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America today goes far beyond black and white

By
May 1, 2014

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (R) with his wife Shelly (L)  (REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (R) with his wife Shelly (L)
(REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)

America is growing too complicated and mixed — very brown, I would say.

Everyone is becoming everything. And the old man was a fool not to see it.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is on record pleading with his companion, V. Stiviano, not to be seen in public with black people and certainly not to post pictures of herself on the Internet with black athletes — particularly Magic Johnson.

But the most ironic thing about his comments is that Sterling was often seen and photographed at Clippers games sitting alongside Stiviano, a woman much younger than he and who is, by her own description, Mexican and black.

In the parlance of modern-day Los Angeles, Stiviano is a “Blaxican.”

There are children all over America who are renaming themselves, playfully, refusing the old distinctions of black and white America with homemade elisions like Blaxican.

There are, for example, Hinjews and Negropinos. Millions of young people will tell you they do not have “a” (singular) race and are, in any case, disinclined to play on the old black-and-white chess board that captivated their grandparents. There are grandchildren aplenty who do not look like any of their grandparents; their faces suggest citizenship in some brave new world.

Sterling, a Los Angeles real estate billionaire, may not be so different from some others of his generation.  Weren’t we, only a few days ago, discussing his contemporary, the Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy?

Bundy was briefly the darling of U.S. conservatives in fighting the federal government over grazing rights.  But then Bundy admitted nostalgia for slavery. He was undone by the microphone.

The difference, in fairness to Sterling, is that Bundy intended his words to be public. Sterling was exposed to public view on the gossip site TMZ, caught on tape talking to his women friend.  Theirs was a private conversation.

But as the National Basketball Association commissioner, Adam Silver, said at his Wednesday news conference:  “Whether or not spoken in private … (his words) are now public and they represent his views.”

What Sterling apparently did not realize until too late was that his wealth and position magnified his dark opinions. His power made him more vulnerable.  Did he not remember that?

When former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor sued Sterling for age and race discrimination in 2009, the news made the sports pages.  When there was a Justice Department suit charging him as a landlord for discrimination against Latinos and blacks, Sterling settled for $2.73 million, while admitting no wrong-doing. And everyone read the story.

Now, Silver has fined Sterling, almost the same amount as he paid in the real estate suit. Silver has also banned Sterling from basketball for life and urged other NBA owners to force him to sell the Clippers

Racism — the division of the people of world based on blood — tested the United States as soon as it dared to become a new sort of country, a nation composed of no single nationality or religion or color. I know many American families who combine many races and religions. Thanksgiving becomes an achievement of civilization, on a par with the Pyramids.

That said, one basic characteristic of America is how often race is referred to — even in families — against darker hued children, for example, or other members of one’s own tribe. Sterling (born to Jewish immigrants, Susan and Mickey Tokowitz), not only distanced himself from his own familial past by changing his surname, but he also turns out to have complicated feelings about the racism of Israel — the attitudes within Israel toward blacks and what he called “black Jews.“  These opinions were much discussed in the Israeli media this week, even as America was focused on the black-and-white story.

In a way, Sterling’s humiliation gives America a black-and-white moment. The old white man’s opinions give us all the chance to distance ourselves from him. Forget the fact that Sterling was a humanitarian — despite a history of racial controversy — about to be honored by the NAACP in Los Angeles. (The citation has been withdrawn.) What businessmen like Sterling know is that normally philanthropy trumps memory in America.

Unfortunately for Sterling, his benevolence toward his Blaxican friend –expensive cars and big money — had no immunity clause.

The discussion of race in America is often really a discussion of sex.  Jim Crow America was organized to keep the races — especially young people — apart. Beware the Junior Prom! Beware the color brown bleeding the distinction of black from white.

What seems odd today is that as interracial activity of all sorts — from the Junior Prom to the basketball team — has increased, we still lack a brown vocabulary to describe what America has become. President Barack Obama, a basketball player and fan, who has weighed in on the Sterling controversy, has said that he does not doubt that he has been judged negatively by some Americans who resent him for being black, and that he has benefited from others for the same reason.

History will tell us one day, not anytime soon, that with the election of Obama, America had its first brown president. Obama, the child of black Kenya and white Kansas, is every racist’s nightmare because he embodies mixture and confounds mixture.

Is it possible that the vulgar advice Sterling gave his companion, Stiviano, had more to do with sex than with race?  I read the TMZ story as farce, January courting May. The anxieties of an old man who sits, night after night, with his much younger female companion, watching young men demonstrate their potency, is a complicated matter that few slave owners would have risked.

(Richard Rodriguez, an essayist, is the author of several books about America, including “Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography,” about religion after September 11. )

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One Response to America today goes far beyond black and white

  1. Number 6

    May 13, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Good article!…Gives a handle on what is happening here….Another new development is Sterling-fatigue…Now, we cannot get any peace…There’s always another interview or article about him or his wife…What’s tough today in the media is the level of obnoxiousness that seems to be on the rise..but I don’t see how any of it is going to change…And, the latest is that Sterling’s estranged wife said in an interview that she thought Sterling had dementia (people wondering if she’s making excuses for him?)…This may have been after Sterling covered himself in mud again with comments about Magic Johnson’s HIV and liaisons with women in the past. Sterling has met the enemy, and it’s his own mouth.