What Donald Sterling Teaches Us About Racial Progress

Some of the response to the Donald Sterling case underscore a misguided mission that has long been part of the struggle and highlight how far off course the quest for racial equality sometimes gets.

Historically, a major part of the struggle for civil rights has been a preoccupation with making white people like us. We focus so much on interpersonal racism (i.e. don't you dare tell your girlfriend not to post pictures with black people on social media) and fall far short on demanding an end to structural and institutional racism (i.e. don't you dare commit housing discrimination against the Black and Latino families who live in the buildings you own.) For the record, Donald Sterling is guilty of both forms of racism, but only one made national news.

Much of the conversation about how Black NBA players and coaches should have responded to Sterling focused on the unacceptability of his words. But, the desire to rid the world of racists seems both futile and misguided. Quite frankly, I don't care what Donald Sterling thinks about Black people. And why should I? After all, isn't, "It doesn't matter what others think of you" one of the first lessons our mothers taught us? The notion, then, that black players and coaches should boycott the game because an owner falsely believes them to be inferior to him harkens back to days when the Black community was preoccupied with a desire to force white parents to sit their white children next to our children in classrooms. The moral of that lesson is clear: we got integration in name, but we did not get a better education. In fact, we lost a critical source of power over the fate of our own communities, deciding the curriculum taught to our youth.

We have to move away from caring about what others think of us (you should hear your mother's voice in your head) and concern ourselves only with the institutional access and power such people have. To expect ball players to take on the burden of potential contract violations and economic losses, and worse, to call them cowards when they don't choose the second option is to miss the point entirely. Sterling's situation reminds me of a quote that hangs in my classroom: "You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequences of your choice." The players did not need to leave the court. Sterling needed to leave the game.

Still, many people expressed disappointment in the response of Black players and coaches. It seems some wanted an all out civil rights showdown, no games, no nothing, until ... well, until what? Anybody else find themselves asking that question? Could we have asked for a better outcome? Does it even make sense to boycott before giving the NBA a chance to respond? After all, Sterling isn't the Commissioner; he's (he was?) an owner.

This, to me, is what happens when we get caught up in believing that racial progress means making all white people like and value us. In my eyes, the NBA players and coaches did exactly the right thing. Mostly, nothing. They continued working towards the coveted NBA championship ring they all desire. What's more, they expected the institution of which they are a part to channel Olivia Pope and handle it.

That, to me, is power. THAT is a sign of racial progress and recognition of human value. You give the institution a chance to respond appropriately, and if they don't, then you raise hell, not before. Raising hell before suggests that you don't expect the NBA to defend you, that you don't believe black people are valued by the organization, and thus, you feel pressed to tell them how you feel. After all, nobody stages a sit-in at the lunch counter that already welcomes them to sit and eat.

I don't have any biological children, but when I do, I won't teach them to desire to be liked, affirmed, or valued by everybody. Racist thinking is like a bottle of whiskey that some seem unable to put down. No, I'll raise my children to expect that some people will devalue them because of their race and to expect equally as hard for our institutions to ensure that those people have limited access to power and authority. Margaret Thatcher once said, "Power is like being a lady ... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't." Well. Similarly, if you have to go on strike against your job to prove that you're valued, chances are you aren't. That Black NBA players and coaches didn't have to boycott is a sign of victory. That it hasn't been fully celebrated as that is a sign that, perhaps, we're looking for racial progress in the wrong places.