Some 20 years ago, a 12-year-old boy on a trip to San Francisco was taken into a restaurant in Chinatown. He saw the menu, and in a loud voice said: “Chinese food? I hate Chinese food. I don’t even like the Chinese!” Then he noticed all the Asians glaring at him. He was one of two non-Asians there.
“Oops,” he said, turning red. But the “Oops” didn’t erase perceptions now embedded in minds of the other diners.
Fast-forward to the case of the Los Angeles’ Clippers justifiably reviled owner Don Sterling. Sterling, whose innermost racist feelings -- about blacks and the players who helped enrich him --came to light in a recording secretly made by his then-girlfriend, did an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper to try and do damage control. He was virtually pleading for a second chance. Instead, he wound up proving (1) he is a confirmed racist, (2) if the NBA values its branding they must get him to sell the team, and, (3) he is not quite as smart as a can of cat food.
Faced with a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine from the NBA, Sterling told Cooper his racist comments had been “one...terrible mistake” in 35 years, and insisted he wasn’t a racist. But he couldn’t keep himself from lashing out at Magic Johnson, who is demanding that no one from the Sterling family be allowed to own the Clippers.
“Biiig Magic Johnson,” Sterling said. “What has he done? He’s got AIDS .... Did he help anybody in South L.A.?... Well, what kind of a guy goes to every city, he has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV and - is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. But what does he do for the black people? Doesn’t do anything.”He dug himself deeper: “I spend millions on giving away and helping minorities. Does he [Johnson] do that? That’s one problem I have. Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African Americans - maybe I will get in trouble again - they don’t want to help anybody.” Sterling thus touted himself as a shining example of Jewish largess, and became an instant poster boy for the kind of dumb, inflammatory comments also made by some Tea Partiers who play to their like-minded choir while alienating the rest of the audience. He also undermined those who argued that his recorded comments were private and he shouldn’t be judged by one slip. Sterling now has enough slips to open a lingerie department. In a post-Sterling CNN reaction interview, dismayed director Spike Lee spoke for many Americans when he said Sterling should “Shut the ---- up.”
Indeed: there is a mainstream in American politics and culture and he who crosses it may find his image, branding and acceptance by society will never be the same.
“Seinfeld’s” Michael Richard’s career died when he lost his temper at a comedy club in 2006 and shouted the “n word” at a black audience member. Radio host Don Imus’ career and image were never the same after 2007 when he jokingly called members of the Rutgers girls basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Actor Mel Gibson’s recorded anti-Semitic rants led to denunciations, decreased box office pull and virtual Hollywood blacklisting. And despite her proclaiming a comeback since her disastrous remarks that sounded like she was nostalgic for slavery, to many Americans, Paula Deen remains a prohibitively spoiled dish.
That Sterling is Jewish has now led some Jewish organizations to distance themselves. The Jewish Federations of North America declared: “The Jewish people have a long history of fighting racism and we are deeply disturbed by the reprehensible statements attributed to Donald Sterling,...There is no place for racism or bigotry in America today and certainly not in Jewish life.” Should Sterling be given another chance, or should the NBA battle him in court? His mea culpa proved him to be mea racist and mea estupido. It makes it impossible for the NBA -- and the league’s basketball players -- to change their minds and ever say “Oops.”
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joegandelman