The Tragedy of Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling at a Los Angeles Clippers game, April 21, 2014.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

In his interview with CNN, aired last night, Donald Sterling insisted that the Los Angeles Clippers still loved him. Sterling’s host, Anderson Cooper, asked him why no players had come forward to defend him. Sterling replied that the controversy was too hot. “People are intimidated by even the thought of racism,” he said.

That’s true. These days, many people freak out over the slightest insinuation of racism. Part of Sterling’s problem is that he’s one of these people. He can’t stand the idea of anyone thinking he’s a racist. That’s what blinds him to his racism.

Throughout the interview, Sterling raised and repudiated the R-word. “I’m not a racist,” he said. “I’ll never be a racist.” He seemed baffled that racial statements (It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people) somehow “came out of my mouth.” He attributed the statements to manipulation (“I was baited”) and even ventriloquism (“I don’t know why the girl had me say those things”).

Why can’t Sterling own his words? Because he thinks racism is so awful that an otherwise good person can’t be racist. That’s a fundamental mistake. You can be perfectly well-intentioned and still be infected with unconscious prejudice. Maybe you tiptoe around black people. Maybe you interrupt women. Maybe you tune out anyone who seems religious.

In the interview, Sterling reviled racism. He called his offensive words “terrible” and pleaded that being called “a possible racist is so painful to me.” He couldn’t have a problem with blacks, he insisted, because “I love them.” Later, he added, “I like to help minorities … I spend millions on giving away and helping minorities.”

He portrayed his troublesome remarks as “uneducated.” “I can’t explain some of the stupid, foolish, uneducated words that I uttered,” he said. “I don’t understand why in the world I said any of those stupid, uneducated remarks.” One reason he can’t explain such remarks is that he seems to think no educated person could say them. But lots of people with professional degrees still harbor biases. Fancying yourself an educated person won’t protect you.

Self-awareness helps, but it isn’t a guaranteed cure. You can be alert to some weaknesses while using them to paper over others. For Sterling, the cover story is jealousy. It was his girlfriend who brought up race, he told Cooper: “She said to me, ‘I’m going to bring four gorgeous black guys to the game.’ … I said to her, ‘Don’t bring them to the game,’ because of my jealousy.” No doubt jealousy was a factor. But it can’t explain the flatly racial aspects of the conversation (In your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people), or the persistence with which Sterling repeated the word black. In Sterling’s head, the jealousy and the racial anxiety were mixed together.

How Sterling developed his initial feelings about race is anyone’s guess. But his interview suggests two reasons why those feelings remain invisible to him. One is that he doesn’t understand the varieties of racism. When Cooper told him that Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ former general manager, had accused Sterling of a “plantation mentality,” Sterling replied: “I’m not a racist, and I have never been a racist, and I will never be a racist. I don’t know what that means, to have a mentality.” The subtleties of groupspeak and condescension (“I like to help minorities”) seemed not to have occurred to him.

The other factor behind Sterling’s obtuseness is his failure to understand himself. “That’s not the way I talk,” he told Cooper, referring to the taped conversation. “I don’t talk about people, for one thing, ever. I talk about ideas.” Come on. No matter what you think of Sterling, it’s obvious from his taped conversations that he loves to talk about people.

Nor does Sterling recognize patterns in his life. Cooper pointed out that to many listeners, “These comments that were caught on tape do echo other charges that have been made in the past, as you know, by Elgin Baylor [and] in other lawsuits.” Sterling dismissed the idea: “Elgin Baylor has nothing to do with … the things I said 20 years later.”

Sterling is a tragic figure. But we can learn from him, just as we did from the Trayvon Martin case. Some of the lessons of that case were about treating people as individuals. But the first lesson was not to freak out. Another lesson was not to pretend you’re perfect. Freaking out when you’re accused of racism locks you into denial. And fixating on the premise that you’re a good person blinds you to the reality that bias and benevolence routinely coexist.

Sterling has it all: racism, sexism, prurience, vanity. He knows he’s flawed. “I’m kind of foolish,” he confessed to Cooper. “I thought she liked me and really cared for me. I guess being 50 years … older than her, I was deluding myself.” If only he had developed that kind of insight earlier in his life, about the power of color in his perceptions of others. It didn’t have to end this way. For him, and for all of us, it still doesn’t.