Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Power, Privilege and Racism is a Toxic Cocktail That Strips People of their Humanity: Just Ask Donald Sterling

Working on a plantation
It was frightfully disturbing to watch “12 Years a Slave” on cable last week. That’s because I viewed the movie in the shadow of disconcerting news concerning Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling. What does a movie about a free black man being kidnapped into forced servitude for a dozen years in 1841 have to do with a 21st century white business tycoon? Plenty, and it’s not pretty.

Sterling is under fire following racist comments that were recorded and obtained by the entertainment news service TMZ. On that recording, Sterling purportedly told a woman said to be his mistress (Sterling is married) to stop posing in photos with African Americans and not to bring them to Clippers games.

This is insanely ironic given that the majority of the Clippers team and its coach are African American. But it may make perfect sense to the billionaire and others of his ilk.
Sterling's alleged plantation vision

As a result of the recording, Sterling has been "banned for life" from the NBA. It will be interesting to see how "banned for life" plays out for someone as powerful as Sterling. 

              Power, privilege and racism. It’s a toxic combination. Scary too. When wielded by a financially and/or politically potent individual, it can lead to immorality and even illegality. When sanctioned by a government, it fosters system-wide injustices.

              Example: in “12 Years a Slave,” a wicked slave owner named Epps owns, brutalizes and otherwise mistreats human beings. He justifies his actions by quoting the Bible and points the letter of the law, which sanctioned the institution of slavery in Southern states.

Actor who plays slave owner
What does Epps and Sterling share in common? Power and apparently a similar state of mind. I listened to the recording purported to be the Clippers owner; Sterling seemed to be applying distinctions of humanity in much the same way as slave owner Epps.

              This isn’t the first time Sterling has been at Ground Zero when it comes to race-tinged rhetoric and discrimination.

              According to a report, Sterling was sued twice by the U.S. Department of Justice for discriminatory rental practices, systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned. He settled the second case for a then-record $2.73 million penalty.

              Many people, of color and white, say we should just leave this man to his own devices. If he’s racist then that’s his own problem. Except it’s not just his problem. The man is a billionaire. That means he holds influence. He also employs people. The significance in that is his workers’ livelihoods are subject to the morality (or rather immorality) of a person who holds dubious beliefs about persons based on the color of their skin.

Billionaire who talks like he owns slaves
              He’s not alone. Consider Dan Snyder, owner of the NFL team in Washington, DC, that dehumanizes Native Americans with the offensive team logo and name. Lesson? The desire (obsession?) of money trumps respect for humanity. And that cuts both ways - for the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor loses his when he strips the oppressed of theirs.

One of the problems with power and privilege is that it can cause persons, businesses (corporations) and systems (i.e., healthcare, schools, judicial) unintentionally or otherwise to view humans as property or account numbers, with the bottom line being profit.

Like Epps in the movie, powerful business owners such as Sterling have the privilege to choose when to care about people or not. When they do, it’s often as not self-serving rather than altruistic. When they don’t, they still essentially remain untouched in their privilege.

Except for loss of his humanity Epps suffers no repercussion for enslaving and torturing a legally free man. As for Sterling, although his actions are nowhere in the physical realm of the heinous behavior perpetrated by the movie villain Epps, the team owner’s spirit of thought is toxic and contagious. And it is the apparent casual disregard for fellow human beings, by him and all forms of unchecked personal, business and systemic power, that scares me.

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