Contra Graham below, I do not think Donald Sterling should’ve been treated lightly. My disagreement with him stems from his assertion that “the goal” is to convince racists to not be racists. I do not think that is the appropriate aspiration in all cases, including this one.
It clearly is not the NBA’s goal. The NBA’s goal is to disassociate from racists. This is not only wise in an immediate instrumental sense — the players were going to strike if Sterling was not suspended, putting the playoffs in jeopardy — but in broader relational sense. It is not sensible for me to join the Westboro Baptist Church in order to patiently sit with them and try to persuade them to change their minds. It is nonsensical for at least two reasons. First is that voluntary association is a legitimating act. Second is that it is extremely unlikely to be successful.
Reams of research suggest that political views seldom change. When they do it is usually as the result of new exposure: having to directly view someone else’s plight for the first time. Donald Sterling’s problem is not his under-exposure to African-American athletes and their supporters. “Raising awareness” of the problem with his behavior is not likely to help him change his mind. In such circumstances patient explanation and “debunking” frequently exacerbate the problem.
Moreover, Sterling has shown no interest at all in having an open discussion. To my knowledge he has not publicly acknowledged this situation, nor has he apologized. His wife — co-owner of the team and also a racist — is suing Sterling’s former mistress for leaking the tape. These people are trying to use their enormous fortune to materially harm the lives of those who object to their execrable behavior. I’m sorry but there’s no way to reason with people in an environment such as this.
So persuasion is usually wasted effort and may worsen the problem. There is another goal: punishment. Clearly the NBA wishes to punish Sterling materially as well as disassociating from him and shaming him, and this is appropriate. I do not think it matters that this was a private conversation as the purpose of the conversation was for Sterling to instruct someone over whom he had a great deal of influence to actively discriminate against others. Sterling’s talk was not idle, in other words, and he had many, many priors. Punishment for its own sake is appropriate in cases where people have harmed others.
While I admire Graham’s eagerness to raise the status of deliberation, and I share his skepticism of the motivations behind society’s tendency to veer from one Two Minutes Hate to another, I think in this case (and cases like it) his patience is unwise. If nothing else it legitimizes beliefs that ought not be legitimized by treating them as worth consideration.