I just read an online article that defended Donald Sterling’s right to continue as the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers basketball team after his racist rant against African Americans was made public. The author presented it as a free speech issue.
“[T]he last time I checked this is still a ‘free country’, where we were free to think and feel the way we want,” he said. “He really didn’t ‘hurt’ anyone.”
I very much disagree with that point of view, and said so in a comment on the article. I’d like to share that comment here.
I understand your point about free speech, but I think free speech is not the only issue to be considered.
Yes, Sterling’s comments were made in what he thought was privacy, and it was a disservice to him to make them public without his permission. But once they became public, by whatever means, the NBA and society as a whole had to respond. And there are only two responses: approval or total condemnation.
When it comes to remarks that denigrate an entire race, especially given a history in which such denigration has encouraged actions involving the worst kind of race-based discrimination and oppression, up to and including lynching, failure to condemn is just another form of approval. So, yes Sterling has a right to his views. He has no right to expect those who are massively offended by them to not react.
The NBA is a business. Sterling created a situation in which that business would be disrupted and all the owners would suffer were he to be allowed to remain in control of the Clippers. I hope it’s obvious that after all the race baiting that African Americans have for centuries had to endure in this country, it would be impossible for any self-respecting black player to work for an organization that implicitly approved Sterling’s remarks by not doing anything about them.
To say that “he didn’t really hurt anyone” is to deny that words have power. They do. And it’s a power that for far too long has been used to hurt and devalue people and make their lives more miserable, to blight their hopes, limit their prospects in life, and tell them they are considered worthless, something less than fully human. If Sterling’s sentiments were made public without provoking the greatest possible backlash, it would give encouragement and cover to others that their racism, and the harmful actions it often promotes, are still acceptable.
We have made enough progress in this country that African Americans no longer have to just “take it” when they are denigrated in this fashion.
And they won’t.
Image credit: Michael Tipton via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)