State, national columnists

Are the ugly private conversations of public figures fair game?

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is arguably the most loathed billionaire in America. His secretly recorded racist rant – chiding his mistress for “associating with black people” – made national news and led to his fellow owners voting to impose a $2.5 million fine and ban him for life from the NBA.

But is Sterling’s punishment a satisfactory end to the story? As former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban both pointed out, the conversation that led to Sterling’s ouster was private and likely obtained illegally. “The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote at Time.com.

Do the ends of punishing a high-profile bigot justify the means? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.

Ben Boychuk

Sterling’s bigoted reputation preceded him. His bizarre complaints about his half-Mexican, half-black mistress’s Instagram account were, by all accounts, fairly typical of the man. He has numerous racial discrimination lawsuits to his name. Some of them he settled. Some he won. But people who knew him knew he was rotten.

The billionaire real estate magnate tried to buy his way to respectability by giving generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, in turn, was about to give Sterling a lifetime achievement award. His incoherent racist rant put an end to that.

Millions of Americans applauded what happened to Sterling. His ouster from the NBA proves that, if nothing else, the broad American populace has no stomach for brazen racism and bigotry in a country with a long, sad history of both.

Trouble is, Sterling’s downfall was a private conversation, not a public declaration. True, he’s a public figure. But even public figures have a right to harbor ugly views behind closed doors.

When the NBA announced Sterling’s punishment, former NBA All-Star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson declared, “I hope that every bigot in this country sees what happened to Mr. Sterling, and recognizes that if he can fall, so can you.” If even private conversations become fair game for public excoriation, more than a few smug liberals may be eating their words if Mayor Johnson’s doctrine prevails.

At the risk of sounding glib, maybe the bigger lesson in all of this is to avoid cheating on your spouse. Don’t forget, the soon-to-be divorced Sterling directed his bigoted rant at his former mistress. That’s not to say fidelity to his wife of 50 years would make Sterling any less of a loathsome man. But remaining a bigoted but faithful husband might have saved him from public exposure of his private phone conversation.

A little more private rectitude would save a lot of people from public dishonor.

Joel Mathis

Liberals and conservatives view the world differently when it comes to race, sometimes in a fashion that redounds to neither side’s credit. Liberals can be guilty of crying “racism” too often, while conservatives often deny that racism still has any force in American politics — or to attribute racism more to Democrats and African-Americans than to whites and Republicans. Given those differing perspectives, most debates on race in this country end up being a Rorschach test, telling us more about the debater than the topic being debated.

So it is with the Donald Sterling incident. Here we have a clear, unmitigated incident of racism … and conservatives still want to change the subject.

Racism is bad, they say, clearing their throats, but shouldn’t we talk about the secret recording? Racism is bad, they say, but shouldn’t we talk about Donald Sterling’s infidelity and the gold-digger who took advantage of it? Racism is bad, they say, but isn’t this incident proof that racism has no real purchase on the American soul?

Almost never do they simply say: “Here is racism. Let us condemn it.” They have to add a million addenda and caveats to the conversation, so that a talk about race isn’t a talk about race.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes racism is just racism.

And far from demonstrating racism’s unpopularity, Donald Sterling’s story — viewed over the long term — demonstrates how long one can live on the edge of open racism and still amass power, influence, and money in society. All you have to do is avoid saying some specific combination of wrong words, give yourself some plausible deniability, and you and your racism can still shape the world around you in ugly, pernicious, subtle ways. Does anybody want to make a case that it made no difference?

It clearly did. Racism is alive and well. It’s just not usually so overt as Sterling’s. Which means we can keep denying it exists at all.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis


Discussion | 4 comments

The Daily Republic does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Please read our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy before commenting.

  • G-ManMay 02, 2014 - 9:11 am

    We just had a sitting US Congressman call a sitting Supreme Court Justice an "Uncle Tom"..Thankfully both are black but C'mon. This is the 21st Century....

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • BettySMay 02, 2014 - 12:10 pm

    Race is still an issue because liberals couldn't survive without being able to use it on a daily basis to describe those who disagree with them and our president. Then, when Kevin Johnson threatens that those who some consider to be bigots can suffer the same fate as Mr. Sterling, people ought to be very afraid. Who's to say who is a bigot? Those in positions of power who resent those who disagree with them, especially if they are of a different race? Are all discussions which are held in the sanctity of a home or on a telephone subject to the moral judgments of others? If so, no one is safe. I have read that Mr. Sterling has been known to have hateful opinions of blacks for at least 20 years. Why, when folks knew about that didn't it make the news years ago? It seems coincidental that these revelations and the subsequent non-stop/day and night news discussions happened just a week after Eric Holder made his opinions known about how he and the president have been treated differently based on their race.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Mr. PracticalMay 02, 2014 - 6:01 pm

    Well said Betty. It would be particularly concerning if he is forced to divest property over a private conversation at his private residense.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Exactly!.... I Like YouMay 02, 2014 - 7:44 pm


    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Recent Articles

  • Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Special Publications »

    Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Service (updated 4/30/2015) and Privacy Policy (updated 4/7/2015).
    Copyright (c) 2016 McNaughton Newspapers, Inc., a family-owned local media company that proudly publishes the Daily Republic, Mountain Democrat, Davis Enterprise, Village Life and other community-driven publications.