The Donald Sterling Scandal as a Minority Outreach Case Study
I’m going to take another futile swing at the Eich controversy next week, and talk about why unlike many (most?) here I think there is a substantial and material difference between he and Donald Sterling. But as I was thinking about what I was going to say in that post my mind kept drifting back to what I am about to say in this one, so it seemed worth getting this off my chest first.
So let me say this:
The Donald Sterling scandal has presented the best microcosm I have ever seen to show conservatives why the GOP is repeatedly and successfully painted as bigots by their opposition, why their attempts to court non-white voters continues to fall on deaf ears, and — perhaps — how they might go about successfully reversing this trend for the future.
My guess is that I’ve followed the Sterling debacle more closely than most here. As regular readers know, I’m a huge NBA fan. (In my list of Things I Love Most in Life, it falls just below family and friends and right above ice cream and Wynton Marsalis.) And after the career of Michael Jordan, Sterling’s ban probably ranks as the most significantly historic thing that has happened in the League in my entire lifetime. Hell, it might be on my Mount Rushmore of all historic sports events in my lifetime. I’m going to assume that there’s no need to go into the precise over-the-top racist comments Sterling made that set his ban in motion (you can see them here if you’re new to this party), so let me instead say again that he needed to be banned from the NBA in order for the league to survive.
More than any other American sport, the NBA is a black/players league. I say “black” because over 70% of it’s all of its players are African American; indeed, well over 90% of its All-Stars over the past two decades have been black. I say “players” because while football, baseball and hockey build their leagues’ marketing around teams, the NBA has spent the past 30 years gearing all of its marketing around its individual celebrity stars. If the current NBA owners, general managers, and executives all walked away from their franchises tomorrow, they League would be back up and running with billion-dollar TV revenue contracts within thirty days. If the current players all walked away from the NBA and their contracts tomorrow and left their spots to those who just miss the cut to making teams right now, the League would be bankrupt in ninety. So from a moral standpoint, your boss being caught saying what Sterling did about blacks is not that different from Sterling himself saying it. From a business standpoint, however, it’s a million times worse.
His own players were protesting; his coach was saying on the record that he refused to talk to Sterling. The League’s two greatest stars of all time, Jordan and Magic Johnson, each said publically they would have nothing to do with Sterling’s team ever again. We now know that the team Sterling’s Clipper were to play the night after the NBA announced its ban — the Golden State Warriors — were planning on walking off the court at tip off that night, had the NBA not brought the hammer down with sufficient force. It appears that players from every other team were all talking about doing the same in the middle of the playoffs, the NBA’s biggest revenue time of the year. Clippers fans were preparing to no-show for Clippers game. The franchise lost every single one of its corporate sponsors, and there was no doubt that would spread to the entire league if they gave Sterling a pass.
The NBA absolutely did the right thing and I believe it deeply wanted to do so, but make no mistake: they had no choice. Had they not, the league’s very future would have been thrown into jeopardy.
I’ll get back to this point later, but for now it’s worth stopping to note not only the “whys” of Sterling’s ouster, but also the “hows.”
No government body was called in to take charge. Eric Holder did not sic his Justice Department dogs on Sterling. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did not hold center court in the media to shine a spotlight that the NBA was sweeping under the rug. While Sterling’s comments — and his far more egregious actions as a slumlord — were a stark and shocking revelation of the how far we still have to go as a country when it comes to race, the NBA’s quick and universal response served as a reminder of how far we have come. The League’s players, owners, employees, vendors, customers and fans galvanized together almost instantly, adopting the cry “We Are One.”
This is important.
After all, the mechanism behind Sterling’s ban is exactly what conservatives have been claiming to champion whenever racism becomes a public issue. “The government can’t fix racism,” they are always saying. “If you leave it to the market, overt racists will go out of business. People will refuse to buy their product, and quality employees will refuse to work for them. Business partners they rely on won’t want their own brand tarnished, and will sever those relationships. Terrible racists simply won’t be able to compete. Leave it to the customers, employees, and business partners, and leave government out.” In the case of Donald Sterling’s ban and upcoming forced sale, this is exactly what happened.
This, then, is the backdrop conservative pundits had to work with, less than a week after the anti-government rancher they had championed revealed himself to be (oops!) pro-slavery: A perfect, slow underhand lob of a pitch, right across the plate, begging to be knocked out of the park with declarations of how the Free Market won and defeated racism more completely than the government ever could — just like the GOP always promised it would. Frank Lutz couldn’t have come up with a better opportunity to reach out to minorities if he’d scripted the entire universe itself.
So, what did they do?
After a brief stint at condemning him when they mistakenly thought he was a registered Democrat, one of two things: They defended Donald Sterling, or they sat silent as their colleague defended him.
The most famous instance of this, of course, is Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has come out with two separate conspiracy theories to explain Sterling’s NBA demise, and it’s telling that each of them revolve around the eeeevil Shylock-ian mechanizations of black men. The most recent, as reported by our own Elias Isquith over at Slate, is that Sterling was set up by Magic Johnson in an attempt to wrestle control of his franchise. (Limbaugh’s first — and surreally predictable — conspiracy theory claimed that the entire affair was orchestrated by Obama, because of course it was.)
