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What Donald Sterling did right on race

Attorney General Eric Holder got into trouble in early 2009 when he called us “a nation of cowards” for our collective unwillingness to talk honestly about race. Later that year, President Obama got into trouble when he said the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates III in his own home. The uproar over him speaking his mind resulted in a beer summit and his full retreat from all things race-related until the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Those were a some teachable moments among many that sparked a national conversation on race. And then, as always, once the initial shock wore off and the outrage died down or was redirected, nothing happened. As I wrote in the aftermath of the Gates arrest, there is a reason nothing happens. Conversations on race are deeply personal and require that we talk to each other, one on one and face to face. But they also require trust. Time and time again, we have seen that there is absolutely no trust at the national level to have these complicated and uncomfortable discussions.

But in the messy life of Donald Sterling here is the one thing he did right. He talked openly and honestly with a trusted friend  about race.

The 80-year-old disgraced and adulterous Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner was having what he thought was a private conversation with his half-black and half-Mexican girlfriend, V. Stiviano, when he railed against her “associating with black people” by being pictured with such people on her Instagram account. Theirs was an uncomfortable back-and-forth (captured by Dead Spin and TMZ Sports) that left me sickened by the unabashed racism expressed by Sterling. But at least they were having it.

“He’s lighter, whiter than me”

Stiviano: Honey, if it makes you happy, I’ll remove all of the black people from my Instagram.
Sterling: You said that before. You said, “I understand.”
Stiviano: I did remove the people that were independently on my Instagram that are black.
Sterling: Then why did you start saying that you didn’t? You just said that you didn’t remove them. You didn’t remove every. . . .
Stiviano: I didn’t remove Matt Kemp and Magic Johnson . . .
Sterling: Why?
Stiviano: . . . but I thought Matt Kemp is mixed, and he was okay, just like me. He’s lighter, whiter than me.
Sterling: Okay.

“I don’t want to change”

Sterling: You think I’m a racist and wouldn’t. . . .
Stiviano: I don’t think you’re a racist
Sterling: Yes you do. Yes you do.
Stiviano: I think you, you . . .
Sterling: Evil heart.
Stiviano: I don’t think so. I think you have an amazing heart, honey. I think the people around you have poison mind and have a way of thinking. . . .
Sterling: It’s the world. You go to Israel. The blacks are just treated like dogs.
Stiviano: So, do you have to treat them like that, too?
Sterling: The white Jews, there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?
Stiviano: And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?
Sterling: A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred.
Stiviano: And is that right?
Sterling: It isn’t a question, we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.
Stiviano: But shouldn’t we take a stand for what’s wrong? And be the change and the difference?
Sterling: I don’t want to change the culture because I can’t. It’s too big and too [unintelligible]. . . .
Stiviano: But you can change yourself.
Sterling: I don’t want to change. If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl. I’ll find a girl that will do what I want! Believe me. I thought you were that girl because I tried to do what you want. But you’re not that girl.

“There’s no racism here”

Stiviano: I’m not going to bring any black people to the stadium.
Sterling: Is it easy to say that?
Stiviano: It’s very easy for you to say that.
Sterling: For you to say that.
Stiviano: I won’t say that to anyone, ever. I would never ask anyone to not bring someone based on race or color.
Sterling: Okay.
Stiviano: Or culture.
Sterling: Okay.
Stiviano: It’s like saying, “Let’s just persecute and kill all of the Jews.”
Sterling: Oh, it’s the same thing, right?
Stiviano: Isn’t it wrong? Wasn’t it wrong then? With the Holocaust? And you’re Jewish.You understand discrimination.
Sterling: You’re a mental case, you’re really a mental case. The Holocaust, we’re comparing with —
Stiviano: Racism. Discrimination.
Sterling: There’s no racism here. If you don’t want to be . . . walking . . . into a basketball game with a certain . . .  person, is that racism?

Sterling’s and Stiviano’s conversation is civil but brutal. His horrible views on race, the world and the place of black people in it are tough to listen to. Then, again, we weren’t meant to be in on their conversation. Still, these recordings and the instant national outrage over them show how difficult it has been, is and will be to have that open, honest conversation on race we need to have, even at the personal level. We say we want it. We just can’t handle it.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj