Donald Sterling, tarnished [Commentary]

Late in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film "Pulp Fiction," Marsellus Wallace — a criminal boss played by Ving Rhames — banishes prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) from Southern California, telling him "You lost all your L.A. privileges."

If only it were that easy to kick Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of L.A. There is simply no person, institution or network in today's Los Angeles with the clout to force powerful Angelenos to repent their sins — much less drive them out of town. And now, with his bigotry a national news event, Mr. Sterling has become an outrageous example of the inability of L.A. to police itself and its elite.

The racism heard on the leaked tape — a man said to be Mr. Sterling demanding that a girlfriend stop associating with black people — may be hot news around the country, but Mr. Sterling's discrimination against renters in his apartment buildings and allegations of other anti-black, anti-Mexican and misogynist views have been well-known in Los Angeles life for 30 years. Yet no one has until now sought to dislodge Mr. Sterling from his role as owner of a major sports franchise.

On Tuesday, the National Basketball Association banned Mr. Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million, the maximum allowed, for making racist remarks. Mr. Sterling is barred from contacting his team, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he would urge the board of governors to force Mr. Sterling to sell the Clippers.

In L.A., accountability almost always requires outside intervention. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had mismanaged the jail for years, but he only resigned earlier this year after the federal government began investigating. When Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was sabotaging the team, it took the commissioner of baseball, in Milwaukee, to force the team's sale. In the past generation, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles Unified School District's special education program and the Los Angeles Police Department all have required forms of federal receivership.

Outside intervention, of course, is no panacea. But the alternative is unchecked defiance, the best current example being Brian D'Arcy, head of the biggest union of L.A. Department of Water and Power (DWP) employees. For months, he has refused demands from city leaders, the courts and the media that he turn over financial documents on two nonprofits that received $40 million from ratepayers. Even as he stonewalled, Mr. D'Arcy served on the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of distinguished L.A. citizens, as they issued a report complaining about a lack of accountability in city government. Did I mention that defiance is a close cousin of shamelessness?

In Mr. Sterling's case, it's unclear whether other powerful Angelenos would have moved against him even if they could. For one thing, he's got the kind of hallowed, homegrown personal narrative — poor kid from the Eastside (Boyle Heights) who becomes a Westside titan (real estate) — that buys plenty of second chances here. And Mr. Sterling bought social status by becoming a major player in the phony, philanthropic Beverly Hills hotel chicken dinners that always make rich people look charitable and sometimes raise money for a good cause.

By handing out money to many different people and organizations across all lines of geography, cause and ethnicity, Mr. Sterling incentivized much of Los Angeles to ignore his racism. Among those who looked the other way was the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which was about to give him a second lifetime achievement award when the recent news broke. It didn't hurt Mr. Sterling that he advertised his charitable exploits in The Sun's sister paper, The Los Angeles Times, which has portrayed him more as a creepy uncle than unrepentant racist.

This particular moment exposes the underbelly of Southern California's open culture. Weak institutions and weak leadership free people here to do as they please and be who they are. But when someone powerful, by being who he is, does real damage to Los Angeles and its reputation, there are few who are able and willing to step forward to protect us.

Mr. Sterling's conversation with his now 31-year-old, one-time girlfriend — who goes by "V. Stiviano" and is described as a gold digger in a lawsuit filed by Mr. Sterling's wife — was offensive and nonsensical. But Mr. Sterling, 80, did say one thing that hit close to home. When Ms. Stiviano, who repeatedly reminds Mr. Sterling that she is of "mixed" race during the taped conversation, asked why he wouldn't stand against racism in the world, Mr. Sterling said on the tape: "We don't evaluate what's right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture."

For all the criticism of Mr. Sterling that you hear from Angelenos now, he is decidedly the product of Los Angeles culture. He has thrived here. Now, he defines us.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square; a version of this piece appeared there first. His email is

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