Whitlock’s misplaced worries about L’Affaire Sterling

This Jason Whitlock column about Donald Sterling is receiving a lot of attention. It’s characteristic Whitlock – he spends at least as much time tsk-tsking angry expressions about racism as he does about the racist expressions themselves. To be sure, JW isn’t defending Sterling’s comments. And he rightly locates Sterling’s views in a larger culture of “white supremacy” which, Whitlock says, created Sterling and not vice-versa.

But as is often the case, it feels like Whitlock is trying too hard to be contrary for the sake of it, especially when the contrarianism is an opportunity to criticize people for being angry about racist expressions. Whitlock says the punishment was “heavy-handed.” What should it have been? Yes, we know that Sterling’s bigotry didn’t first come to the attention of the league on Saturday. And the manner in which it came out – as a result of an apparently illegal recording. And I agree with Whitlock that there is a degree of policing decorum at play in this episode. But Whitlock himself has, at times, been quite comfortable with the league policing decorum, as in his support for a dress code in the NBA that was itself an unmistakable response to a culture that views young black men as inherently menacing.

According to Whitlock, it was perfectly fine for Stern to protect the league’s business interests in the wake of the Malice in the Palace by making his players drop their do-rags. So, why is Whitlock so exercised about Commissioner Silver bringing the hammer down on an utter embarrassment who was prompting a mass exodus of sponsors from a now high-profile franchise in the nation’s second largest market? If commissioners have a right to protect their leagues’ brand viability, then the explosion in anger directed at Sterling, including a near-certain boycott by players, would suggest that Silver’s decision made eminently good business sense.

Whitlock also warns of “mob rule” and, taking it a step further, says: “Well-intentioned, TV-baited mobs are the most dangerous.” Hyperbole much? Mob rule has often resulted in burning down buildings and people hanging from trees. Is that what’s happened here? Hardly. In fact, the players were, despite their anger, quite considered and thoughtful in how they wanted to express it. Whitlock is upset, in part, because privacy is a “foundation of American freedoms” and a “core value.” I don’t disagree about the importance of privacy rights. But this is not a case of the government violating anybody’s rights. Donald Sterling isn’t going to jail. And the only denial of property he’d face is a forced sale by an association of which he is a voluntary member that would result in him netting hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yes, we live in a culture where everyone needs to be *far* more careful about their ostensibly private communications than was previously true. But does Whitlock really want to suggest that *that* is the real tragedy here? Whitlock warns that this kind of mindset is going to bring down black athletes, as if the fact that everyone is walking around with a recording device hasn’t already been a pervasive reality that has ruined plenty of people.

Whitlock writes:

“Well-intentioned white people should be holding nationally televised panel discussions focusing on ways to lessen the damaging impact of white-supremacy culture. Well-intentioned white people who work within or support the NBA should be demanding that the NBA power structure cede some of its governing power to men and women who look like the overwhelming majority of the league’s players.”

He’s absolutely correct. But when he follows that up by saying “the mainstream fanned the flames, enraging the angry black mob looking for a quick solution, a sacrificial lamb…” he’s engaging in a bizarre and frankly incendiary paternalism – as if the players acted like a “mob” when they patently did not. The league’s players, and many other folks besides, were angry about Sterling’s sentiments both because they’re nauseating and because, many people realize, these aren’t the inert expressions of a powerless nobody, but instead the rantings of a man who has been in a position to inflict real-world suffering on people because of those views.

No one’s kidding themselves that Sterling’s ban solves America’s problems with race. And observers are right to note that cases like this make it easy to lose sight of more insidious forms of racism. We don’t need to wring our hands about poor Donald Sterling’s fate to remember that.

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