Right behind Limbaugh came the Daily Caller’s Patrick Howley, who immediately took to the air to demand that Magic Johnson’s role in the conspiracy be fully investigated. Nationally known conservative and one-time executive director of South Carolina’s GOP Todd Kincannon quickly followed and one-upped everyone, by not only sending out a series of tweets defending Sterling and fingering Johnson,
but also working in a classy AIDS joke at Magic’s expense at the same time:
While neither Julian Sanchez nor the National Review denied that Sterling was a racist, they did take the time to paint him as the victim. (The National Review said Sterling’s plight was the same as a young woman whose boyfriend takes secret pictures of her nude, then posts them online after a breakup. Because why settle for just alienating the African-American vote, when you can also alienate the women’s vote at the same time?) Fox News, too, appears to now be toying with the Sterling-As-Victim meme. (Natch.)
Now, it should be noted that even though there are other examples scattered throughout the Right-Wing’s media machine (such as here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), Sterling’s defenders fall well short of a majority within that echo chamber. Also, there was one famous liberal pundit who came out painting Sterling as a victim: HBO talk show host Bill Maher. Given that, conservatives are asking once again: why are they the ones that will walk away from this debacles looking like the bad guys to non-white America?
It’s a good question, and its answer holds the key to the GOP being able to become a viable option for non-white voters in the future: Conservatives — and the GOP — has to do a better job of condemning these things when they occur.
After it came out that Sterling is in fact a Republican, the only conservative voices that were willing to continue talking about the story were those defending him. I googled for a while looking for writers on Breitbart, Daily Caller, RedState, PJMedia, Fox, the Blaze, and other conservative opinion generators to see who was willing to take on Limbaugh, Howley, Kincannon, or any of the other knuckleheads who are using Sterling’s ban to trade ratings and page hits for the GOP’s national electability, and found nothing. So while it’s true that the Sterling defenders are a small voice within the media machine, they’re also the only voice.
The irony here is that, as I noted above, conservatives actually had a real opportunity to count Sterling’s ban as a win and begin to court minority voters. Limbaugh, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and every other conservative pundit painting Donald Sterling as the real victim should be celebrating his ban as a confirmation of The Market doing what they always promised The Market would do. Instead, they trip over themselves to declare the terrible, offensive racist as the true casualty of racism. And those pundits who don’t declare it sit on their hands and let those others define their movement as such. Conservatives spent all day Saturday reporting, posting, and tweeting away that they believed Donald Sterling was a Democrat, but not one of them will take two seconds today to say that Rush Limbaugh is talking out of his ass or that there’s no place in the South Carolina GOP for people like Todd Kincannon.
That is why conservatives are always so successfully painted as bigots by their opponents. That is why the stink of Cliven Bundys sticks to them even when they try hard to separate themselves. That is why they can’t win a state or national election that requires a majority of non-white votes. That is why, when conservatives actually do throw “Minority Outreach Parties,” nobody shows up.
Say what you will about the institutional racism embedded in the Democratic Party — and there is a lot of it — had a Blue-State operative tweeted what Kincannon did at breakfast he’d have been condemned, chewed up, spit out, and forced to publicly apologize by his party an hour before lunch. But with conservative pundits, you almost have a sense that since they don’t pay much attention to what goes on in the black community, they assume that the black community never pays attention to whatever offensive statement they or their colleagues make about the black community.
I can already hear conservatives I know objecting, “but when any conservative pundit or politician, big or small, says something racist, liberals shout it out to the world!” To which I reply: “Well no s**t. So do something about it. Like maybe: condemn those guys first and loudest. If that’s a bridge too far, then try baby steps: when other pundits defend terrible racist remarks, call them out on it.”
It’s not rocket science, GOP.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re a conservative pundit, blogger or politician, it’s not too late: You can call out Limbaugh, The Daily Caller and everyone else for defending Sterling right now. And then you can keep doing it, every time something like this happens. I’ll even let you in on a little secret, GOP: Black people, Hispanics and women? They actually read things. They don’t just do whatever the DNC tells them to do. If you begin to change, you won’t even have to create ridiculous “outreach programs” and TV ads — minorities will notice all on their own. And in time, they’ll even consider listening to your messages of fiscal responsibility and limited government. Eventually, they’ll even consider voting for you.
But you better believe this, GOP: You need to stand up to this s**t in your own backyard first, or you can kiss the next several national elections goodbye.
 It’s worth pointing out why Todd Kincannon is a nationally known Republican, because it isn’t his stellar legislative victories (which don’t exist) or his resume highlights as a conservative protester, parliamentarian, or executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party (which do).
Rather, he’s drawn national attention to himself by saying such delightful things such as transgendered people should be put in concentration camps, or that Texas Rep. Wendy Davis must have “gone through a lot of knee pads” to graduate from Harvard. And what the hey — since we’re on the subject of the GOP being painted as racists, we’ll also point out that he makes Super Bowl commentary like this.