I almost felt sorry for Donald Sterling when I listened to the original recording of an alleged argument between him and his ex-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, released by TMZ Sports on Saturday. The argument centers around Stivianio’s friendship with black and Hispanic people. The desperation in Sterling’s alleged voice is palpable as he tries to scurry like a cockroach exposed by the light, but doesn’t get away.
The day after TMZ released the recording, Deadspin released an extended version of the tiff with transcript included. In this recording, the cockroach is caught for examination under the proverbial glass. From the Deadspin report:
V: I don't understand. I don't see your views. I wasn't raised the way you were raised.
DS: Well then, if you don't feel—don't come to my games. Don't bring black people, and don't come.
V: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?
DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?...
Sterling does not “support them.” He pays them for work. He does not “give them food.” He gives them a wage for employment. He does not give his players “clothes, and cars, and houses.” The Clippers Corporation signs a paycheck, made possible by advertising dollars and ticket sales attracted by the highly skilled labor of the mostly black and brown Clippers players themselves.
But Sterling doesn’t see it that way. From under the glass, he protested that he is a benevolent white man. He treats his negroes well. He supports them. He gives them things.
Never mind that Sterling was sued twice for allegedly discriminating against blacks and Latinos in his apartment buildings. Never mind that in a 2003 discrimination lawsuit brought by 19 tenants and the Housing Rights Center one of his top property managers, Sumner Davenport, testified that Sterling said his newly acquired Ardmore apartments smelled “because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean.” And never mind that, according to the same lawsuit, Sterling believed Korean-American tenants “will live in whatever conditions he gives them and still pay the rent without complaint.”
Sterling’s comments are not unlike Cliven Bundy’s recent musings. Bundy, the Nevada rancher who owes more than a million dollars in federal grazing fees wondered aloud if blacks might have been better off as slaves “picking cotton and having a family life and doing things.”
Both remarks reminded me of one of the most frustrating days of my life. I was on vacation in Charleston, S.C. I decided to visit a local plantation to understand what life might have been like for my own ancestors who slaved in that state. Standing there in the front yard of the big house, the guide explained: “We treated our slaves well.”
This particular plantation had 300 slaves and produced more bricks than any other plantation in the country. They even had brick houses for the slaves on Slave Street — yes, they named it “Slave Street.”
But I did the math: There were 300 slaves and only a handful of houses.
“Where did all the other slaves sleep?” I asked the antebellum-garbed guide.
She hesitated. Then she said it: “In the fields.”
The next hour was filled with fond memories of plantation life and its culture reviewed in detail for the mostly white tour group — and me.
And there it is: the façade, the fiction, and the facts.
Most of the time we see the façade: Black ballers bounding down court leaping over the world and slamming the ball through the net.
We don’t usually get to see the fiction in the minds of white men like Sterling and Bundy — and I dare say a fiction undergirded by “the culture” Sterling implicated. It is the fiction behind the tour guide’s narrative of benevolent slavocracy. It is the fiction behind Paul Ryan’s “takers and makers” sentiment. It is the fiction behind Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment. It is the fiction behind Rep. Stephen Fincher’s misuse of the Bible to justify cutting food stamps for hungry people. And it is the fiction behind Rep. Steve King’s infamous claim that for every one valedictorian Dreamer there are another hundred with calves the size of cantaloupes hauling marijuana across the desert.
The fictitious narrative is this: People of color are either beasts or burden, only able to survive because of the benevolent charity of the whites who feed them, house them, and give them “things to do.”
These are the facts, hidden by the façade and the fiction: For every one Magic Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, or Eva Longoria, there are millions of blacks, Latinos, and others who have been barred from adequate housing, equal education, and affordable healthcare. They have suffered the effects of legislation that lowered the bar of criminality and targeted them to fill privatized prisons.
Sterling’s alleged comments are only a drop in the bucket. They only revealed the heresy, the connection between the façade, the fiction, and the facts.
Some good white Christians are hearing the recordings and asking a heart-felt question. Why can’t we forgive him?
I can. I can forgive him. I can release Sterling of the debt of dignity that he owes to me and all the black and brown people he robbed with his beliefs. I can even forgive him in my heart — release him of his debt of fair housing to the hundreds of black people he robbed of that right.
But then I turn to God. God must fill the debt. And that is not about forgiveness. That is about justice.
According to TMZ Sports, Sterling contacted Stiviano on Sunday and asked “How can we make this go away?”
Here’s how: Tear down the façade. Nix the fiction. Face the facts. Then do what you have refused to do all these years — repent.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.