“I’m not a racist, but…”

Don’t have the nerve to be openly racist? Don’t say or perpetuate racist things.

There’s nothing surprising about life circling back on karma leper Donald Sterling. And this week, L.A. feels like when they hauled the Space Shuttle Endeavor through the city: scores of Angelenos on the same proud page, even if only briefly.

Thank you Donald Sterling, shoo-in for the 2014 Utter Lack of Character Award.

As a former recipient myself, I fully admit to being ethically spoiled (privileged) in my early 20s – so much so that it took being dropped into an environment where everything I didn’t want to be crept its way toward me every day. Frankly, “Scared Straight!” was the only way for me to learn. The sole advantage I had was a dark sense of humor, which meant that one or two my wake-up calls were sort of met halfway.

There are, though, three things I understood right off:

  1. Don’t hang around with people who like to punch others ‘cause they have to practice on someone (it’ll eventually be you)

  2. No matter what it is, say to their face. Own it. Force the other guy to do all the work, all the reacting, and all the resenting

  3. If you don’t know what racism is (learned, legacy or systemic), you should probably shut up about how “…people of color are  ____________. ”

Equally clear to me was that, behind bars (or anywhere else) anything in that begins with or contains  “I’m not a racist, but…” is BAD. 

The irony is that when I came home, disappointingly few people on the outside understood this.

I’d once again been dropped into an environment full of people behaving repulsively.

PLEASE DONT SNEEZE ON THE CONVICTS_Where Excuses Go to DieNow, just like in prison, not all of these people deserve  book-cover judgment, and it’s wrong to write ’em all off. But squandering the freedom they have to speak and act on impulse?…well, this is a tough thing to get accustomed to. I had to learn to size up a stranger in 10 seconds or less because my life depended on it. Walking around  –or stepping over–  the reasons why became routine. I learned to survive in an environment where people are very, very careful about what comes out of their mouths: walking around  –or stepping over–  the consequences of those who chose to act otherwise also became routine.

See, the strange thing about prison is that many of its inhabitants adhere to (and enforce) rules, morals, and principles they failed to live up to while free. So, when granted your freedom from such a place, you can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened to the guy who just cut in front of you in line at the bank. You picture the fate of the jerk who chooses not to hold the door for someone carrying something, or one who behaves inconsiderately during a meal. To go from a place where bad manners may mean a broken jaw to being sneezed at, full force, in Target – what and no throat punch!?

Suddenly, when you find yourself comparing the value systems of incarcerated criminals to those of your new friends, civilians, you know you need to look for something to hold on to.

Out here in the real world_term used looselyOut here in the real world, we’re too quick to navigate the rapids of other people’s backpedaling and justifications. Too many of us squirm quietly while a colleague espouses racist sentiments: it’s latently acceptable (and expected) to look the other way.

Prison ruined that for me. Prison saved me from a life-sentence of looking the other way in the face of latent bigotry.

Nowadays, if some chicken-shit thinks it’s funny to openly point out our ethnic differences, #1 he or she had better be hilarious, and #2 he or she had better be hilarious to the faces of those about whom they’re speaking. Anything else’ll get you a shake of the head and a, “Oh, you one of those guys!?” I call it subway platform citizenship, and I like it even more when offense is taken.

Ol’ Donny Sterling took offense at the suggestion that he was racist in the very same audio recording in which he said riotously bigoted things. So as I say, he’s definitely a shoo-in for our 2014 Utter Lack of Character Award, the only one he hasn’t bought for himself.

Donald Sterling Facepalm_Where Excuses Go to DieDespite a well-documented history of speaking and doing things that are considered incontrovertibly racist by the rest of us, Sterling simply refuses to see himself as someone who is brazenly prejudiced. And his is not such an unusual response, really, but it is pathetic. If you can’t spout off on the deficiencies of others in a way that forces you to defend your beliefs to their face, you’ve got no excuse for pointing, laughing, and assuming you’re divinely appointed as a superior.

Sterling, of course, has the added weirdness of living in a bubble of money and power (given that, he could really use a chin tuck), but his isolation in no way excuses his behavior. The fact remains that, as a team owner, he’s an example to young people. Oops…I meant as a soon-to-be former team owner.

Put through the funhouse mirror of prison politics, Donald Sterling’s inability to own his beliefs and say, “Fuck it. You got me. Now what?“; pay the NBA fine; and walk away is something that would get him killed on the inside.

So come to think of it, maybe losing the L.A. Clippers isn’t all that much of a punishment after all.

And how’s this for related content?

Donald Sterlings NBA_Where Excuses Go to Die