Have you heard the news? A rich old white guy made racist comments about black people. No, really, it’s true. So, barring a war or a natural disaster, this story will take up a large part of the “news” for a while. We’ll be subjected to the standard script. Right-thinking Americans will howl with moral indignation. The offender, in this case the owner of the LA Clippers, will apologize but insist his remarks were taken out of context. As soon as it’s clear this hullabaloo is going to affect his bottom line, he’ll abase himself in some symbolic way, maybe by throwing money at a black charity or putting some black people in high positions within the Clipper organization.
It will be debated on all the cable talk shows. Like every other story, it will be crammed into a simplistic framework that prevents any serious discussion about the underlying issues at play. It will degenerate into a stupid morality tale in which high-paid louts argue about whether his apologies are sincere or not, and whether his penance has gone far enough, and what should the NBA do to combat this problem in the future? Is the NBA commissioner at fault? It will become such a childish farce that we’ll all start praying for Kim Kardashian or Beyonce to commit some equally egregious faux pas so we can obsess over that instead.
Two aspects of this issue are confounding people. First, the man in question, Donald Sterling, is the owner of an NBA team. Second, his trophy girlfriend is half-black. Why would a racist own a basketball team and cavort with a black woman himself? This defies common sense. Some enterprising TV producer might even have a telegenic TeeVee psychologist come on to explain the mystery and put our dissonance at ease. In fact, this is an interesting psychological question, but it can’t be discussed in three minute segments between commercials for Cialis and Applebee’s. In terms of history, though, there really is nothing surprising here: Plantation owners ran operations staffed largely by black people, and many of them had no qualms about sleeping with black women at all. Does that mean they weren’t racists? This is the modern version of a phenomenon that is older than Monticello.
The one-percent doesn’t believe, rightly, I’m afraid, that they are subject to the law. Why on earth would they consider themselves bound to petty social mores and conventions? What’s the fun of being at the top of the pyramid if you have to treat all the little people — black or white — with decency or respect? He’ll be a pariah for a season or two, but he’ll eventually go to Canossa, i.e., Dancing with the Stars, and win over the plebs, who by that point will have forgotten why he’s on TV in the first place. He’ll just be another circus clown to gawk at during those two-minute intervals when they aren’t staring at their iPhones. By the time the elections roll around, the politicians who denounce him this week will be able to safely and quietly deposit his checks and no one will be the wiser. That’s the real issue at stake, and it won’t be touched.