Amid the cacophony of condemnation raining down on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for the racist remarks attributed to him that were taped by his girlfriend, one voice stands out: President Barack Obama, who said they were “incredibly offensive racist statements.”
Obama said Sterling’s comments were a sign of how the U.S. continues to wrestle with its legacy of “slavery and segregation.”
But the president added that such remarks from “ignorant folks” draw outrage because they’re out of sync with the American self-concept.
“We’ve made enormous strides, but you’re going to continue to see this percolate up every so often,” Obama said.
He said Americans have to be “clear and steady in denouncing” such comments. But he said we should also “remain hopeful that part of why some statements like this stand out so much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”
In the audio recording released by TMZ, Sterling appears to be pulled into a conversation by his girlfriend V. Stiviano, who is half African-American and half Mexican, after she posted a picture on Instagram with NBA legend Magic Johnson that angered Sterling.
“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the voice alleged to be Sterling’s is heard saying on the recording. Later in the recording, Sterling says “you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”
“Don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games. Yeah, it bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”
Stiviano was sued by Sterling’s wife, Shelly, last month who asking for the return of cash, property, cars and other items that Sterling had given to Stiviano. In response, Stiviano reportedly said she would “get even.”
“Like Malaysia, we constantly have to be on guard against racial attitudes that divide us rather than embracing our diversity as a strength,” Obama said. “We have to make sure that we stay on top of it.”
The president said he is confident that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will address the situation on behalf of a league that he said is “beloved by fans all across the country.” The league is also predominantly African-American, and players in the league didn’t hold back their outrage.
The Miami Heat’s LeBron James said, “There’s no room for Donald Sterling in our league.” On Twitter, Magic Johnson said he and his wife Cookie would not attend a Clippers game as long as Sterling remained the owner.
Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant tweeted that he would not play for Sterling.
For his part, Silver, who took over as commissioner from David Stern in February, said he would not speculate on what types of penalties might be handed down. But he did point out his office had broad powers. He said the league’s investigation would mainly focus on the authenticity of the recording and its context. He expected it to be completed in several days.
“All members of the NBA family should be afforded due process and a fair opportunity to present their side of any controversy,” Silver said, “which is why I’m not yet prepared to discuss any potential sanctions against Donald Sterling. We will, however, move extraordinarily quickly in our investigation.”
In a statement, the Clippers’ longtime president, Andy Roeser, said that he was not certain whether the recording was authentic and that the club was investigating.
“Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect, his views, beliefs or feelings,” Roeser said in the statement. “It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.”
To many, the comments don’t come as a surprise, considering Sterling’s history with accusations of racism. In 2009, he had to pay $2.725 million to settle a housing discrimination suit brought by the Justice Department, which accused him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of the apartment buildings he owned. He was also sued by the Clippers’ former longtime general manager, Elgin Baylor, over accusations of racial discrimination. Baylor, who lost the suit, said Sterling viewed his employees like they worked for a Southern plantation.
Ironically, despite that history, Sterling is scheduled to be honored by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP on May 15 with a lifetime achievement award.
Some players around the league even suggested the Clippers protest by not playing. After a meeting, the team’s coach, Doc Rivers, said, “Our protest will be our play.”
Rivers, who is African-American, was hired during the off-season as the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations.