Why Racial Attitudes Matter: Donald Sterling and Microaggression

tolerance page in dictionaryIf you’ve plugged in any electronic device or spent even a second watching the news this week, you probably know about the racist remarks allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. In a tape surreptitiously recorded by Sterling’s now ex-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, Sterling can be heard making a host of offensive and racist remarks.

He allegedly requests that his girlfriend avoid bringing African-Americans to Clippers games and that she refrain from taking photos with or being seen in public with racial minorities. In a separate recording, Sterling allegedly remarks that black Jewish people are “a hundred percent” less than white Jewish people, and that blacks are treated “like dogs” in Israel.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver responded to the leaked tapes by banning Sterling from NBA games for life. He’s also stated that he wants to force Sterling to sell his team.

This isn’t the first time Sterling has been accused of racism. In fact, in 2006, ESPN published a story with the headline “Sterling’s Racism Should Be News.” Sterling has been sued for housing discrimination at least twice, and in 2009 the Justice Department ordered him to pay a $2.75 million settlement for housing discrimination—the largest settlement the Justice Department has ever obtained for such discrimination. Elgin Baylor, a former Clippers executive, filed a discrimination suit against Sterling in 2009, and stories of Sterling’s racist remarks are legion.

Although it’s easy enough to find stories of Sterling’s allegedly overtly racist behavior, the attitudes conveyed in the most recent tape convey prejudice that necessarily affects daily behavior. Even players who didn’t experience overt racism may still recall subtle instances of racism. Sociologists call this type of covert racism microaggression.

The theory behind microaggression is that people with racist beliefs can’t help but act on those beliefs. Even if people who are racially prejudiced manages to avoid overtly racist behavior, they still subtly convey that people of color are lesser. Racial minorities are so accustomed to subtle forms of aggression that a Tumblr page dedicated to racial microaggression has thousands of followers. Racially privileged people engage in microaggression any time they practice a behavior that makes racial minorities feel unwelcome or unsafe.

Examples of microaggression include:

  • Racist jokes
  • The use of racist epithets or knowing use of offensive language
  • Making unwarranted assumptions about a person’s behavior or background because of the color of his or her skin
  • Silencing racial minorities by dominating work or classroom discussions or frequently interrupting a racial minority
  • Treating a person as a representative of an entire group solely because of the color of his or her skin
  • Dismissing claims of racism
  • Giving subtle preference to people who share your racial background or skin color

Over time, these microaggressions can affect everything from self-esteem to work and educational performance. A team overseen by Sterling may have allowed such aggression to proliferate for years, if not decades.

Equally important, though, is the reminder Sterling provides to all members of racially privileged groups: It’s easy for privileged people to forget about the racism and aggression minorities experience on an everyday basis. Sterling’s recording doesn’t have to be just another reminder of an unjust world. It can be a wake-up call that each and every one of us needs to monitor the way we treat others and ensure that we don’t allow our own biases to harm others.


  1. Berman, M. (2014, April 28). Why the world finally noticed Donald Sterling’s appalling history. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/04/28/why-the-world-finally-noticed-donald-sterlings-appalling-history/
  2. Haaretz. (2014, April 28). NBA’s Donald Sterling tells girlfriend, ‘In Israel, blacks are treated just like dogs’ Retrieved from http://forward.com/articles/197191/nbas-donald-sterling-tells-girlfriend-in-israel-bl/
  3. Jones, B. (2006). ESPN.com: Page 2 : Sterling’s racism should be news. Retrieved from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=jones/060810
  4. Microaggressions. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fordham.edu/academics/office_of_research/research_centers__in/center_for_teaching_/the_art_of_teaching/microaggressions_89343.asp

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Cheryl


    May 5th, 2014 at 4:40 PM

    OK so the guy has this history of remarks and behavior and we have to wait until a disgruntled girlfriend leaks it to the press to do anything about it or to even care? If this is something that ahs been going on for as long as people say that it has then wahy hasn’t he had the pressure on him before to sell the team? This isn’t something that just happened overnight.

  • ben


    May 6th, 2014 at 3:33 AM

    Another wake up call: why hang out with peoople who you know are recording your private conversations? That right there would be a signal that this is not a person that I want in my life. Not that this is any kind of excuse for his words and behavior because I find it deplorable, but to also have the added factor of someone that I believe was looking to make some cash and become infamous makes it even more smarmy than it already was/is.

  • James


    May 6th, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    Sterling is a jerk who deserved to be called out years ago but no one ever did because of thef at stacks of cash that he could always throw around and buy his way out of trouble.

    You know, sometimes the fact that money can fix things like that and make you look better than what you really are is more disturbing to me than the fact that someone has a terrible attitude about others. It is as if we have become so shallow and so materialistic that we think that money is the salve to smooth over every problem imaginable.

    Well it does not change ignorance and stupidity. This is the proof right here

  • summer


    May 7th, 2014 at 3:41 AM

    so disappointing that things like this are still happening today but I guess that old habits die hard. We want to progress forward but often it feels that we take two steps forward and then end up when something like this happens taking those steps right back to where we were.

    Will we ever go any farther then where we are right now?

  • Billy T

    Billy T

    May 7th, 2014 at 3:46 PM

    Sometimes I think that people think that what they say behind closed doors is fine, no matter what they portray to the public. But someone ike him should know better, he should know that someone is always going to look for a way to trip him up and well, she found it. He is an idiot for thinking that way, and even dumber to say that sort of cr** out loud. There are times when you need to keep your mouth closed and just be thankful for what you have. Obviously he is not the master of that game, feels the need to always say what’s on his mind and this time that may have cost him a pretty big fortune. The words hurt no matter who you are and who you say them to. It just isn’t right to think that way and to say those things to other people knowing that someone is going to hurt because of it.

  • Meryl


    May 8th, 2014 at 3:36 AM

    There are those people who have their heads so far down in the sand that they don’t worry about how their words, veen if they are said in private, still hurt today.
    I think that they assume that these are just their beliefs and that if they aren’t out gathering up a lynch mob then they don’t hurt.
    But words and attitudes are the very things that are holding us back today. When these types of beliefs are still so prevalent in our society, spoken or not, they are harmful to our success and our ability to move forward as a country. I understand that he is old and that a lot of older people cling to what they have always known, but in the end there is just no excuse for this sort of behavior, and yes, it is a passive way of bein g very aggressive toward anyone, because last time I checked none of us have any control over the color of our skin that we are born with.

  • jason r

    jason r

    May 10th, 2014 at 7:55 AM

    Old Sterling must be having a fit thinking that his ex wife is now gonna get ownership of the team.

  • Burke


    May 13th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    sometimes the small things, the little ways that you are constantly injecting this kind of language into everyday conversations and activities, hurt even more than just shouting it from the rooftops. The small jabs still make deep and lasting wounds :(

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