I had an unusual roommate in law school, a former Marine, smart, handsome and charismatic. Let’s call him “Carl.”
He was also a racist, and unapologetic about it. He was an anti-Semite too. After Carl died at the age of 27 in a freak accident, his funeral was attended by several Jewish and African-American law students who considered my roommate a good friend. They had no idea that he was prejudiced, because my friend treated everyone with fairness and respect, at least in my experience. I would ask Carl about this, and he would express surprise that I would be confused at his behavior. “I would never treat anyone with disrespect, no matter who he or she was, or unfairly either,” he said. “That would be wrong, and not Christian.” (He was a Roman Catholic.) Carl also gave annual contributions to the United Negro College Fund, and he was far from wealthy.
That was my introduction to the truth, and it is a comforting one, that biases can be overcome if someone has the character and the strength to recognize them as biases. Racism is just a bias, you know; a particularly harmful and strong one, but still a bias. Having a bias, even a strong one, is not unethical, just as thoughts themselves, without more, are not unethical. A bias is an ethics impediment, a condition that makes being ethical more difficult, and for many of us, impossible. My friend was one of the most honorable and ethical people in his conduct that I ever knew. He had a bias, knew that to be an ethical human being he had to overcome it daily, and did.
If, however, his black and Jewish friends had learned about his private arguments with me, they would have been hurt, and could not have remained friends with him. It would simply be a matter of trust….although, in fact, Carl was completely worthy of trust no matter what race or creed you were. But it is impossible, I think to continue to trust anyone once you know that he is prejudiced against your race.
This brings us to the ugly tale of Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. His girlfriend, who is black, recorded an argument between the two of them in which he reprimanded her for posting photographs of African-American companions.
Among the comments, as reported by TMZ, which reviewed the recording:
- “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
- “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
- “I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”
Needless to say, Sterling’s basketball team, like all pro basketball teams, is primarily made up of black athletes, which he pays extraordinarily well. Even if nothing regarding his treatment of his players and employees has been influenced by his racism (and in the case of Sterling, that is very much in question), he cannot continue to be allowed to own an NBA team, and if he is rational about the situation, Sterling should be able to understand this. His racism, if it remained locked in his mind and a personal, secret bias that he was capable of overcoming in his business and personal duties and transactions, is not unethical, any more than any conflict of interest that one is able to overcome is unethical. Ethics only comes into the equation when, for whatever reason, his bias becomes known to those he is biased against. Unless they freely assent to and waive his bias, while accepting that it will play no role in how Sterling will treat them and others like them, then he has to withdraw from the ownership and management of the team. Of course, such waiver and assent is impossible. His bias undermines trust by fans, journalists, players and NBA officials, and poses a public relations crisis for the sport. Sterling can claim, as I’m sure he will, that his comments were private and taken out of context, and that he is no racist. (Cliven Bunby says he’s not a racist either.) It doesn’t matter what he says. What matters is that his words make trusting him impossible, which means that he is untrustworthy. He has to go.
How that will be accomplished is a tangential issue. Major League Baseball had a similar problem years ago with Marge Schott, its first female team owner, who, among other gaffes, publicly expressed admiration for Hitler. It took years and multiple suspensions, but eventually Marge was forced to sell her team, the Cincinnati Reds. She had nobody to blame but herself, and Sterling is similarly accountable. Vile biases are our personal burdens; if we can’t banish or eliminate them, we are ethically obligated to make certain that they stay in our skulls, safe and harmless, because even the revelation that they exist causes harm to others. In law, keeping a dangerous animal on your property creates strict liability: if it gets loose, no matter how, you are liable for the harm it causes to others. Racist thoughts are like that too.
Aside: Only slightly less disturbing than Sterling’s comments are those in response to the New York Daily News article on the story. A more diverse and depressing collection of warped ethics, racism, stupidity, rationalizations and hate you are unlikely to find. God Save The United States of America…
Source: NY Daily New