Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Politics, Sports > Donald Sterling and Dani Alves: Reactions to Public Racism in Contrast

Donald Sterling and Dani Alves: Reactions to Public Racism in Contrast

This afternoon the NBA announced that it has fined Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from the league for life after the notoriously slimy character was recorded uttering racist statements to his girlfriend, including a now-infamous exhortation not to bring African-Americans to his team’s games as her guests, even if they happen to be famous former stars like Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It was a strong response from the league, and one that may lead to a protracted battle with Sterling over compensation for the team he is now likely to be forced to sell (if 75% of his fellow franchise owners vote him out, that is).

Sterling is a loathsome reptile whose rights and actions, such as they are in legal ownership terms, were difficult to defend even before this latest episode exposing his bigotry. But a loathsome reptile with huge piles of capital can slide on through a lot of difficulties, and Sterling has done so in the past. For this reason, it’s surprising and indeed almost shocking that the hammer is being brought down so swiftly and powerfully by the NBA. Racism as blatant and as indefensible as that which Sterling has demonstrated is almost universally reviled but rarely punished by institutions quite this strongly, this deliberately and publically.

Golden State Warriors fans amusingly protest Donald Sterling’s derisive comments regarding bringing African-Americans to “his” games during a playoff game against Sterling’s LA Clippers

Still, a prejudiced old white man with millions of dollars being punished for open discrimination in this way is in many ways a necessary public sacrifice for a social system that still benefits from discriminatory practices in many ways. NBA players, often African-Americans from lower-income backgrounds, earn lucrative contracts and comfortable livings thanks to their athletic and genetic gifts, but the billionaires who issue their paycheques reap even greater financial benefits. To whatever extent the arrangement is mutually beneficial, owners are surely the greater beneficiaries. As Chris Rock put it, Shaquille O’Neal is rich, but the white man who signs his cheque is wealthy.

The NBA is a majority African-American league that is deeply associated with black urban culture in the public eye, and no doubt felt a responsibility not only to its players, its fanbase and to the wider public but also to the maintenance of its marketing image to make a muscular statement against minority discrimination. Indeed, one could be inclined to argue that the league’s second-tier status among the major North American professional sports leagues – behind the hegemonic NFL and MLB and ahead of the more niche-level NHL – could be at least partly due to lingering racial prejudice among white American (and Canadian) sports fans.

I won’t get into that any more deeply, but dismissive sniffs at the league’s often-cocky and individualistic “culture” might come from a similar deep place of historical white supremacy as equivalent criticisms of hip-hop or of African-American culture in general do as well. But the very structure of the league – wealthy white men becoming wealthier on the back of the labour of young African-American males – itself echoes the Southern slaveowning order, if not quite as much as big-time college sports (at least NBAers are making a not inconsiderable salary for their pains; college players earn not a cent until a sliver of a percentage of them go pro). And so the central, centrist source of authority replied to this irruption of open racial insensitivity much as the American federal government reacted to the fall of the slaveowning South after the Civil War: by punishing particularly visible perpetrators of the unequal socioeconomic arrangement (Sterling as latter-day plantation owner) while leaving the underlying discriminatory assumptions of that same system essentially intact.

An alternative reaction to public acts of racist discrimination was demonstrated this past weekend across the ocean on a football pitch in Spain. In the midst of La Liga giants FC Barcelona’s fixture against Villareal, a fan derisively tossed a banana at Barca’s mixed-race Brazilian right back Dani Alves as he prepared to take a corner kick. A sadly common and moronic gesture meant to equate a player of African descent with a banana-eating ape, such racist displays have lead to players walking off the field in protest and hefty FIFA-levied fines to home teams at stadiums where such incidents occur. Alves’ reaction was, as you can see below, more casual and yet more profound.

Cool as anything, Alves reduced a hateful act to an appreciative laugh. A moment of dark humanity becomes a moment of light humanity. Using humour or satire to exposes discriminatory structures has a controversial history (just ask Stephen Colbert), but Alves’ act of defiance in the face of another burst of international football’s simmering racist issue was so nonchalant and elegant (just like the on-pitch style of top footballers like Alves) that it has taken on a shade of the iconic. The video of the moment went viral well beyond the circles of the sport, and has inspired a meme of banana-consuming selfies from other footballers and fans in solidarity.

Alves’ non-protest protest echoes Henry Louis Gates Jr. theoretic framework laid out in the The Signifying Monkey. Gates delineates the African-American discursive practice of signifyin(g) as a deeply-rooted cultural form of rhetorical and metaphorical appropriation and recasting as commentary on social and cultural conditions. Distinctions are made between oppositional signifying, which challenges and negatively critiques, and cooperative signifying, which “encodes admiration and respect”. Although the Brazilian Alves comes from a very different cultural source than any African-American, eating some of the banana utilized as an object of prejudice constitutes oppositional signifying disguised in the non-confrontational form of cooperative signifying. The crude racist implication is that Dani Alves, as a person of colour, is a monkey who likes bananas. “You’re damn right I like bananas”, Dani Alves implies, “many humans do, so watch me eat some banana. Yum.” This is not to say that how Dani Alves handled a casual, unthinking racist act is better or worse than how the NBA handled a very widely-disseminated and considered racist act. But there’s more than one way to peel a banana.

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