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Sterling Controversy: Why do racist words have more impact than racist actions?

Clippers Sterling Basketball

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, right, and V. Stiviano, left, watch the Clippers play the Sacramento Kings during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles. The NBA is investigating a report of an audio recording in which a man purported to be Sterling makes racist remarks while speaking to Stiviano. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement Saturday, April 26, 2014, that the league is in the process of authenticating the validity of the recording posted on TMZ's website. Bass called the comments "disturbing and offensive."

The controversy around Donald Sterling's alleged remarks has shed light on the business of professional sports and the media itself.

It's also sparked a lot of conversation about racism in this country. One of the people weighing in on that conversation is Mychal Denzel Smith. His latest post in The Nation looks at what he calls the "impolite racism" of Donald Sterling.

Interview Highlights:

Let's being with that phrase you use, "the impolite racism of Donald Sterling." Can you explain what you mean there?

"Donald Sterling said out loud the things that you're not allowed to say anymore with regards to race in America. He expressed a distaste for, I guess, his girlfriend being seeing with black men. Essentially we have gotten to a point in this country where that's unacceptable. The idea that you would blatantly discriminate against someone on the basis of the color of their skin is distasteful to people.

"There was study last year that most white people don't have black friends or any friends of color in general, because our social circles are just so separated, but the idea that you say that out loud, that you don't want to be around or want someone to be seen with black people is just an impolite thing to do. To me, what that does, is it obscures the deeper structural issues of racism that we have in this country. 

It's kind of ironic. They say actions speak louder than words, but maybe this is not true when it comes to racism?

"Yes, we are more concerned simply because we don't want to upend the system that supports racism — that supports the continuance of white supremacy — because we don't want to admit to ourselves that that's who we are as a country. That's who we are as a nation, that's what our governing philosophy has been, that's what our economic structure was built on, that's what our political structure is built on, that's what our culture is built on; a sort of anti-blackness.

"We don't want to admit that because we don't want to be seen as bad people, and I think that's what we're most afraid of, is being seen as bad people no matter what the consequences of our economic and our political structures."

Do you think there are people out there, just as racist as Donald Sterling who are using the safe words so you don't see it?:

"Yeah, I think that the situation should kind of blow up the idea of the "black friend" making you safe. I mean, Donald Sterling was sleeping with a woman of mixed race, who was black and Mexican, and then makes comments like these. But then also just the fact that his housing discrimination settlement that he went through where he was discriminating on the basis of race against tenants in his apartment buildings on the basis of being either black or Hispanic.

"The way that he looks at the players on the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, again, allegedly because we don't have confirmation that this is him on the tape, but allegedly that this is the way that he sees these black men who work for him...People that he, himself, is making their lives possible and I think that confluence between racism and capitalism is something worth exploring."

As you mentioned, Sterling has a bit of a track record. Why do you think of all his past actions, it wasn't until this instance that this story blew up.

"Because this is how we understand racism. As an American public, we understand when someone says something distrustingly racist; we get that. We can point to that and say this person is undeserving of the social capital that they have accrued because they are not a good person because they said these bad things, these mean things about people on the basis of race.

"And I think that we need these type of things to make ourselves feel better about ourselves and our complicity in a racist system. We can point to a Donald Sterling or a Cliven Bundy or a Paula Deen and get mad about the explicitly racist things that come out of their mouths, but we can't then reconcile that we allow people who hold these views to run our economy, run our politics and we haven't made that connection."

So what do we need to do then?

"I think we have to take these opportunities to shed light on this structure. If this is going to be what grabs the news headlines, this is what it's going to be that grabs people's attention, these are the opportunities that we have to take in order to get people to deepen their analysis of racism in America. So we just have to take these opportunities as they come and make sure that when we talk about it, we talk about the deeper structural issues."


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