The Power Struggle Behind the Sterling/Stiviano Tape

It's been in the news for nearly a week now. The bigoted, racist and misogynistic words of Donald Sterling (he admits it), owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, were (not secretly) recorded by his girlfriend/archivist then "leaked" to the press. The storm of outrage doesn't show much sign of abating.

Sterling has a well-documented history of discrimination against Latino and black families in his rental properties, so in retrospect, his words merely reflect those actions. In fact, the jaw-dropped shock in the reactions of some observers is more surprising -- as if actions don't reveal the man.

What no one seems to be talking about here is the context of the vile and indefensible conversation. Caught on tape is a Donald Sterling who was not thinking about how his words would affect the players on his basketball team. He was not thinking about how his comments would play in the ears of the famous athletes he was disparaging. He didn't give a single thought to how his words would hurt the significant portion of the population he disparaged, or the rest of the population who consider it at least poor form to be racist.

His only concern was how his words would change the behavior of the woman in the room, V. Stiviano. Beautiful, mixed-race, and less than half his age, Stiviano was Sterling's archivist, chef, stylist, director of his charitable foundation, and lover. Listening to that taped conversation, though, I think the dynamic might have been more complicated. What we hear is a pattern of manipulation through gifts and verbal abuse.

In a 2003 lawsuit, Sterling and his wife filed against another mistress, Sterling is clear about who is in charge.

It was purely sex for money, money for sex, sex for money, money for sex... I was paying her. It was in exchange for sex. It wasn't a gift. I wasn't giving her money without her performing something for me. And if it wasn't good, I wouldn't give her anything. It was money for sex. How can you say it was a gift? If a man has an affair with a prostitute, is that a gift? It is not a gift.

Now Stiviano is being sued by Rochelle, Sterling's wife of 50 years. Mrs. Sterling calls Stiviano a "gold digger," demanding Stiviano sign over the deed to a condo and the many other high-priced "gifts" Mr. Sterling gave her. Stiviano's defense documents almost laugh at the accusation, as if anyone could overwhelm the "iron will" of "one of the shrewdest business men in the world."

On one hand we have a powerful man willing to bend the rules and ignore the basic humanity of some people just on the basis of skin color. On the other we have a woman with no record of higher education who's only known definition of success is popularity. Who, do you think, is the vulnerable party here?

I'm wondering where the line is. What is the difference between "gold digger" and "I just bought you a car so you owe me your time and attention"? Where is the tipping point between "I hate seeing you with black people," and "I hate you because you're with black people"? (And how long before that slides over into "I hate you because you're black"?)

I can't defend Stiviano's life choices. By 31-years-old most of us have figured out that our knight in shining armor is never married to someone else -- and that money, although fun, isn't the answer to anything except bills. But, when all you have is what's been "given" you, sometimes the only thing you have to fight with are the words of your lover throws at you first.