The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on Donald Sterling and why it’s hard to talk race in public
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit
Even though we all know that it’s wrong
Maybe it would help us get along.
— “Avenue Q”
God bless Donald Sterling. The octogenarian owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was caught on tape doing the one thing we all need to do. He talked openly and honestly with a trusted friend about race.
Oh, yes, the things Sterling said to V. Stiviano on recordings that were leaked to TMZ and Deadspin revealed him to be far more than a little bit racist. But equally amazing to me was how forthrightly — sometimes painfully — they had the conversation.
Sterling was upset that his half-black, half-Mexican paramour was “associating with black people” on her Instagram account. That the African American pictured with Stiviano was basketball legend Magic Johnson mattered not to Sterling. “Why are you taking pictures with minorities?” he whines. “Why?”
Sterling explains that his views are not a matter of “what’s right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.” Fighting that culture, he tells her, is “too big,” and “I don’t want to change.”
When it comes to race, no one wants to change. Most need to be jolted to even talk about it, whether by the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman; the White House “beer summit” in 2009 with President Obama, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley; the drowning of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; or the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Tex., in 1998.
President Bill Clinton called for a national conversation on race the year before Byrd, who was black, was murdered by three men, two of whom were white supremacists. And the same thing happened then that happened after Obama’s beer summit: nothing. National conversations on race, whether convened by political leaders or sparked by collective outrage, never last long. We say we want the conversation. But we just can’t handle it — especially in public.
Sterling and Stiviano were having their race talk in the manner I envision it working best: one on one, in private, with someone you trust. Yes, the questions asked and the answers given were ugly and painful. That’s why such a talk is only truly effective out of public view.
What others heard as Stiviano egging Sterling on to put his racism on display, I heard as someone trying to get her friend to articulate and at least acknowledge his bigotry. The nationwide freak-out we saw once the exchange ceased to be private only proves how fraught these national conversations can be. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s announcement of a lifetime ban on Sterling and a push to have him sell the team was an effort to limit the conversation’s impact on the league. (That may work until Sterling sues the NBA, but that’s another story.)
In politics, there is even less room for frank discussions of prejudice or for even talking about race, especially on the GOP side of the aisle.
Remember in 2007, when Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, sized up Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean” ? Or when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) described Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” to the authors of “Game Change”? Both had to apologize, but they survived the controversies, and Biden even joined Obama on the 2008 Democratic presidential ticket.
But for Republicans, the well of forgiveness and understanding is not as deep. Just last month we saw Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) embrace Cliven Bundy as an anti-government “patriot” — until the illegal cattle grazer wondered aloud during a news conference whether enslavement was better for African Americans than freedom is today. There is a history here: For decades, the cynical use of code words and “dog whistles” by Republicans to tap into racial animus among members of the base and propel them to the polls has not only poisoned political discourse, but it has also made it difficult for serious players in the GOP, especially Southern white Republicans, to talk honestly about race.
I’m thinking of Haley Barbour. The former Mississippi governor and GOP chairman was seriously considering running for his party’s 2012 presidential nomination but opted to sit out the contest. The suspected rationale was as disappointing as it was understandable.
Barbour has a reputation for making myopic comments on race. In April 2010, he said that the controversy over the omission of slavery in a Confederate History Month proclamation by thenVirginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was “something that doesn’t amount to diddly.” Then he told the Weekly Standard later that year that school integration wasn’t a big drama in his home town, Yazoo City, Miss. “The business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he explained. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders.”
That’s a rather rosy view of an organization known throughout the South as being “just the Klan in a white collar,” as Harold Evans responded in the Daily Beast. And what about the school desegregation fight in his home town? “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” Barber recalled.
As the buzz about a Barbour presidential run got louder, The Washington Post reported in March 2011 that he was considering a major speech on race in late May, at a 50th anniversary reunion of the Freedom Riders in Jackson. The following month, GQ featured a Barbour profile. When asked if Barbour could talk about race, civil rights and Yazoo City in a way that wouldn’t make him seem insensitive, his long-time friend and former owner of the Yazoo Herald offered a telling comment. “I don’t know,” he said. “He’s smart enough to know, and if there’s a way to figure it out he will. But if he hasn’t figured out how you overcome it, or pretty well minimize it, in my opinion he won’t run.”
Barbour announced his decision to stay out of the presidential race on April 25, 2011.
I was disappointed. Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign was one of the most important speeches on the subject since the orations of Martin Luther King. I would have wanted to hear a white Southern Republican such as Barbour give an honest speech on race from his perspective, in an effort to explain and heal. It might have proved uncomfortable, but we would have listened, learned and moved forward with the knowledge gained.
But I also understand Barbour’s reticence. To deliver such a speech, with power and nuance, would mean putting one’s livelihood — in politics and business — on the line. It would require a bravery and selflessness few could muster.
If the public revelation of Sterling’s private conversation is any indication, my fear is that no one will admit publicly or privately to being “racist a little bit” anytime soon. And that’s too bad because, even though we all know that it’s wrong, I do think it would help us get along.
Jonathan Capehart is a Washington Post opinion writer. Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.