That red line dissects cities, neighborhoods, classes, races and ethnicities, and Donald Sterling used his red marker with surgical precision. When he was sued for discrimination in 2003, employees said he laid down rules for each of his properties: no blacks, no Mexican-Americans, no children and no government-housing-subsidy recipients as tenants. His own property supervisor testified that Sterling said he didn't want black tenants because "they smell, they're not clean" and that he refused Mexican tenants because they "just sit around and smoke and drink all day." According to the testimony of tenants, those who fit the above descriptions would have their rent checks refused, only to be accused of nonpayment. Sterling would refuse to schedule inspections for black tenants but had his employees pop in for surprise inspections and threatening them with eviction for violation of building rules. That case resulted in a settlement that cost Sterling $4.9 million just to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees.
In 2009, Sterling was forced to pay $2.75 million to settle claims that he discriminated against African Americans, Hispanics and families with children at his Los Angeles properties. Sterling took great pains to make it clear that he prefered Korean tenants for his buildings, saying in sworn testimony that "I don't have to spend any more money on them, they will take whatever conditions I give them and still pay the rent." He even went so far as to rename one of his buildings Korean World Towers and spell out its name entirely in Korean.
At the time, it was the largest housing discrimination settlement of its kind. When the NBA announced Sterling's expulsion, however, it didn't rate so much as a mention at the commissioner's press conference.
How? Sterling's words of warning to his mistress about not having her picture taken with Magic Johnson and Matt Kemp had the tabloid appeal and salacious detail, but Sterling's actions against tenants in Los Angeles had lasting impact. More than half a century after redlining drew literal divisions between haves and have nots and partitioned U.S. citizens based on race, class and income, Sterling continued tracing those lines -- to his city's detriment. The owner of a team that wears the Los Angeles name had done everything in his power to not only divide his city, but to close doors to its residents based on race, ethnicity and income and sow seeds of financial and social inequality wherever his name was on a deed.
It's what ESPN columnist Bomani Jones tried to tell readers about Sterling in 2006 and why he was furious that it was all but ignored amid the latest furor surrounding Sterling. His abuse of power and his racism's influence over the most basic elements of people's lives -- where they live and where they work -- is what matters. It's the institutional racism that shapes who we are, what our neighborhoods look like, how we interact with each other, who wins, who loses and what we're all going to become.
In New Jersey, my family members still curse Mayor Hugh Addonizo for cynically grabbing for federal money under the guise of improving public housing and tearing out the 15-block heart of Newark's immigrant-heavy First Ward to build the oversized, poorly constructed and perpetually neglected Columbus Homes housing projects. This was the same mayor who not only sat behind the desk while his city burned in 1967, but had the audacity to destroy a huge swath of the predominantly black Central Ward to build the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. His tenure saw families pushed out of the city, forced into its neglected corners and bulldozed out of the way for the neighborhood-scarring interstates 78 and 280. When most residents of the New Jersey suburbs pass through Newark now, it tends to be on one of those roads high above the city below.
Addonizo was convicted of corruption after leaving office and is rightly remembered as a greedy, divisive monster whose legacy Newark is still trying to escape. Donald Sterling will always be linked with the racism that exiled him from the NBA, but that racism's greater impact on the city of Los Angeles and the NBA's complicity in his crimes should be remembered at least as well as the name of the website that brought about his downfall.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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