Tell me Paris Hilton will be this year’s graduation speaker at MIT. Tell me Dennis Rodman is the new consensus choice to be peace negotiator in the Middle East. Tell me Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh will co-author a book on how to reach and keep personal humility. But don’t tell me that the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was about to honor prominent bigot and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling with a lifetime achievement award — for the second time!
That the NAACP, which for most of the 20th century so courageously led the lonely battle against racial segregation, has fallen to the point where it would provide "cover” to Sterling — who, after the Justice Department charged him for refusing to rent his Los Angeles residential properties to African-Americans and Latinos, paid a then-record settlement of $2.75 million — is sad bordering on tragic.
How did the NAACP leadership overlook the sworn testimony of one of Sterling’s property supervisors describing Sterling’s ugly comments about black people and Latinos, who were renters in a building he had just bought: “that’s because of all the blacks in this building they smell, they’re not clean ... And it’s because of all the Mexicans they just sit around and smoke and drink all day”?
The Justice Department brought its suit against Sterling in 2006. In 2008, the NAACP honored Sterling with its Humanitarian Award. In 2009, the year Sterling paid the $2.75 million to settle the Justice Department case, the Los Angeles NAACP recognized him with its President’s Award. This would not have been the first time an organization, charity or college had publicly honored an undeserving honoree — who has deep pockets and an open checkbook.
These tawdry transactions remind me of a story told about a young Winston Churchill, who, on a long train ride, fell into conversation with an exceptionally attractive woman. Churchill, emphasizing that he was only speaking hypothetically, asked the comely stranger if for 100,000 pounds, she would sleep with a man for one night. The woman reflected for some time before answering that yes, for 100,000 pounds, she might agree to spend a single night with such a hypothetical man. Churchill, the story goes, then asked, "Would you sleep with me for 5 pounds?”
Outraged and offended, the woman reacts: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?” Churchill’s response: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”
One of the more bizarre aspects of the taped phone conversation between the married Sterling and his younger-by-a-half-century girlfriend, V. Stiviano, is his berating her because she has posted photos of herself on Instagram with some black acquaintances, including retired basketball legend Magic Johnson. What obviously upsets Sterling is Stiviano’s being seen publicly in the company of black men. He tells her to stop “broadcasting” that she has black friends before offering this illogical request-bargain: “You can sleep with them ... you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that (Instagram) and not to bring them to my games.”
In 1983, while speaking to then-Villanova coach Rollie Massimino about the possibility of his coaching the Clippers, Sterling allegedly said, “I want to know why you think you can coach these ni--ers.” That was some 31 years and a number of NAACP awards ago. But just maybe, as the old line goes, time really does wound all heels.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.