Sterling saga points to 'plantation mentality,' say many in black community

Comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, as well as his attempted apology, would be unthinkable if more African-Americans were in positions of authority.

Magic Johnson talks with CNN's Anderson Cooper about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Mr. Johnson has been lauded for his reaction to Mr. Sterling's harsh comments about him.

As the Donald Sterling saga continues to unfold nightly in lengthy television appearances, many in the African-American community are moving past initial emotions to reflect more deeply on what it says about the current state of race in America.

Though Mr. Sterling was recorded making disparaging and racial remarks about Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the basketball icon's calmness in the face of such spite has reflected a maturity in the community often not portrayed in media images of blacks, some say.

Yet Sterling’s seemingly paternalistic and prejudicial attitudes toward blacks is evidence of the work left to do, others say. The current dialogue pulls back the curtain on a deeper conversation in the black community about the need to expose and cast out the persistent “plantation mentality” – in which whites are still seen as the owners and bosses – to one of broader access and participation.

For example, the National Basketball Association has appointed Richard Parsons, who is African-American, as the interim CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers, which Sterling owns. But that is a symbol, many say. The deeper need is for more blacks to be in positions of authority.

“Our expectations need to shift now from these ‘firsts’ to sustained power and influence,” says Richard Cooper, assistant clinical professor at the Center for Social Work Education at Widener University in Philadelphia.

Out of 30 team owners in the NBA, only one – Michael Jordan – is African-American. Local activists are pushing for a prominent African-American to become the next Clippers owner, says Najee Ali, a well-known black activist and executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. Several names have arisen as potential candidates, including Oprah Winfrey and Sean Combs.

This, many say, is the best possible antidote to racism.

“It’s time to shift the conversation from leaning on efforts to get Sterling out to how to get a greater piece of the economic pie for African-Americans,” says Ava Muhammad, a Chicago attorney a local talk show host. “It is tragic that the plantation system the US economy was built upon continues to exist.” 

“Sterling is simply reflecting a viewpoint and posture that I don’t doubt is pervasive not just in the NBA, but in corporate America at large,” she adds.

Indeed, Sterling's attempts to apologize during a multipart interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper have only underscored how insidious racism can be, others say.

“It’s like the Archie Bunker effect,” says Shawn Prez, a marketing expert in New York. “He thinks that just because he has black friends he isn’t racist, all the while showing just how deep-seated his racism is without him even knowing it.”

To him and many others, Sterling’s apology fell far short and seemed more a maneuver to save his business. Mr. Ali joined a group of more than 100 black Angelenos in a sports bar Monday night to view Sterling’s interview. “Whenever we heard something we just didn’t agree with, we all booed,” he says.

The timing is right to push back against the attitudes that prevent important change, he adds. The election of President Obama in 2008 began a dialogue about race in America. Now, he says, “we continue to see old racists coming out of the woodwork saying racist things, and so it’s great to see people taking stands against racism, no matter who they are or where it comes from.”

To the NBA, the issue of racism at the highest levels has far-reaching consequences. The NBA has progressed further than any other American sports league toward becoming a global brand, and it “is surely aiming to be the first unified global ‘super league,' ” even before soccer, says Dave Hollander, professor at the New York University Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management.

The speed and decisiveness with which NBA commissioner Adam Silver slapped a $2.5 million fine and lifetime ban on Sterling was a “giant step forward in assuring the international basketball and corporate community that the league will not stand for or bring with it any ugly American, xenophobic, racist elements that would drive away international markets like Asia, India, and Africa,” he says.  

The question now is a social one, adds Gary Bailey, a professor at Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston. How do we “as a society effectively respond to and punish [such] billionaires in a country where wealth and gender dictates politics and repercussions of onerous behavior.”

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