The saga of Donald Sterling is like a soap opera written by Tyler Perry. One blogger has hilariously dubbed it, As the Plantation Turns. This shoe fits because, in the words of Spike Lee, “Donald Sterling thinks of the blacks who play for him as slaves.”
The $1.8 million condo, the Bentley, the more than $240,000 in cash he gave her over four years were paid not merely for sexual favors but to create dependence. Stiviano was as much the property of Donald Sterling as the black basketball players on his team.
Sterling’s racism and sexism remind us, to paraphrase William Faulkner, that our racial past is not dead; it is not even past. The blatant racial hate that defined plantation life did not disappear; it simply hides in the “backstage” of American life.
Plantation life took place on two stages. On the front stage, the master could sit on the porch in a white suit, drink mint julep and read verses from the Bible. But, on the back stage, he could engage in acts of economic and sexual exploitation of his slaves.
As Erving Goffman has suggested, our society has a front stage and a back stage, too, where racism thrives behind a façade of colorblindness. Cambridge police officer Justin Barrett called Henry Louis Gates a jungle bunny in an email to a friend. Similarly, after officer Michel Daragjati falsely arrested a black man named Kenrick Gray, he wrote an email exulting, “I fried another nigger.”
When a gorilla escaped from the zoo, South Carolina Republican activist Rusty DePass joked on his Facebook page, “It must be one of Michelle Obama’s relatives.” All of these statements in the social media, like Sterling’s, were intended as private conversation, backstage performances of racism.
The technological innovation of the Internet has simply pulled up the curtain that separated the public and the private aspects of our lives, the front stage and the back stage. This is the curtain Stiviano pulled up.
These “backstage” performances of racism together open the curtain on a culture of racism that is certainly more widespread than Fox News would have us believe. This is a world where jokes about black people are still funny, where people still attend private clubs, like the Poinsett Club in Greenville, South Carolina, that do not admit blacks, where people applaud George Zimmerman as “a hero who shot a thug.”
It motivates people to wear racist Halloween costumes and sororities at the University of Alabama to fight for – and win – the right to ban blacks. Professor Joe R. Feagin did a study in which he looked at the diaries of 900 students at 28 universities. He found 15,000 accounts of “virulent” racism.
This backstage racism is a legacy of history. Slavery and segregation were like poison in the soil of American society. It is still deeply embedded there. It seeps into institutions like the criminal justice system in New York. Thus, although blacks were one-half as likely to possess illegal guns as whites, blacks were stopped five times as much in the infamous, now discontinued “stop-and-frisk” policy.
It infects the media and drives stories like the one in which Barack Obama was smuggled in on a forged birth certificate.
The media expresses “shock” and “surprise” when comments like those of Donald Sterling are outed, as if this bigotry were unusual or rare. But Donald Sterling is like the roach that you see: For every “roach” one sees, there are many you don’t see.
This has a lot to do with why, for generations, blacks could play on the team but they were not hired to coach or work in the front office.
Donald Sterling was not the only one who presided over that era of racial caste in basketball. Despite recent changes in which this “vertical segregation” has been put away, the attitudes on the part of the owners which sustained that caste system is still there. It is just back stage.
Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami. His latest book, Fear of a Hip-hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma, is available at Amazon.com