Friday, May 2, 2014

Biased rants bring different outcomes | Last Word

My first thought when I heard the now-famous comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was that he has a soul sister in San Antonio.

Sterling was caught on a secret audio recording berating his girlfriend for posting on Instagram a picture of herself with Magic Johnson.

He was outraged that she thought it was OK to be seen in public with black people.

Then-City Councilwoman Elisa Chan was caught on a secret audio recording disparaging gays while plotting with city aides on how to oppose the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance without sounding prejudiced.

While the controversies are parallel, there are several differences.

One is that someone apparently broke the law in secretly taping Donald Sterling’s rant.

California law requires that all participants in private conversations be made aware that they are being recorded.

Texas law requires only that one person in a private conversation knows that the conversation is being recorded.

I say someone “apparently” broke California law because Donald Sterling may be so convinced that his statements don’t denote racism that he knowingly spoke into a microphone.

But I doubt it.

A second difference is that Donald Sterling is 80 years old.

That doesn’t make his comments any less despicable, but it does offer him a stale excuse.

He came of age when such comments about ethnic minorities were acceptable in so-called polite company.

Elisa Chan is 49, which deprives her of the “old coot” excuse.

But, come to think of it, she came of age when derogatory comments about gays were also acceptable in so-called polite company.

Fact is, homophobic slurs are still more acceptable in many circles than Sterling-esque comments about blacks and Latinos.

A third difference, and perhaps the most striking: Chan’s diatribe was about gays in general.

Sterling has made outrageous statements about blacks and Latinos in general in the past.

They drew little attention.

This time he disparaged a particular subset of blacks: professional athletes.

Since sports has long been America’s real national religion, this is blasphemy.

Beginning somewhat haltingly with Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, we long ago fully admitted blacks to our pantheon of sports gods.

This fall many of us will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series Victory of the New York Yankees.

As explained in the late David Halberstam’s fine book, “October, 1964,” the Cardinals won not only because they had acquired the likes of Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Bill White and the great Bob Gibson, but they had changed their team’s culture from one of the most racist in the league to one of the least.

The black players knew they were full members of the team.

Perhaps if America worshipped the performing arts as its national religion instead of sports, homophobic comments would be widely seen as racist comments are now: evidence that prejudice has not been erased – if only! – but that its cruder manifestations have been driven into the closet.

Unlike Sterling, Elisa Chan wasn’t forced from office.

She resigned from City Council to run for the State Senate.

She apparently saw the support she received for her comments on gays as an asset that would help her win a Republican primary against incumbent Sen. Donna Campbell.

Chan was wrong of course, but it probably had more to do with Campbell’s strength than with Chan’s position on gays.

Meanwhile, gays have made great progress in the public arena.

And a recent development promises even more progress: Finally, some athletes are coming out.

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