When you think it can't get any crazier, it does. A man of a certain age, Donald Sterling, owns the winning L.A. Clippers basketball team. While he looks no better than I do, he is a billionaire who had a young, sexy girlfriend to make his sunset years a little happier. If your goal is worldly acquisition, if you've succeeded wildly, and if you have tons of money and the ability to attract young women -- I realize that's redundant -- what would you choose to do next? Donald Sterling chose to spew his allegedly long-held racist views so they could be recorded and released to the world.
I come not to bury Sterling, to paraphrase Shakespeare, and certainly not to praise him. I come instead to say a few words about a couple of reactions this incident has aroused. I leave the many fascinating elements of the Sterling saga -- racism, greed, stupidity, betrayal, and more -- to others. I'll confine my remarks to stereotyping in general, not racist stereotyping specifically, and to one of my favorite topics, hypocrisy.
Some have offered a tentative, semi-defense of Sterling by pointing out his age. You have to understand, they say, that the man is 80. He grew up in a very racist country. He's bound to harbor the attitudes of a racist. I say nonsense.
Yes, he was born into a racist society, as many of us were. The thoughts, attitudes, and tendencies we absorbed, almost from the very air around us, are not easy to eliminate. But then, much of life is not easy. Somehow, though, a great many of us have managed to adjust, learn, reboot, change. If you can't change your thoughts, you can still change your actions. And your words. If Sterling learned to tie his own shoes and blow his own nose, he was capable of modifying his own habits of thought and action sufficiently to meet the demands of fairness and decency owed to others, minorities most certainly included, in a modern, expanding, diversified society.
Then there's the matter of hypocrisy, like sin and taxes always with us. While only a relative few are willing to give Sterling a pass because of his age, entire multitudes are happy to point at him and howl with outrage that he could express such racist ideas in 21st century America. I have news for these folks. Donald Sterling is not unique. I have heard similar views expressed right here in Columbus, Georgia, in the not too distant past. When similar howls of outrage met Paula Deen's admission last year that she had used racist expressions, I commented that if you grew up in the South of a few decades ago, the chances that you'd used such expressions were very high. While I do not condone racism, neither do I condone living in a world of make-believe, especially make-believe about my own past and my own shortcomings. To abhor Sterling's primitive ideas of racial privilege and racial unworthiness does not give me license to pretend I'm not and never have been tainted with his same virus. Most of us are.
If I were giving advice to America, I would say we need to admit to ourselves that our forefathers committed unspeakable evil by holding whole generations of a race in slavery, and that our teeth, and the teeth of our descendants still, are set on edge by those sour grapes. I would recommend that we admit to ourselves that there was nothing honorable in the owning of a human by another human, and that stories of happy slaves are mostly fiction. I would say that we need to stop making excuses for a past that, through no fault of our own, was contaminated by an indelible, permeating, ruining stain. I would suggest that we can never complete our own redemption, now well under way, until we are honest with ourselves and shed the hypocrisy that tempts us to chastise others while excusing ourselves.
If I were giving advice to Donald Sterling, I would tell him that it's past time for him to grow up and give up the self-centered idea that he is worth more than other people. Especially that he is worth more than someone else simply because of the accident of his birth.
I would also tell him that if he can't change his thoughts, he can at least change his words. And if he can't change his words, please make sure nobody is standing around with a recording device when he decides he must display his stupidity.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."