The thing that creeps me out about the Sterling incident is this:
1) The guy has clearly long been a racist, and not just passively, because
2) Racism has clearly informed his day-by-day life, including his business dealings. So, he's long been an active racist. However,
3) He's also been the owner of an NBA team for decades. Combining all of these points, then, it seems safe to assume that:
4) His life as the owner of an NBA franchise was apparently agreeable to his actively racist worldview.
As a white NBA fan who tries to be thoughtful, this last point sickens me, because it speaks to a dynamic that I've always sensed but had hoped was not really there: that white appreciation of the NBA and white racism towards blacks are not mutually exclusive, and even worse, that an actively racist white person might find the racial dynamics of the NBA appealing, or at least not disagreeable, to their sensibilities.
In the NBA, white owners make money by employing black players to play for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience. The money and the fame enjoyed by the players obscures the fact that that particular dynamic – white owner, black performer, white benefit – has long and often ugly roots in U.S. history. Add to that the power discrepancy between the white owners and the black players, and the building blocks for a league that is acceptable to casually racist whites start to come into focus.
And maybe that’s just how the league has had to evolve to remain financially viable given the racial landscape of the United States. Would the league prosper if the fundamental blackness of American basketball made the league’s predominantly white fans uncomfortable? Larry Bird himself said that basketball is a black man’s game – but would the league survive if its white fans were treated for the visitors, the outsiders, that they are?
I believe that it doesn’t take too much squinting to see the hints of an answer to this question manifested in the league’s recent crackdown on the players’ dress code and the league’s ever-increasing control over displays of physical aggression and shows of emotion (which stand in sharp contrast to the degrees of aggression and emotion that are allowed in hockey, which like basketball is a full-contact sport, but which happens to be dominated by white players). I believe that the effect of these measures is to send subtle reassurance to all who watch that control is still maintained by whites.
Regardless of the reason, however, the inescapable dynamic of basketball in the U.S. is that it is a game that is dominated by black men, but to play at the highest level, those black men must be employed by white men and perform in a league run by white men for the benefit of a white audience. Donald Sterling did not seem to mind this dynamic. As a white fan of the NBA, the fact that the dynamics of power and race in the NBA were acceptable to Donald Sterling makes me feel nauseous.