Now the Real Work Begins

After days of enduring endless airings of the most repulsively racist audio recordings in recent memory, most of us rejoiced when National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver swiftly delivered a lifetime ban upon Donald T. Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, from any contact with his own franchise.  A strong statement had been made.  The offender had been dealt the stiffest penalty possible.  America breathed a heavy sigh of relief and returned its attention to the playoff games on the court.  We could begin to heal.

Unfortunately, the celebration was – and still is – painfully premature.

Anyone who has heard Mr. Sterling’s appalling recorded rants can certainly surmise that his racist statements were not some slip of the tongue.  And it’s not as if he only recently arrived at his offensive conclusions about African-Americans.  This is how he has always felt – and his fellow NBA owners have known it, as have his players and employees, as well as the fans who have followed his team.

We all knew about Donald Sterling.  But nobody chose to do anything about it.  Not until decades of collective silent consent convinced him that there was nothing wrong with making the comments that ultimately got him banned.

For most of the last decade, Mr. Sterling has been in and out of court, facing lawsuits for housing discrimination and employment discrimination on the basis of race.  He has paid many millions of dollars to settle some of these suits.  For years, allegations of inappropriate comments and outrageous behavior rooted in racism have circled around the Clippers owner.

The public outcry about the most outlandish of Mr. Sterling’s recorded words has served to obscure the comment he made that ought to trouble us the most… because it is truer than we wish to admit, and because it impugns us, not him.  Said Sterling, “We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong.  We live in a society.  We live in a culture.”

Mr. Sterling, the child of low-income Jewish immigrant parents, rose to become a billionaire living in that society.  He became a member of one of the most elite clubs in America – the select enclave of NBA owners – by living according to the rules of that culture.  Our culture.  And as his wealth and power grew, he internalized the lesson his society was tacitly teaching him:  “We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong.”

Making Mr. Sterling go away now has a satisfying feeling, but it falls well short of fundamentally addressing the cultural ills that still persist and were long excused in him by his success and position.  His ban isn’t a moment of resolution.  It is a moment of peering into our societal mirror and evaluating what’s right and wrong – and getting serious about doing something about it.

Often in American history, it has been those moments of clarifying honesty that have produced the most substantive steps toward change.  As a rabbi, I find myself wanting to shout from a mountaintop that Donald Sterling doesn’t speak for the Jewish people.  Perhaps the Jewish commissioner of the NBA already did that more visibly than anyone else could.  But Adam Silver is hardly the first Jew to take action in defense of civil rights and in defiance of racism.  The American Jewish community and the African-American community have long been natural partners, possessing a shared history.  Judaism’s defining narrative is the exodus from Egyptian slavery into freedom – and the myriad ways that transformation repeats itself throughout human history.  In the African-American story, Jews hear the echo of their own story.

This explains why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.  It also explains the photograph that appears on the cover of my congregation’s annual Shabbat service on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day.  It is a 1968 picture of Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy marching alongside the legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who is holding a Torah in his arms. 

Indeed, the Torah teaches us to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).  Anyone who can relate to the experience of being marginalized by those holding greater power and acting on the basis of prejudice is called to be a guardian of those who face that fate in our own time.

The recordings of Mr. Sterling renewed that call for us.  Will we respond?  Or will we pretend that the problem has vanished along with Mr. Sterling?

Exactly 50 years ago next month, 17 rabbis responded.  They headed to St. Augustine, Fla., at the request of Dr. King, who asked them to join in a demonstration against segregation.  They were jailed for their participation.  Two of those rabbis are members of my synagogue today.  They refused to look away when it was time to evaluate what was right and wrong.  They did more than just “live in a society.”

Our society has loudly declared that Mr. Sterling’s words cannot characterize us.  But we know we cannot make that true simply by exiling him from our view.  Now the real work begins.

Rabbi Ken Chasen is senior rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple.