Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been hammered by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and will soon be tossed out of the NBA’s mostly white ownership club for his racially-charged remarks to his girlfriend. That’s all good for the NBA and all good for society (and good for Donald Sterling, since he will get hundreds of millions of dollars when he is forced to sell his team, a team he paid about a buck and some change for in 1981.)
I was amazed at the swift action taken against him and the almost universal repulsion against his comments, which were widely reported as unforgivably racist. It’s says a lot for American society that we have come to the point where such remarks have no place in a polite, if still majority white, society.
But read again the following excerpt from the audio recordings that were made:
GIRLFRIEND: I don’t understand, I don’t see your views. I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.
STERLING: Well then, if you don’t feel — don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.
GIRLFRIEND: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
STERLING: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
Let’s move away from the “Don’t bring black people” remarks that have rightly outraged everyone and focus on something else: the utter arrogance of a man in business who thinks he is the center of the moral and economic universe.
Lots of people have interpreted Sterling’s remarks in the context of an old plantation owner in the South who thinks he is doing his slaves a favor by feeding and clothing them and providing them with other necessities. I get that. It sure looks like that is his attitude. But let’s go a little further and remove his words from the racial context and just look at what his comments mean as applied to all workers in the workplace (Sterling did, after all, have two white players). He asked,
Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
The answer clearly, in his mind at least, is, “I make the game” and “The owners make the game.” And because the owners make the game, because they created the league, they therefore “give” the players—the workers—food, clothes, cars, and houses. In other words, if it weren’t for the owners—the moneyed elite—no one would have a damn thing. It’s all dependent on them. The workers are just lucky that the owners provide for them. As the 2012 Republican convention theme put it,“We Built It,” in opposition to President Obama saying, “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.”
As I said, Donald Sterling’s comments about race rightly generated a lot of outrage. And wouldn’t it be nice if there were also a lot of outrage generated in response to his self-righteous stance as a business owner? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get to the point in this country where all workers were so highly valued that no “owner” dare talk down to them no matter their occupation or the color of their skin? That no businessman dare put himself above the workers that actually keep him in business?
Alas, that’s a long way off, as one recent commenter on this blog, Herb Van Fleet, pointed out. American business interests not only believe they are the center of the moral and economic universe, they also control our politics. Herb (as part of an upcoming column in the local paper) quoted from a new joint university study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page:
Gilens and Page comment that, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
In other words, it’s tyranny by the minority.
If you think Herb is exaggerating with that “tyranny by the minority” comment, consider the following from the authors of the study:
Our findings indicate, the majority does not rule – at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.
Tyranny by the minority, indeed.
The recent takedown of Donald Sterling by the NBA commissioner, and the upcoming vote by league ownership to force him to sell his team, was brought about by two things that give us some tiny twinkle of hope for wrestling control of our society from the economic elites, many of whom believe they not only own their businesses, but own our democracy and, ultimately, own us. Those two things were the unified stance the NBA players took against Sterling—they were prepared to boycott playoff games—and the widespread public reaction, including advertisers, against his expressed racism.
Now, if only we could generate such a unified workplace stance and such widespread public reaction against the economic elitism Sterling represents, maybe we could make more of those “I make the game” bastards squirm.