The Private and Public Spheres – Donald Sterling and Racism Inside-Outside
A good chunk of the debate on l'affaire Donald Sterling seems to be focusing on the legality of the taping of the conversation between Sterling and his girlfriend. This debate turns around issues of privacy - the private nature of the conversation - and whether something spoken between two people, in manner of a confidential exchange, can be subject to criticism of a public nature. Set aside for a moment the laws against and the ethics of secret recording.
This debate seems to ask an almost 1984-ish question about thought-control and the monitoring of the interior spaces of a citizen's private life. With the recent disclosures about the NSA and extent of snooping on phone-calls and emails, such a debate seeks to question the legality and mode of the acquisition of information - and evoke the horror of the intrusion. One instance of such a response is this Washington Post article, which, while acknowledging the "reprehensible remarks," goes on to list various concerns that this episode throws up, among them, about "loss of privacy."
The obverse of this argument is that utterances in the public domain are justiciable so it is legitimate to come down on someone who makes certain objectionable remarks publicly. It is this dichotomy of the public and private that seems to have consumed a lot of the opinion pieces.
And, yet, it is ironical to note that Sterling's utterances have to do with the private and public spheres as well. He tells his girlfriend that she should not broadcast her associations with black players - “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” He continues, averring that it is perfectly alright that she bring the players home and engage in any activity with them in private - “You can sleep with . You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.”
However, she should not as much as be seen in pictures with them publicly or even invite them to his game. Why not? Stirling goes on to tell her that he did not want people calling him and mentioning this to him - “Don't put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.”
So, evidently, Stirling has friends and acquaintances who are mindful of who his girlfriend hangs out with and has pictures taken with. It is the larger society, or at least his social circle, that scares and shames Stirling. So while Stirling might be trying to justify his admonitions and strictures by bringing up the time-tested excuse of “What will people say?”, he bolsters this very point by citing the case of Israel, where, according to him, “the blacks are just treated like dogs.” He draws on such execrable examples to make a case – and reinforce his own convictions, one can assume - for not publicly associating with African-Americans.
How stupendously ridiculous is it, as has been pointed out in several places, that in a sport where a majority of the players and fans are black, these comments make it out as though that is merely something that is incidental to the whole enterprise of basketball, just an inconvenient reality, that basketball is really not in any significant way a game that throbs with the heartbeat of black people. It is as if some imperious Roman official were watching in amusement and quite dispassionately while some mortal gladiatorial combat played out in the amphitheater below them.
A sport so inextricably linked with black players with some (most?) of its icons being black including the one gratuitously named in the recorded conversation - and yet, there are people like Stirling in whose minds, the blackness of the players, the fans, the ecosystem of basketball...nothing registers. That it might well be some external charade that merely exists to entertain him, to reward him as owner but can never be allowed to be part of his life...or those he considers in some relationship to him – is his normalized view of the (not black-and-white) world he inhabits.
His statements that day, and maybe on countless occasions before, have negated, no, even denied the reality, the vigorous physicality and the humanity of the black players who are part of his team, and form part of basketball's fraternity. His statements revealed the full-blown dehumanization that racism is . Not just the Israel example, which is derogatory to humans and animals, but the sheer invisiblizing of a whole race is a classic example of the bigotry that resides within Stirling. It is sad to see the almost tepid analysis from most mainstream media, who have now moved on to the propriety of his banning, having made just the usual noises about this not being a “post-racial” society. But what cannot be allowed to swept under the carpet is the casual intolerance and the effacement expressed in Stirling's remarks. His “private” observations on the “public” taboo against associating with African-Americans cannot be viewed solely from the forgiving filters of “privacy concerns” and is deserving of the strongest censure possible.
Umang Kumar is an activist with the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia.