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What Donald Sterling got right about African Americans

James Braxton_Peterson_600In life, much like in the NBA, playing a reactionary defense can often result in overplaying your position and ultimately losing the game itself.

As we continue to wonder at the media train wreck that Donald Sterling's life has become, too many will lose sight of the possibility that some truth may be buried in the morass of his most recent comments and his direct attack on Magic Johnson.

To be clear, Donald Sterling is, by multiple definitions, a racist.

He talks about African-American people (including his players) as if they were inherently subordinate to him. But more importantly, he has carried out discriminatory practices in his business as a landlord in Los Angeles. This second version of American racism is what matters most. That is, what Sterling thinks or says about people of color is of less consequence than what he does to people of color, even if his actions are a result of what he may or may not think of people.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is without a doubt one of our truly great American athletes. He, Julius Erving and Larry Bird helped to usher in the modern era of the National Basketball Association. He helped make the NBA playoffs must-see television.

When he was diagnosed with HIV, Johnson responded by retiring from basketball and then establishing the Magic Johnson Foundation. The MJ Foundation has done extraordinary work in raising awareness about HIV and AIDs and continues this mission in conjunction with new efforts to economically revitalize urban communities and provide opportunities for access to college for underprivileged youth.

That said, who determines what constitutes the appropriate metric for giving back to (in this case) the African-American community? Sterling suggested that while those successful in the Jewish community regularly give back to their own communities, those who are successful in the black community do not match their Jewish counterparts in these terms or in the ways in which they contribute and give back to the communities from which they come.

To be honest, and only in this instance, Sterling has only said what I have heard so many more experienced older African-American folks say in private contexts. Now, maybe Magic Johnson has passed some unknown litmus test for what exceptional, successful black folks must do in order to be considered "good" with how much they have given back to the African-American community, but the issues of social justice and community engagement do not begin and end with Magic.

Sterling's comparison of Jewish and African-American giving likely offended many people watching and/or listening to his latest and hopefully his last interview. But before we rush into a reactionary defense, we must first survey the terrain of successful African-American people in business, athletics and entertainment and have an honest assessment of whether or not their contributions to our community are sufficient.

Clearly, for many of the challenges in the African-American community in the 21st century, there are only substantive policy-oriented solutions. However, given the enormous wealth of the most successful African-American athletes, entertainers and business moguls, it seems apropos to demand that they do more – including Magic Johnson.

In fact, the challenges of the African-American community – eroded public school systems, mass incarceration, and persistent institutional racism – require a concerted effort on the part of policy makers, activists, organizers, educators, etc. But when we compare our current crop of African-American athletes to those from Civil Rights era – Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, Bill Russell, etc., wide is the schism between their activism and the activism of those who today have many more resources and platforms at their disposal.

The truth is we need Magic to do even more than what he has done; we need African-American athletes to take more stands on issues that matter to our community – not just the ones that directly affect them or their families.

And although it may be difficult to do so in this defensive moment, we have to demand more from our most economically successful, because their contributions and their voices are sorely needed in these times.

(Follow Dr. James Peterson on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson.)


+1 #1 Donald Jones 2014-05-14 13:25
Affluent African Americans can and should do more. Some of them discriminate against their own more than others do.

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