Oy, Donald Sterling

When the Donald Sterling tapes originally became news I had several questions:

1. Is it fair to punish someone professionally for personal views?
2. Should our goal as a society be to eliminate racist points of view, or eliminate discriminatory practices?
3. Sterling’s personal views don’t seem to have affected his hiring practices for his team, but they do seem to have affected his rental practices, but he’s losing his team not his apartment buildings?
4. Why do so many reporters and writers call the comments “allegedly racist”? Whether or not a comment is racist is an opinion, not a fact that can be alleged. Don’t they mean the “alleged comments” or “the comments allegedly made by Sterling?”
5. Wait, there’s a basketball team called the Clippers?
6. Does he know his girlfriend is black?
7. How can he say he isn’t racist?

His recent comments about Magic Johnson have answered some of my questions. In discussing Magic Johnson and “those AIDS” Sterling said, “I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him.”

I believe I speak for the majority of American Jews when I say, “Really, you had to say that you went to a synagogue? You couldn’t leave your Jewishness out of this?”

Except, he can’t. When I read the comment I instantly knew part of who Sterling is. I understood why he didn’t consider himself racist and how he could tell his black girlfriend that it wasn’t appropriate for her to be seen with black people. Many people have compared Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers to “a plantation” and his views as “plantation owner” like. But they aren’t. Sterling is not a plantation owner, he’s an old-fashioned Jewish shop keeper.

Sterling is the guy who owns that furniture store that sells to “the shvartzes.”Sterling is the man who hires shvartzes, who sells to shvartzes, who works with shvartzes, who believes everyone should be given a fair chance, but who still, does not want black guys in his family, or on his girlfriend’s Instagram account.

Although shvartze is sometimes said to be the Yiddish equivalent of the N word, it isn’t. It’s the Yiddish equivalent of calling people “coloreds” or “negro.” That is, it is old-fashioned and condescending. It is inappropriate for use in modern society, but if your grandmother says it, you let it go. Shvartze is offensive, but no more offensive than the term goy, which is given a free pass. In Yiddish, goy does not mean gentile, goy means “other.” When Jews talk about de goyim, they are talking about people from whom they are distanced, people who are not quite the same as us, they are talking about the others. The term has only become acceptable and jokey in American society because of course we all know that Jews are the real goyim here.

I am not defending Sterling, but I understand now how this man can have these horrible, offensive views and also have an African-American-Latina girlfriend. I understand why he does not consider himself to be racist.

My own beloved grandfather was not racist. An immigrant, he was appalled by unequal treatment of people. He treated his adopted grandchildren, one African-American and one Korean, equally to his biological grandchildren. Except one day he said to me, “I think, probably, it would be better if they had been adopted by people of their own race.” They were fine, they were lovely, but still, they were goyim.

I never knew my maternal grandfather, but my uncle once told me a story about his father explaining that he had not married a woman in Latin American because, “You do not know if their blood lines are as pure.” My mother, who idolizes her father, who learned some of her dedication to fairness and social justice from her father, simply refuses to believe this story could be true. As I said, I did not know the man, but I can believe he said this and still believe he was a good man.

Views on race and racism change over time. For their time, my grandfathers were not racist. In their hearts, they were not racist. You can imagine many Jewish men in 1947 believing that Jackie Robinson deserved a fair chance, without wanting their daughters (or girlfriends) to take a photo with him.

Many Jews in the 1940s and 1950s and later sold cheap, shoddy goods to the shvartzes and still wondered why “those people” could not make their communities better. If one of them did do better, then great, it just showed that hard work made things happen and anyone could do it, if only they would work.

For all the talk of Donald Sterling being a creepy old man, he is not old enough to hold these views. Sterling’s views are embarrassment, a shonda, to the Jewish people because they are part of our history in this country. Holding these views is part of the way we slowly became less and less goyim and instead became more and more American.

Donald Sterling is offensive and disgusting. He is an embarrassment. But let’s not make the mistake of pretending that he has sprung out of nowhere, that we do not recognize him. Let’s not pretend that he is a goy.

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One Response to Oy, Donald Sterling

  1. Carrie says:

    Wow, that’s strong stuff.

    I have thought along the same lines when other people have been caught saying racist things. While I think it’s appropriate to shun people for this behavior that most of us now agree is unacceptable, still, it’s the height of hypocracy to act all surprised when a white person says something racist. As if it didn’t happen all the time in most of our memories, and as if lots of people who wouldn’t dream of saying it now hadn’t done it in their own lifetimes.

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