The Common Good

Open Letter to White People: Why I am Donald Sterling and So Are You

Donald Sterling in 2009, s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
Donald Sterling in 2009, s_bukley / Shutterstock.com

Dear White People,

We need to take a long, painful look in the mirror. The image we see will make us uncomfortable, but, tragically, it is us.

The image staring you back at you is the image of Donald Sterling.

We have found a new sense of self-righteousness by uniting against Sterling for his racist comments. All of us white people can agree that Sterling is a despicable human being and he deserved to be banned from the NBA for life and to be fined.

We are morally outraged. We hate Sterling with a united and perfect hatred.

But make no mistake, we are Donald Sterling.

Racism permeates every aspect of our culture, and indeed, every one of us. Segregation officially ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but we still live in a segregated society. Why? Because if Sterling was right about anything in his confused rant with his girlfriend he was right about this: racism is embedded in American culture.

ESPN analyst Bomani Jones* made the point on the Dan Le Betard radio show in relation to Chicago. Jones stated:

We hear all this stuff that goes on in Chicago and all these people who die, who lose their lives … All that stuff that's happening in Chicago is a byproduct of housing discrimination … Housing discrimination is the biggest reason that we can point to historically for why we've got all these dead kids in Chicago fighting for turf, fighting for real estate with poor accommodations and facilities and everything that you're supposed to have in a city, poor education, all of this because the tax dollars and everything else decided to move away…When we start looking at all these people in these lists who are dying as an economic byproduct of the people like Donald Sterling and you now have a problem because, oh my God, he said something that intimated that he doesn't respect his players? I'm calling you out as a fraud.

Jones is right to call us out as frauds. Our moral outrage makes us feel superior to Sterling, but it’s a fraudulent superiority. Sure, we can feel good about ourselves as we unite against Sterling, but that sense of “goodness” is the problem. It enables us to project all of our own racial prejudices upon Sterling, which conveniently lets us off the hook for taking responsibility for our racism.

Sterling has been engaged in racist housing policies for years. Chicago has been unofficially segregated since the 1960s. In 2012, the number of incoming freshmen at UCLA was 2,418, with a total of 48 African Americans. As of 2013, the United States Senate has had 1,949 members, with a total of nine African Americans.

Where’s the moral outrage? I’ll tell you why there’s no moral outrage – because of white privilege. It’s because we have a privileged position in American society that we can unite with everyone else against Donald Sterling, but turn our heads away from the housing discrimination in Chicago, the unofficial segregation of our neighborhoods, the racial discrimination of elite colleges and universities, and the racism embedded in our political bodies. It’s because of white privilege that we will never have to experience what actor Levar Burton dramatically describes in this CNN interview:

When I get stopped by the police, I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger’s side, I roll down my window, I take my hands and I stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver’s side because I want that officer to be as relaxed as he can be when he approaches my vehicle … I do that because I live in America.

Our moral outrage against Sterling is justified. He said horribly racist things. But it’s time to take a long, uncomfortable look in the mirror. If we are truly outraged about racism, it’s time to look at our privileged position and make serious changes in our lives. Unless we are willing to give up our privileged position in American culture, the only thing that our moral outrage against racism reveals is that we are frauds.

So, if we find ourselves pointing fingers at Donald Sterling, let’s point fingers at ourselves too.

Yours truly,

Adam

*P.S. I hesitate to link to Jones’ comments because he starts by saying, “Dude, this man can’t keep his lady friends under control!” Really?!? Women are to be controlled? That was Sterling’s problem? I love his comments about racism, but the sexism in his beginning comment is palpable. The problem is that -isms are everywhere. We need to take responsibility for all of our –isms, including our racism and our sexism.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Donald Sterling in 2009, s_bukley / Shutterstock.com

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Resources

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)