Watching Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling further embarrass himself on CNN -- in an emotional meltdown peppered with more archaic statements on race -- made me think a bit deeper about why his self-destruction has become such a national sensation.
Sure, it has all the elements of a blockbuster story — the public fall of a billionaire, adultery, pro basketball, a secret tape and beloved cultural icon Earvin “Magic” Johnson. But of course, it’s adding race to the mix that makes the story so explosive.
The Sterling spectacle directly followed the media firestorm over racist comments made by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and is part of a long string of scandals involving celebrity racism, such as the cases of television chef Paula Deen and radio host Don Imus.
In one sense, I think there’s a benefit to all the attention given to such stories. As an advocate of limited government, I see public shaming as an effective tool for fighting racism. There was a time when Sterling’s remarks wouldn’t have been so controversial. The fact that he not only faces the loss of his team, but public humiliation, sends a strong message to other racists that such behavior is unwelcome in society.
Some also argue that episodes such as the one with Sterling are a useful way of demonstrating that racism still exists in America even when it doesn’t manifest itself in the form of slavery, lynching, or segregation.
But exposure to the story may have the opposite effect. Most white people listening to Sterling don’t hear themselves or their friends — they hear a crazy old guy with outlandish views. Arguably, hearing his bizarre rants makes it easier to dismiss concerns about broader racism, because — come on, how many people sound as ridiculous as he does?
The Sterling revelations represent an easy way to discuss race. In comparison, trying to wade into issues such as the disproportionate number of African-Americans living in poverty or being incarcerated is walking into a minefield.
Thus, the political discussion of race often devolves into a secondary debate, with liberals charging that Republican policies are rooted in racism, conservatives attacking liberals for assuming everything is about race, and liberals responding that conservatives are dismissing the ongoing problem of racism in America.
The Sterling episode — for all its ugliness — is a diversion from a much more difficult, nuanced, complex and politically charged conversation about race.
In a sense, it recalls the trashy daytime television shows that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Networks trotted out a parade of freak shows to attract audiences. The theoretical appeal was that no matter what people had going on in their lives, it was nothing compared to the dysfunctional drama playing out among the shows’ guests.
There's an element to this in the shaming of celebrity racists such as Sterling. Those who join everybody else in hating and mocking Sterling -- making a show of it on Facebook and Twitter -- feel good about themselves, and can continue thinking of themselves as being racially tolerant.
I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have the solution to racism in America — or even how to more productively discuss racism. But I do think that the focus on Sterling is a cop-out.