His racism got all the headlines, but there was something to be learned from Donald Sterling’s other words. So, before the spotlight turns elsewhere and Sterling crawls back into well-deserved obscurity, it’s worth considering his usefulness as a representative sample of the oligarchical class.
We’ll say one thing for Donald Sterling: He certainly asked the right question.
You’ve probably heard his comments a hundred times by now, but here’s a quick refresher. When asked, “Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?” Sterling replied:
“ … Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”
Elgin Baylor, the legendary player turned general manager for Sterling’s Clippers, alluded to the “plantation-type structure” of Sterling’s management in a 2009 lawsuit. And Josh Levin is right: there is a decidedly antebellum mentality to be found in the sports world, especially in Sterling’s words and deeds as a team owner.
Racism is a powerful ongoing force in our country’s social dynamic, but race is also closely connected with class as a tool for economic warfare. The plantation isn’t the only analogy for Sterling’s mindset. His attitude toward the players also resembles that of baronial landlords toward tenant farmers, or mine owners toward miners who were paid in “credits” for the company store. Like plantation owners, the landed aristocracy and the mining bosses saw their employees and tenants as less than fully human. They kept them in a form of peonage, both financial and cultural, while clinging to a worldview that justified their own domination.
The United States led the world in a nonviolent revolution against such forms of peonage. It was a revolution, not just of political or economic relationships, but of social values. And it was a revolution of perception, especially across class lines.
This perceptual aspect of the American Revolution took more than 150 years to complete. It culminated with the new social egalitarianism that accompanied the rise of unions in the early 20th century and the creation of the modern middle class in the post-Depression and post-World War II economy.
This shift coincided with our nation’s greatest sustained period of growth and prosperity. It led to a new social dynamic between wealth holders and working people, one that was soon reflected in American politics. There was bipartisan agreement, for example, that union membership and retirement security were good for society, which is why the 1956 Republican Party platform boasted of growth in both Social Security membership and union ranks during President Eisenhower’s first term.
Middle-class Americans were nobody’s social inferior. They were not considered the beneficiaries of anybody’s largesse. Nobody “gave them food and cars.” It was understood by all that their newfound prosperity was earned. What’s more, everyone saw that ensuring the financial security of all Americans help reinforce growth and prosperity at all income levels.
Who makes the game? In these prosperous decades, it was understood that we all made it together.
Employers didn’t “give” employees houses and cars. They invested in their workforce’s talents and efforts. Together, management and labor created wealth for everyone. When it came time to negotiate, talks were – at least ideally – conducted with mutual respect and civility. That was the social compact that led to our greatest period of prolonged economic growth.
Working people didn’t break that agreement. The wealthy did. As the oligarchic few became more and more wealthy, a number of them became, somewhat paradoxically, greedier and greedier – and increasingly contemptuous of those they once again considered their social inferiors.
And underlying both of those emotions, at least for a certain segment of the plutocratically powerful, was a seething resentment. That resentment can be seen in Sterling’s remarks about his players. It can be seen in a number of other public proclamations, including billionaire Tom Perkins’ bitter comments about social inferiors who dared to criticize his ex-wife’s hedges.
It could also be seen in Mitt Romney’s infamous off-the-record rant against the “47 percent” who don’t pay federal taxes. Like Sterling’s comments, Romney’s can be seen as evidence that the “radical rich” have combined an economic agenda of ever-accelerating wealth accumulation with a social view that once again views non-wealthy individuals as social and moral inferiors.
The “new aristocracy” isn’t just a political catchphrase. It’s a shorthand way of describing the psychology of this new and powerful social and economic class. They see themselves, not as victors, but as victims. Donald Sterling feels exploited by the ballplayers who drive “his” cars and live in “his” houses. Mitt Romney genuinely seemed to believe that he’d have a better chance of becoming president if he had been born of Mexican heritage, rather than as the wealthy son of a state governor and car company CEO.
It’s true that most of Donald Sterling’s player/employees are extremely well-paid, while wages have stagnated for most Americans. But in the modern psychology of oligarchy they are still employees and he is still the “victimized” boss.
There are those who will argue that the system worked in Sterling’s case. After all, the head of the National Basketball Association, an owner-funded organization, fined him $2.5 million and banned him for life.
But why did the NBA act?
According to one of the leaders of the National Basketball Players’ Association, “… all of our players felt like boycotting the games … we’re talking about all NBA players (and) we’re talking about the playoff games …”
Perhaps the players’ association can’t use this word, but we can: That sounds an awful lot like a strike.
A walkout by the players would have cost owners an enormous sum of money, especially during the playoffs. Suddenly, when faced with the loss of players’ labor, there was no more talk that they were being “given” houses and cars. All of a sudden it was clear that the owners’ prosperity was directly dependent on the participation of the players.
Not every industry is as dependent on its employees as professional sports, but many are. That includes the Silicon Valley, as demonstrated by an industry-spanning cartel designed to cheat employees of their wages.
No industry or corporation exists in a vacuum. Even the notoriously non-productive financial industry would collapse without the participation of “ordinary” Americans – as customers, pension fund contributors, municipal taxpayers, and implicit underwriters of too-big-to-fail institutions.
Who makes the game? You do. To believe otherwise is to unilaterally surrender power to the Donald Sterlings and Mitt Romneys of this world. Yes, they have enormous wealth at their disposal. And yes, they’re corrupting the political process. But without the participation of everyone in our society, their game can’t continue.
It may take boycotts or strikes or other forms of non-cooperation to illustrate the point, but the fact remains: Without us, there is no game.
That’s worth remembering, long after Sterling’s name has been rightfully forgotten.