What a way to knock that racist Nevada rancher out of the headlines. Only days past anarchist Cliven Bundy showing himself to be what President Barack Obama characterized as "ignorant folks advertising their ignorance," Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling appeared to be caught on tape espousing what Washington Post columnist Clinton Yates called a "plantation mindset."
And while the NBA scrambled to investigate the Sterling case, with a major news conference on the matter planned for 2 p.m. Tuesday, Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn, who has written extensively on sports in America, was struck by how the country "lurches from one racial scandal to another.
"Before Sterling, there was Don Imus," Starn said. "And before Don Imus, there was Al Campanis. And before Al Campanis, there was Earl Butts. And the irony is that nothing ever seems to get fixed. All the professors and pundits and columnists make pronouncements, and then we go back to the same old arrangements. It has this kabuki theater to it, everybody playing their parts, with an 80-year-old owner who turns out to be a bigot this time. It seems we're on this treadmill of racial issues."
Yates, in a Monday appearance on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, cited "the whole notion of plantation politics . . . a woman [of black and Mexican descent] with whom [Sterling] apparently had some sort of romantic relationship. He had no problem being involved with her in that manner, but doesn't want her to affiliate with people he doesn't deem worthy enough to come to his games -- people he employs in a manner that makes money for him."
To Starn, "It's just another example of racism hiding in plain sight. It's a league with a white commissioner, 29 of 30 white owners, wealthy white fans in sky boxes watching young black men play the game. The plantation analogy can be stretched too far, but it is true these racial divisions are staring at us in plain sight."
New York Magazine essayist Frank Rich has called this cultual running in place "America's unfinished racial business" -- the idea that, while political speeches, television news accounts and other official public pronouncements "seem to have us in a post-racial society," Starn said, "there is another parallel, underground American world where all these tired, creepy old stereotypes, fears and anxieties are very much alive and well.
"This is an age of political correctness. It takes some voice mail or purloined text message to give us a glimpse into the dark racial id of America. It takes an octogenarian basketball owner to say something stupid to get our attention.
"In anthropology, we use the concept of the 'ritual scapegoat,' in which somebody is blamed for all of society's sins. And it's all too convenient, by ranting and raving about how awful what Sterling said is, we get to feel morally righteous."
Starn calls the Sterling story "a simple one. We stand for tolerance and don't like what he said. But the actual task of fixing inequality in America is a gigantically complicated one. And it's not a problem that will be fixed with a few sound bites and declarations of good intentions."
It may be that, because Sterling exists in the world of sports, his attitudes toward blacks -- which appeared to go mostly unnoticed while he was settling a 2009 law suit for discriminatory practices in not renting to blacks and Latinos -- were especially magnified. As Starn said, "sports is such a big business and such a cultural touchstone in America that, when a race controversy erupts, we all do pay attention.
"We're not exactly shocked, but we do have this expectation that sports is a world of the even playing field, the ultimate meritocracy. So when the ugly head of racism is raised in the sports world, I think it does call more attention to itself."
Big news. But where does it go from here?