The Deeper Meaning of the Donald Sterling Affair
by Playthell Benjamin
After watching Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, attempt to explain away his racist comments in a television interview two things are apparent: You can make a lot of money and yet know nothing of the world beyond business deals, and Donald Sterling is just what Snoop Lion said he is: “A racist piece of shit!”
It is also obvious that no one told him when you are in a hole you should stop digging, or in any case he didn’t take the advice. Sterling sat there on CNN, with the whole world watching, and spouted mindless babble that was part self-serving apologia and part racist diatribe, while trying to convince us that he is not a racist but a jealous lover driven to distraction by his envy of black men. The only part of his story that is believable is that he is “jealous” of black men; which I believe is an inadvertent admission that he suffers from acute penis envy.
Alas, this is a widespread phenomenon among white males that has deep roots in American history. When I was a boy growing up in Florida, if a white woman chose a black lover she was condemning him to a certain death by mob violence if their relationship was discovered by white men, but many of those same white men kept black concubines just like Donald Sterling while promoting racist policies against the black community.
The most notorious examples of this in American history are Thomas Jefferson – a founding father who sired seven children by his slave concubine Sally Hemmings – and Strom Thurmon, the longest serving senator in the history of the senate who led the fight to maintain racial segregation in the South while secretly siring a black daughter. In St. Augustine Florida, my home town, it was Jimmy Brock, the manager of the Monson Hotel.
Brock had sired children by two black women in the town; yet he was such a staunch defender of racial segregation – the cornerstone of “white supremacy” the ideological undergirding of the system of institutionalized racism – that he poured acid in the hotel’s pool when Dr. Martin Luther King led a party of interracial citizens for a swim!
It was such a notorious act it attracted the attention of the national media, and pictures of this vicious racist attack published in the nation’s newspapers appalled people around the world – just as the sound track of Sterling’s covert racist hostility is shocking people everywhere as they listen to it on the internet.
Racist Hypocrite Jimmy Brock; Donald Sterling’s Soul Brother
Donald Sterling is cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Brock. The difference between them was well understood by the wise Afro-Americans who raised and tutored me about the ways of the white world. “The only difference between racist white men in the north and south,” they would say, “ is that the southern white man will tell you how he feels up front, while white men up north will smile in your face and stab you in the back.”
This is the reason why many of them preferred to remain in the south, choosing to deal with the devil they knew to the demons they didn’t. Sterling’s comments to Anderson Cooper on CNN provides evidence that this is still true…except now, when racism is unfashionable and it’s corollary racial discrimination is illegal, covert racism is the preferred tactic in every section of the US.
Ironically the white Anglo-Saxon and Scotch Irish Protestants who ruled the American south didn’t like Jews either, as is evidenced by the anti-Semitic proclamations of the Ku Klux Klan. So the question arises as to why Sterling appears to have chosen these white racist as his role models…or at least adopted their values. This is the critical question in understanding Donald Sterling’s attitudes about race.
I think the answer lies in his own experience as a Jew in America. Sterling is 81 years old, which means that he was born during the great depression in the US and the Nazi holocaust in Germany. It was a time when Jews faced serious anti-Semitism in America and Europe. However unlike Europe, where Jews had experienced centuries of oppression, in the US there was a pigmentocracy based on skin color.
In this deranged skin game people of color were America’s “untouchables” – especially those of African descent no matter how slight – and those designated as “white” enjoyed special privileges. Hence the trick was to be included among those defined as “white.” The difference in the life’s chances and life styles of those who were considered white and those considered Negroes were like heaven and hell.
Walter White. He Could have “Passed” but Chose to Remain “Black”
The arbitrary nature of racial designation in America in which a person of white skin like NAACP leader Walter White and the ebony complexioned World Heavy-Weight Champion Jack Johnson could both be classified as “Negroes” – due to an irrational social construct called “the one drop rule” – made it possible for people legally defined as “black” who looked “white” to secretly “pass” over the color line and become “white.”
And considering the difference in one’s opportunities based on this superficial distinction it is no wonder that some people chose to “pass;” it was literally a choice between freedom and quasi-slavery. The wonder is that everybody who could pass didn’t. However many Afro-Americans who were light enough to pass chose not to because they grew up with black people, loved their cultural inheritance, and hated the arrogance and racism of whites, which they understood better than their darker brothers because whites, believing themselves to be talking to a fellow white American, would share their deepest feelings about race with them.
This is why Walter white, who could easily have passed, chose to remain in the “world behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described black life in the early twentieth century. For Jews, who were also outsiders to the Anglo-Saxons who ruled America, “passing” was a lot easier. They only had to change their names from obviously Jewish ones like Benjamin Swartz, to Anglo names like Tony Curtis.
