What Anderson Cooper should ask Clippers owner Donald Sterling


Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, right, and V. Stiviano watch the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA preseason basketball game in Los Angeles. (Danny Moloshok/Associated Press)

Given the buzz about Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s remarks about race, caught on tape by his now presumably-ex-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, it is no surprise that CNN is hyping an exclusive interview he gave to Anderson Cooper. In a preview of the sit-down (which airs at 8 tonight), Cooper’s questions are not terribly deep: He wants to know about Sterling’s feelings, whether he trusts anyone, whether he might fight the National Basketball Association’s attempts to force him out of ownership.

There is some illustrative value in simply letting Sterling talk and seeing him in all of his self-pity and defensiveness. The interview has been taped. But here are five questions I hope Cooper asks in the extended conversation.

1. How do you define racism? To what level does a remark have to rise in order to be termed racist? What is the line between making an occasional misguided remark and a consistent pattern of racist remarks and behavior? In an excerpt of the interview CNN published today, Sterling laments the possibility that his players might have to suffer not from his sentiments, but from being told that their employer is racist.

“My players, they didn’t need this. They didn’t need this cloud over their heads. And they’re good people, and I love them and respect them, and I would always be there for them,” Sterling told Cooper. “I’m not a racist, and I’ve never been a racist. That’s not me.” (The whole subject of what Sterling thinks his relationship with his players is would make for another line of inquiry.)

A common feature of these now-regular kerfuffles over race and racial attitudes is the very definition of racism. Often, people like Sterling who find themselves the subject of criticism for their attitudes and business practices insist that they are no Bull Connor, as if the options are virulent, violent bias and pristine consciences, with nothing in between. Parsing how he sees his racial attitudes and their relationship to mainstream attitudes would be revealing and useful.

2. If your remarks were a mistake, what were your practices toward minority renters? Sterling asks Cooper, “Am I entitled to one mistake after 35 years?” But as my colleague Mark Berman points out, Sterling’s record is longer than just the recording by V. Stiviano. And it includes business practices, rather than simply remarks made in the heat of anger: Sterling settled two lawsuits brought against him for allegedly refusing to rent to black and Latino tenants. It would be very interesting to see what Sterling believes are the differences between his comments and the way he conducts his business.

3. How did your girlfriend make you say anything? In the clips we see from the interview, Sterling repeatedly acts as though an alien took over his body. “I don’t even know how I could say words like this,” Sterling tells Cooper. “I don’t know why the girl had me say those things.” The “why” seems fairly obvious: Stiviano is being sued by Shelly Sterling, Sterling’s wife, from whom he is not actually divorced. How another person could make words come out of Sterling’s mouth, or plant ideas in his head, is much less clear.

4. If what you said is not what you think, how do you feel about your majority-minority fan base? What about racial attitudes in Israel, toward not just African immigrants, but Palestinians? Given that it seems Sterling is not entirely clear on what he said wrong, Cooper should give him an opportunity to say what he thinks, and then seen how far he can defend whatever he comes up with.

5. If Magic Johnson is not “a good example for the children of Los Angeles,” why not? Who would be better, and why? Sterling said he has spoken to Magic Johnson, whom he told Stiviano not to bring to games, several times since the scandal broke. At the same time, though, Sterling told Cooper that he was skeptical of Johnson’s reputation. “Has he done everything he can do to help minorities? I don’t think so,” Sterling muses. The idea of Sterling determining the standard for role models, or setting the bar for what anyone owes non-white folks, is risible. But even so, Cooper should tease out what Sterling thinks they ought to be.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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Alyssa Rosenberg | May 12