Donald Sterling's Racial Muddle

Donald Sterling's racial confusion may be twisted, but it's not unique.
Donald Sterling, partially surrounded by Reggie Evans. Photographer: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

If racism had a discernible, consistent logic, the story of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling might at least be a little tidier. Presuming news reports are accurate, Sterling complained to his mixed-race girlfriend that he didn't want her hanging out in public with black people. A lot of people find that sentiment repulsive. But it's also, on any number of levels, deeply, darkly twisted. The man was dating a woman who is mostly nonwhite while running a professional basketball team whose players are mostly black. For a white guy who allegedly hates black people, he sure managed to get himself good and surrounded.

There is a continuing conflict between (some) conservatives and (some) liberals about the pervasiveness of racism half a century after the Civil Rights Act. The conservatives view the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s as a kind of VJ-Day, when Jim Crow finally surrendered. Over the following decades, the last racist holdouts gradually emerged from the bush and laid down their arms. The U.S. became a society so hospitable to blacks that it elected one president. Case closed.

But it was never that simple before, and as the Sterling fallout underscores, it's still ... complicated. Sterling's race muddle is hardly unique. Last year we were treated to the spectacle of a white racist whose DNA test revealed "sub-Saharan African" blood. Throughout American history, we have had blacks passing for white. And whites passing for black. And, of course, a white supremacist senator with a secret daughter by a black woman.

Years ago, I knew a white guy, a friend of a friend, who was quite racist. He wasn't a virulent, thuggy sort of racist -- more the reflexive, doofus variety. I can still recall my surprise when, a few years later, I met his fiancée. Her father, I was subsequently told, was black, a fact the couple apparently agreed to treat as a kind of unfortunate twist of fate. I haven't seen them in decades, but I know they had kids. Is he no longer racist? I suspect he's still a bit confused. And I'm guessing those kids have inherited some complicated emotional baggage with their DNA. I doubt their private drama will end in this generation.

It's been a bad week for those in the racism-is-dead camp. The rantings of an ignorant rancher were promptly succeeded in the news by the rantings of an ignorant billionaire. Their views are far less common than they used to be, and condemnation of them is vastly more widespread. Still, it will take more than 50 years to unwind this twisted business.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Frank Wilkinson at

    To contact the editors on this story:
    Frank Wilkinson at
    Toby Harshaw at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.