Many of the biggest movie stars of my youth were Jews who anglicized their names: Jeff Chandler, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglass, et al. And the titan of television Jack Benny was also an anglicized Jew. Ironically the pressure to pass as Anglo-Saxons was placed on these Jewish actors in and industry owned and controlled by Jews!
Kirk Douglass. Born: Issur Danielovit
The distinguished Jewish film historian Neal Gabler deals with this question with candor and insight in his seminal text “An Empire of their Own.” Among the many important revelations offered up in this book is the fact that the Jewish movie Moguls who created Hollywood and made it the jewel in the crown of American popular entertainment, were European immigrants who desperately wanted to become real Americans and succeed in business.
It is not hard to understand why a man like Samuel Goldwyn, a self-educated Polish immigrant who was born Shmuel Gelbfisz and raised as a Hasidic Jew in a Warsaw ghetto, was not anxious to become a crusader for Jewish causes in America. In his native Poland Jews faced a hellish existence akin to that of Afro-Americans. After observing their lot in Europe first hand when he was a student in Germany in the late 19th century, Dr. Dubois thought it might be worse.
After making his way to America and assuming a new identity, first as Sam Goldfish, and then Samuel Goldwyn, he quickly recognized that despite anti-Semitism America offered great opportunities to “white” men so long as he didn’t make his Jewishness an issue. Hence he assimilated into “white” America as much as possible, went into the developing moving picture business and became a rich and powerful Hollywood Mogul.
Goldwyn and his Jewish colleagues achieved tremendous wealth and influence by producing films that appealed to the major market; which was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. It is these little swarthy Jews who created the blond sex goddess: May West, Gloria Swanson, Marylyn Monroe, et al. By glorifying the fantasies of white America they became the arbiters of popular taste and the shapers of the American dream.
The price of success in their business was to completely camouflage their Jewish identity to the extent that they not only required Jewish actors to disguise their ethnic identity, but name changes were sometimes accompanied by “corrective” cosmetic surgery to change their noses to fit the Nordic ideal. And movies addressing the Jewish experience, especially anti-Semitism, were taboo!
It was so bad that Jewish organizations called them out on their game of ethnic hide and seek. However another critical component in the quest of the Jewish movie moguls to become “real” white Americans and give the public what it wanted was the projection of racist stereotypes of Afro-Americans in their films.
Before movies were invented in the early 20th century the most popular form of American entertainment was the blackface minstrel show, in which white men “blacked up” by smearing burnt cork on their faces, painting on ludicrous big red lips, and engaged in racist parodies of Afro-Americans. It was such a rage among whites in the 19th century that the great song and dance men Bert Williams and George Walker named their act “Two Real Coons” when they got together in San Francisco during 1994.
However they were the first Afro-American act that refused to wear the burnt cork mask that white audiences insisted black performing artist don, in order to assume the identity that had already established by white Minstrels.
The black face Minstrel tradition, although begun by WASP like “Daddy Dan Rice” with his famous “Jump Jim Crow” act – which is where the term “Jim Crow” used to describe institutional racism originated – it was taken over by white ethnics and immigrants. Irishmen dominated Minstrelsy by the late 19th century and Jews followed their lead.
Hence by the time the first “talkie” appeared – the first film where the characters spoke, bringing an end to the silent film era that was dominated by the Englishman Charlie Chaplin – it was Al Jolson, an immigrant Eastern European Jew, who starred in the movie which was titled “The Jazz Singer.
By blacking up Al Jolson – who was dubbed “The Greatest Entertainer in the World” before he appeared in the 1927 film – became a cultural hero in white America, a status he would never have acquired had he simply presented himself onstage as Asa Yoelson, the Russian born Jew. Hence by donning the black face mask Joelson was engaging in a double masquerade: an immigrant Jew solidifying his “white American” identity by masquerading as an Afro-American while denigrating black culture and character; a role that was quintessentially white American.
The movie was based on a Jewish play, “Day of Atonement,” with the screenplay and direction by Jews. When blackface acts went out of style the Jewish movie moguls brought the same obsequious comic domestic figure that was so popular in the live “Coon Shows” to the silver screen with real black actors. The most famous of these was Lincoln Perry, aka “Stepin Fetchit,” whom white Americans found a much more fetching personality than the Jack Johnson “Bad Nigger” type.
The Jewish businessmen who ran Hollywood understood the seemingly insatiable appetite of white Americans for grotesque images of Black Americans, and they delivered them in abundance. However according to his biographer Mel Watkins, in real life Lincoln Perry was far more like Jack Johnson than Stepin Fetchit; to whom he bore no resemblance, just as the American society portrayed by the Jews in Hollywood bore no resemblance to social reality.
