Tom Talks

What world has Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling been living in?

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comApril 28, 2014 

To be a racist in 2014 requires effort. You have to ignore what you see and hear. You have to go through life with your eyes shut.

There certainly was evidence before this week that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is a racist. I’m sure I sound hopelessly naive, but I don’t see how somebody who owns an NBA team can be.

If you move among cultures as Sterling does, as most of us do, how do you hang onto a racist philosophy? Mingle with and talk to people who come from a place and a culture that differs from yours and you learn, don’t you? You learn about new traditions and styles. You ought to learn that your way is not the only way.

If you spend all your time in a small enclave surrounded by people who are like you, maybe you develop a fear of outsiders. But Sterling is a rich man, accustomed to perks, and he goes where he wants to. There was no enclave to limit what he experiences.

Last week I spent six nights in a Miami neighborhood. It wasn’t affluent. It was alien to every neighborhood in which I’ve lived in Charlotte or Minneapolis or St. Cloud, Minn. Most days about 75 percent of the words I heard were Spanish.

I went to a restaurant and the waitress tried to explain the menu and I tried to understand. She really tried. I really tried. We both smiled. Finally, aware of how much of her time I had taken, I pointed to a dish that included many vowels.

I did this in Italy once, ended up with a bowl of anchovies and had to pretend to like them. I had told the woman I was with that I could speak the language. I had no idea, of course.

This time I didn’t get anchovies. This time I didn’t have to pretend.

If I had gone to Miami with doubts about a Spanish-speaking culture I would have lost them by the second day. I got to know the bartender from Barcelona, who went to school in Athens, Ga. I got to the know the owner of the small bakery who saw my corporate card and wondered why the Charlotte Observer was in Miami.

That’s the beauty of travel, isn’t it – the opportunity to experience what you don’t know.

How Sterling, if he said what he is alleged to have said, could escape such a perspective is unfathomable.

If the allegations against Sterling are true, the NBA has no room for him.

I’m not sure who does.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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