Illustration: Patrick Klose

For every issue of SPEX our columnist Steven Lee Beeber examines everyday American madness. This time: Donald Sterling knows best.

There’s an old joke in America about »shortest books ever written.« One is called Great Jews of Sports. Another The Big Book of British Smiles. A third, Black Men I’ve Met While Yachting.

Whether these jokes pass the »funny because it’s true« test is open to debate. Yet if events this past month are any indication, the last stands a fighting chance.

The »joke teller« in this case is Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling was recently caught on tape making racist remarks, attacking his mistress for having appeared in public with Magic Johnson. Sterling quickly became the subject of countless standup routines even as he was banned from the National Basketball Association. While pundits derided his plantation system of underpaying his black players and overpaying his white staff, a bid was made to buy his team for $1 billion. Whether Sterling will become even richer (he’s already worth $2 billion) for his racism is a punch line that remains to be seen.

Perhaps what’s funniest about this whole episode is the way everyone is reacting. As former Sterling associate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has noted, people are behaving as if Sterling’s racism is a surprise. In fact, Sterling has already had to settle numerous lawsuits about his racist practices in the past. His latest offense is no smoking gun. It’s just more noxious vapors from his internal swamp.

Of course we like to think of ourselves as post-racial in this country. Hey, we elected a black president. That fixed everything, right?

Not exactly. For as this episode reveals, we continue to slip on the banana peel of our past, even if we choose not to admit it.

Sterling is far from alone in running a plantation system. In a sport where the vast majority of players are black, a fraction is involved in ownership or management. And the same is true throughout our country as a whole. Black men are currently as likely to be heads of major sports franchises as they are to be heads of major corporations.

No, America is still foul and out of bounds under the surface. Our country was built on racism and it continues to be so. Ironically it is Sterling himself who appears to know this best.

Consider his actual comments. Reports have claimed that Sterling made racist remarks, telling his girlfriend he didn’t want her date black men. Not true. If you listen to the tape what he actually says is that his girlfriend can date anyone she wants, but that she shouldn’t do so publicly. »I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture … Why can’t you be walking publicly with black people? … Maybe you don’t know what people think of you. [But] it does matter.«

In other words, many people will judge his mistress for appearing in public with a black man. It will affect their perception of her, not his.

Funny? Not really. But true nonetheless. After all, who to know the score better than the man who runs the plantation himself?

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