tuesday.

But to overlook the context of the conversation is to miss the point.

The United Negro College Fund has taken Mr. Sterling’s money; so has the Black Business Association of Los Angeles, among many other black groups.

The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP counted on Mr. Sterling’s support and was about to present him with yet another award before the telephone conversation was made public. Suddenly, its members are critical of the benefactor and have pledged to give back $5,000 he gave them in 2010.

Before the ban was announced, the players had been calling on African-Americans and Latinos to boycott the Clippers games. But will they step up and do more to support black organizations? Maybe groups such as the NAACP wouldn’t have to depend so much on the Donald Sterlings of the world if they did.

The relationship that Ms. Stiviano had with Mr. Sterling was bad; the one that the NAACP had with him was worse. Even as the billionaire was being exposed in 2009 as one of the largest slumlords in the country, he was being honored with a lifetime achievement award by the glitziest branch of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.

It happened to be the 100th anniversary of a group that W.E.B Du Bois, author of “The Souls of Black Folk,” had helped found. Who would have known that, a century later, the souls of so many black folks would be up for sale?

Donald Sterling is a slumlord real estate magnate with a foul tongue and a slave owner’s mentality. But that’s been public knowledge for years — and ignored.

What we have in his conversation with Ms. Stiviano is a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on the Sterling plantation, where black people live of their own volition, knowing that he is a bigot.

Ms. Stiviano was his reputed mistress, according to a lawsuit filed by Mr. Sterling’s wife. In Mr. Sterling’s world, a $1.8 million duplex in Los Angeles, as he reportedly gave Ms. Stiviano, along with the use of a Ferrari, two Bentleys and a Range Rover — plus a quarter of a million dollars in spending change — buys control and a look the other way.

Shooting no Instagrams with Magic Johnson wouldn’t be asking a lot in exchange.

Despite the outrage, this episode does not have the makings of a great civil rights moment. It’s just a sick game. Call it “Everybody’s Got a Price.”

If anything, it’s time for black people to reflect on how willing they are to play along.

Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.


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