It was a world of make believe in which Anglo-Saxon protestant heroes and heroines were the ideal, Jews didn’t exist, and black Americans lived to serve whites with a smile, whether cleaning house or tap dancing. In any case Afro-Americans were simple minded happy go lucky darkies who could gleefully sing, as indeed the Jewish composer George Gershwin had a black character sing in his opera Porgy and Bess: “I’ve got plenty of nothing/ and nothing’s plenty for me.”
The Real Lincoln Perry. A Tough Guy and Militant Fighter for the rights of Black Actors.
This is the Los Angeles in which Donald Tokowitz – Donald Sterling’s given surname – grew up as a poor and powerless Jew. Born in Chicago to immigrant Jewish parents’ in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power in Germany, the family moved to an economically depressed, racially mixed, LA neighborhood called Boyle Heights in 1936, where his father eked out a living as a produce peddler.
There were blacks, Mexicans and several white ethnic groups living there at the time. Ironically, Sterling’s girlfriend Saviano also lived there. In a May 6, article on Sterling in the Boston Globe, “Becoming white: Donald Sterling’s past offers clues to current outcry,” Journalist Farah Stockman quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips, whose father had also grown up the neighborhood during the same period as Sterling.
“During the Depression, no one had any hope of getting out of Boyle Heights,” Phillips observed, and he described the position of the Jews in the racial stratification system Boyle Heights: “On the ‘social distance scale, Jews were in the middle, between people of color and white ethnic groups. They were either the most acceptable non-white ethnic group, or the least acceptable whites.” Outside of Boyle Heights the most conspicuous achievement of Jews in Los Angeles, Hollywood, was not promoted as a Jewish triumph by the movie moguls but consciously portrayed simply as an American, i.e. white American, success story.
This was especially true in this period when white racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers argued that Hollywood was a Jewish conspiracy to corrupt the morals of white Christian youths. By 1960, when Donald Tokowitz graduated from law school and set out to make his fortune in the rich and glamorous city of Los Angeles, where the Hollywood Jews had found fame and fortune, he had learned his lesson well and followed a tried and true path to the privileged position enjoyed by successful white men in America.
Thus it is not surprising that one of the first things he did upon graduation was to scrap Tokowitz and formally change his name to “Sterling.” Although he has attempted to put the name change on his father, court documents examined by enterprising reporters tell a different tale. In the legal papers submitted to the court Don Tokowitz claimed he wanted the change his name to Sterling because his colleagues had a hard time pronouncing Tokowitz. He went on to say that this could hinder him professionally.
Young lawyer Donald Tofowitz became Rich LA Lawyer/Businessman Donald Sterling
Thus by changing his name – which is a ritual of rebirth – his intention was to blend in with the rest of his white countrymen. For being a Jew at mid-twentieth meant exclusion from the major law firms that were known in the legal community as “White Shoe” firms, where the high powered corporate deals were packaged. While not subjected to the kind of racial oppression that Afro-Americans suffered, many Anglo-Saxons regarded Jews as not quite white.
Ms. Stockman observes that this “almost white status” led many Jews “to focus feverishly on full acceptance. As they grew more prosperous, nearly all of the Jews in Boyle Heights moved to white suburbs in places like the San Fernando Valley, where blacks and Hispanics couldn’t follow.” And when Sterling became a big real estate owner he adopted illegal racist discriminatory practices that made sure even those Afro-Americans who could afford it would be denied entrance into those neighborhoods – and he was not alone, it was a common practice among racist white realtors. Yet according to the government agencies that heard the complaints against him, Sterling is one of the worse and received the highest fines ever awarded in a housing discrimination case.
It was yet another bid by sterling to be a “real” white man. When viewed from this historical perspective the comments to his Afro-Latina concubine V. Stiviano makes perfect sense. In essence he was telling her to do what he did: escape her ethnic identity and all the problems it brings. This is abundantly clear when Sterling tells her not to bring black men to the games or be seen “associating with black people” online, and she reminds him she is part black. “It bothers me that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people” says a furious Sterling. “I just saying, in your lousy instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking black people.” At another point he says to her why can’t she just project herself as a nice Latina.
I guess when you have run away from your own heritage in search of, rejected your birthright for fool’s gold, it seems reasonable to demand it from your concubine – whom he describes as “a street girl” with fifteen Mexican brothers and sisters to support. It is all too obvious that Donald Sterling is a sad deluded old fool, a shameless liar and hypocrite who burst into tears on world-wide television when he recounted how much he had done for his young Afro-Latina concubine who he “thought really cared” for him.
From all appearances this guy is a perpetual trick, a pathetic clueless Putz who thinks he can buy some young love that is only slightly soiled, and his “girl” V. Stiviano, which is one of several aliases she has used, is a hard-hearted hustler out to take this chump for all she can get. It is a tawdry tale about racism, privilege and power in contemporary America in which beauty conquers the beast. Alas, they deserve each other.
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.