Donald Sterling and the Neverending Fantasy of ‘Democrat’ Racism

Oh, how eager the conservative press is to call Donald Sterling a Democrat! It’s all part of their larger fantasy narrative about conservatism and race.


Update: Now comes the utterly shocking news that despite his campaign donations to the contrary, Sterling is—sit down—a registered Republican. The Los Angeles Times's Michael Hiltzik tweeted as much this morning, and I confirmed through a source that a Donald T. Sterling who lives in Beverly Hills and was born on April 26, 1934 is indeed a registered Republican voter in L.A. County. Now it's true, he makes no campaign contributions, so he's obviously not a gung-ho big-P Political Republican. But still, there goes your racist Democrat. Sorry, Daily Caller!

My Twitter feed yesterday was full of clucking conservatives challenging me to write about the Donald Sterling situation, or daring me to, or wagering that I would maintain a hypocritical silence in the face of this clear “proof” that Democrats are just as racist as Republicans.

They have a fair point—just one—in that I do agree that having written several times lately about racism within the ranks of the Republican Party, it would be bad form of me not to write about Sterling. So here you are, cons.

First of all, I’ve been amused at how eagerly the right-wing press has pounced on the “fact” that Sterling is a Democrat. To my knowledge, there is no such established fact at this point. This is based on two political contributions he made many moons ago.

Apparently, when the story broke Saturday morning, everyone in the cyberworld somehow glommed onto a 2011 list published at a site called RealGM that listed the political contributions of NBA owners. This list said Sterling had donated to two Democrats, Gray Davis and Bill Bradley, and that these were long ago, going back to “the early 1990s.”

The Web site of the Sunlight Foundation tells us that this isn’t quite right—a Donald Sterling of Beverly Hills actually gave $5,000 to Davis more recently, in 2002, which was, incidentally, a campaign in which the Davis operation was known to be putting the shoulder on people harder than almost any campaign in history. The Bradley donation, of $2,000, was made in 1989, as Bradley was a year out from his second re-election bid. It was not, in other words, for Bradley’s presidential campaign. So Sterling’s big Democratic donations, made 12 and 25 years ago, hardly make him some kind of Sheldon Adelson of the left. It would be as if another NBA owner had donated pretty modest amounts to former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, and on those bases, he was called a rabid Republican. Absurd.

So, desperate as the conservative press has been to turn Sterling into a big-time Democrat, his contribution history actually proves rather little. Besides, people change their political views over time. And I’d be at least mildly surprised if a man who doesn’t want black people showing up on his girlfriend’s Instagram page had voted to install one in the White House.

But I confess: We don’t have answers to these questions yet. So, fine. Let’s say for the sake of this column that he is a Democrat. What would it prove? I think it’s quite clear what it would prove: There’s one racist Democrat in American public life, who doesn’t even have anything to do with politics beyond a few many-year-old contributions.

Find me another. And I mean a real, serious racist who’s said real, seriously racist things. I don’t mean Joe Biden, for calling Obama “clean and articulate.” That was a stupid racial comment; ditto Harry Reid’s statement about Obama having “no Negro dialect” unless he wanted to affect one.

Conservatives love to point to those two remarks, and I’m certainly not defending them. But here’s the contextual difference that conservatives either can’t understand or won’t concede. Biden and Reid both have long, long histories of supporting the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, civil-rights expansions, a view of the Constitution that endorses a broad interpretation of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—and federal judges who back all those things. Likewise Bill Clinton, who made some dubious comments in the heat of the 2008 primaries, like telling Ted Kennedy that “a few years ago, [Obama] would be getting our coffee.” A horrible statement, but one made by an ex-president with a long record of backing civil rights (and at a time when they were under pretty stern assault from Newt Gingrich’s House of Representatives).

This is something conservatives don’t understand. Or rather, they understand it—but they can’t acknowledge it. They can’t acknowledge this larger context of Democratic support for the things that have mostly improved black people’s lives and Republicans’ almost total opposition to them since at least the 1980s. To acknowledge all that would be to acknowledge that they’ve been wrong on one of the most searing issues in American political history. They of course can’t do that. So they have to construct this alternative, fantasy narrative, under which these things the Democrats have done for the last 50 years, things Republicans and conservatives have largely opposed, have been bad for black people.

Now it’s certainly the case that Democrats and liberals have made mistakes over the years. The conservative critique of welfare policy in the 1980s had a considerable amount of merit, and the welfare-rights movements of the left were horribly self-marginalizing and self-defeating. So welfare certainly created a dependency problem, and for some families (though far fewer since Clinton enacted the overhaul), it still does. But that’s one policy. Put it on the scale against voting rights, school desegregation, affirmative-action laws that have helped millions of young black (and brown and other) people have the opportunity to become lawyers and doctors and business leaders, and so on, and I think it’s pretty clear which way the scale tilts.

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But the conservative fantasy narrative posits, preposterously and deceitfully, that all of it was horrible, and all of it constitutes keeping black people down on the Democratic (oops; “Democrat”) “plantation.” This is just a sick and venal metaphor, and its sickness and venality are why Cliven Bundy’s comments that compared welfare to slavery sparked the reaction they did. If you compare anything to slavery, the only thing it proves is how stupid you are about slavery and how little you’ve done to educate yourself about its realities, which in turn means that while you have the same First Amendment rights as any American, you certainly have no right to expect any reasonable person to take you seriously in debate.

There’s a second aspect to the right-wing fantasy narrative on racial prejudice, which is its complete decoupling of prejudice from economic or political power. That is to say, they know deep down that real racism (white on black) has scarred millions of American lives over many decades, as blacks have been denied opportunities by whites who owned and ran things. But again, they can’t acknowledge this aspect of the damage that racism has done. So they turn racism into a mere personal attribute, thereby divorcing it from any notion of political power. Once you’ve defined racism this way, then Al Sharpton can be as big a racist as Bull Connor. Now, I am a long way from being a Sharpton apologist. Ask Sharpton himself what he thinks of what I was writing about him during the 2001 New York mayoral campaign. But Bull Connor he never was and never will be.

I’ve actually been saddened by the enraged denial I’ve seen on Twitter in the past few weeks. I have no doubt that if I were a conservative, a real believer in free markets and the rest, I’d be wondering why my team was getting 5 percent of the black vote, and I’d be trying to do something instead of fabricating these fantasy reasons why everybody else was wrong. And I hope and think there are conservatives who do wonder that, and who would like to have an honest dialogue instead of trying to “prove” that a guy who made two old donations lets their party off the hook. Assuming they exist, it’s time for them to speak.