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Does Donald Sterling's racist rant really matter?

The controversy surrounding L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling shows why the "black friends" defense is such a joke.
Donald Sterling looks on as the Los Angeles Clippers plays against the Minnesota Timberwolves, April 10, 2013.
Donald Sterling looks on as the Los Angeles Clippers plays against the Minnesota Timberwolves, April 10, 2013.

The firestorm enveloping L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is supposed to be the kind of racism controversy everyone can feel good about. After all, the alleged tape of Sterling's remarks, reportedly recorded by his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, features the sort of mustache-twirling cartoon villain racism everyone can condemn without feeling implicated. Or does it? 

As the New Republic's Isaac Chotiner points out, "there are bigger racial problems in the country than people privately spouting sinister garbage to their friends."

Sterling's past record of facing discrimination lawsuits, including one in a housing discrimination case that ended with a massive, nearly $3 million settlement (although Sterling admitted to no wrongdoing), and another from former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor that was later dismissed, hints at these larger, systemic problems. Long after the Sterling controversy grows cold, vast, racial disparities in wealth, education, employment, health care, social mobility, political representation and incarceration will still exist. 

“I’m just saying in your lousy f***** Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people," the man identified as Sterling says in the recording. You can sleep with them. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that, and not to bring them to my games.”

Sterling's overt racism is of the sort that is rarely publicly expressed -- and, in fact, in his case, wasn't publicly expressed -- but even then rarely does the speaker consider his or her own remarks racist. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher and conservative folk hero who speculated last week that black people might have been better off as slaves, insisted "I'm not racist." As NPR's Gene Demby writes, "'racist' has become a term both monstrous and meaningless, that denotes something so vile and inhuman that no real person might ever meet the standard."

Sterling shows that in some extreme cases, some people manage to meet that standard -- though naturally, Sterling's representatives have already released a statement saying that "what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life."

There's a more disturbing element to the controversy that has largely escaped notice. Sterling's remarks show how deep, interpersonal racism can persist despite longstanding, even intimate relationships with people of color.

Stiviano, Sterling's girlfriend, is black and Hispanic. Through his charitable foundation, Sterling has given money to organizations like the NAACP,  the United Negro College Fund, and the Black Business Association. He is the owner of a basketball team made up largely of black athletes. 

Yet none of these things appear to have moderated Sterling's feelings towards black people. This is nothing new of course -- even during slavery, white plantation owners sired entire families with people they owned as chattel without ever questioning the legitimacy of a system that treated blacks as property. The "black friends" defense has become a running joke precisely because it's equally popular and unpersuasive. Sterling's remarks are a reminder that having black associations, friends, or even lovers, doesn't mean you can't still hold racist views.