Don't judge Donald Sterling without listening to the conversation

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Donald Sterling
  • AP Photo/Danny Moloshok
  • Donald Sterling

The saga of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is like a dog run for our pent-up feelings about racial justice. Whatever strong convictions in that area we might wish we had more occasion to exercise—well, we can turn them loose on Sterling and let them frolic.

But we owe it to ourselves to do more than merely track the fallout from the recorded conversation [here, and here] allegedly between Sterling and his girlfriend, V. Stiviano. Listen to, and savor, the conversation itself—a mutually noncomprehending argument between (allegedly) a rich old man (Sterling just turned 80) and the hottie who took up with him. Beyond the racism, we find ourselves overhearing a choice specimen of the kind of pathetic relationship that has brought ridicule and humiliation upon rich old men since the dawn of time.

Sterling—if it is Sterling—earns his humiliation. As Stiviano gives him what-for, he thunders and pleads; confusion and self-pity wrack him. Infantilized by his needs, he begs for the racist trappings that make him comfortable with childish stubbornness that reminds me of the king in the A.A. Milne nursery rhyme begging for "a little bit of butter for my bread."

Her sin, apparently, was to invite Magic Johnson to a Clippers game and post a photo of the two of them on Instagram. The voice believed to be Sterling's says to the voice believed to be Stiviano's, "You think I'm a racist." She denies it and he says, "Yes you do," and adds, "Evil heart!" And she replies, "I think you have an amazing heart, honey. I think the people around you have poison mind."

Whoever these people around him might be, they represent to him the only world that matters. As old men are known to do, he tries to lecture her on the unchangeable ways of this world. She, being young, isn't having it.

"But you can change yourself," she says, and he says back, "I don't want to change. If my girl can't do what I want, I don't want the girl. I'll find a girl that will do what I want. Believe me. I thought you were that girl—because I tried to do what you want. But you're not that girl."

He wants her to be someone she isn't—his, I don't know, little porcelain cupcake. He sounds stricken, and who knows what's going through her mind? The listener reminds himself that she presumably knows what he presumably doesn't—which is that a microphone is picking up every word. Every relationship, of course, has its little games.

Him: You're perceived as either a Latina or a white girl. Why should you be walking publicly with black people?

Her: People call you and say that I have black people on my Instagram? And it bothers you.

Him: Yeah it bothers me a lot that you broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?

Her: You also associate with black people.

Him: (voice rising): I'm not you and you're not me. You're supposed to be a delicate white or delicate Latina girl.

Her: I'm a mixed girl.

Him: Well . . .

Her: And you're in love with me. And I'm black and Mexican. Whether you like it or not. Whether the world accepts it or not. And you're asking me to remove something that's part of me and in my blood stream. Because the world thinks different of me and you're afraid of what they're going to think—because of your upbringing? You want me to have hate towards black people?

Him: I don't want you to have hate. That's what people do—they turn things around. I want you to love them—privately. In your whole life, every day you can be with them. Every single day of your life.

Her: But not in public?

Him: But why publicize it on the Instagram and why bring it to my games?

Getting nowhere with her, at one point he desperately calls her a "mental case." He concedes, "All you ever wanted to do is fight. You're a born fighter." Standing her ground, she tells him she admires Magic Johnson. He attempts a measured reply but can't sustain it. "I think the fact that you admire him—I’ve known him well, and he should be admired," he says. "And I'm just saying that it's too bad you can’t admire him privately, and during your entire fucking life your whole life—admire him, bring him here, feed him, fuck him, I don’t care. You can do anything. But don't put him on an Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me."

There's a pause, then an afterthought.

"And don’t bring him to my games? OK?"

. . . so they have to call me.

Who is the they whose calls he fears? When a big shot goes down a forlorn discovery often made is the identity of the dismal mopes whose respect and approval he actually coveted.

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