July 30, 2014

Maybe Donald Sterling Isn't the Problem

Back in the 1980s, I worked as a waiter for a fancy restaurant on the Westside of Los Angeles. Several of my regular customers were wealthy real estate investors, so I suppose it’s only natural that they dined regularly with other rich real estate types. Often, those “others” included the renowned Donald T. Sterling.

Very early on, Mr. Sterling made an impression on me. I found him to be arrogant and self-absorbed. He made no secret of his disdain for mingling with anyone who wasn't white, like himself. But if an hour or two of social courtesy with a black colleague could bring him a promising deal, then so be it. He owned a hotel down the street, where people of color constituted a healthy portion of the housekeeping staff. But behind the front desk? Nope.
Back in the 1960s, Sterling began to build an impressive portfolio of apartment buildings. Many of these were in poor minority neighborhoods, where he became infamous as an uncaring slumlord. A group of tenants sued in 2003, alleging racial insensitivities. Apparently he had been overheard saying that "Hispanics just smoke and hang around the building,” and "black people smell and attract vermin." He preferred to rent to Koreans, they claimed, because in their culture Asians don’t like to complain. The terms of that settlement remain confidential.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice sued because he refused to rent his Beverly Hills properties to black families.

In 2009, he was quoted as telling Clippers executive Elgin Baylor that he (Sterling) wanted to build a team of "poor black boys from the South and a white head coach."

His numerous adulterous liaisons are well-known; indeed, he makes no attempt to conceal them. He frequently buys advertising space in the Los Angeles Times, boasting of his charitable deeds, transparently disguised as tributes from others.

(And that’s just the stuff we know about, that became public.)

Finally, in April 2014, TMZ released a secret recording of Sterling with paramour V. Stiviano, telling her that she shouldn’t bring her black friends to Clippers games. Suddenly, THAT was a bridge too far. The straw that broke the camel’s back. The final insult.
Huh? Let’s get real. The Stiviano recording didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Yet the NAACP was about to give him an award! REALLY? Their fake surprise and outrage now, and their cancellation of the award ceremony, are just plain dishonest.

The things I know firsthand, are based on maybe a couple dozen brief encounters where I overheard bits and pieces of conversations while serving coffee and clearing plates. If he spoke so freely in public, within earshot of strangers, I can only imagine his candor among trusted associates behind closed doors. Surely they knew him well, and could speak up at any time. Oh, but then they wouldn’t get that million-dollar deal.

Forty years of bad behavior. Adultery. Chronic cruelty. An ego as big as all of Los Angeles. And yes, racism. That wasn’t enough to make you show him the door, decades ago? Up until now, Sterling has managed to buy his way out of trouble. Or out-maneuver the other guy in court. Or sweet-talk the league into letting him stay. Can’t blame him, when other people enable him by letting him off easy.

For some reason, in our present society, racism seems to be the only unforgivable sin. He could be prosecuted for dozens or hundreds of crimes, but we don’t talk about those. It’s as if he killed hundreds of people by driving his Bentley through the crowd at the Rose Parade, but he gets off with a ticket for driving on the sidewalk. Five hundred-dollar fine, please. Next case.

Should Sterling lose his business? I don’t know. But when the punishment is that he walks away with a check for $2 billion from Steve Ballmer, it doesn’t seem like a penalty at all.

I don’t get it. Perhaps the whole Sterling affair says more about us, than him.

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