The Systems That Govern: the NBA, Racism, and Affordable Housing

By now most of us have heard of — and been disgusted by — the (most recent) statements that allegedly come from  current Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling to his girlfriend. If you haven’t, here are a few choice parts:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?…You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on  … and not to bring them to my games.

There has been a lot of anger being directed at Sterling over the past few days. Players from many different teams have had pretty strong reactions: “I couldn’t play for him”; “There’s no room for Sterling in this league”; and comparing the comments to “plantation politics”.

What is almost as shocking as what he said is that this is not the first time that Sterling has come under fire for his overt racism. Deadspin has a full list of the most famous comments he’s on the record as saying. In 2009, Elgin Baylor, the Clippers General Manager from 1986 to 2008, filed an age and racial discrimination suit against his old boss alleging, among other things, that Sterling repeatedly expressed a desire to field a team of “poor black boys from the South … playing for a white coach.”

Beyond his abhorrent racism, Sterling is also a vicious slumlord. In 2009 he was forced to pay $2.73 million in a settlement accusing him of discriminating against Black and Latino tenants. Sterling said he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The case ended with the largest ever settlement obtained by the US Department of Justice in a housing discrimination case involving rental units.

A vastly disproportionate amount of the low-income tenants we work with are people of color. The systematic link between poverty and race is well documented — though of course it does not mean that all poor people are people of color and that all people of color are poor. The folks who live in affordable housing are, shockingly, folks who are working low-paying jobs or not able to work for any number of reasons.

Low-income tenants are too often vulnerable at the hands of their landlords. NYC’s rent laws are difficult to understand, and landlords are literally paid to exploit the loopholes that exist. And when tenants try and push back, there is always the worry that landlords will take tenants to court over and over again for frivolous charges, forcing tenants to take off work or adding stress that could literally kill them. For example, Sterling was also forced to pay $5 million in legal fees (plus an unknown, large settlement sum) to over a dozen tenants represented by the Housing Rights Center. According to The Nation blogger Dave Zirin:

Not all the plaintiffs, though, lived to see their windfall. Court documents state that on July 12, 2002, “Kandynce Jones was under threat of eviction by [Sterling] even though she had never missed a rent payment. Ms. Jones, who is a senior citizen and a person with a disability, suffered a stroke caused by the stress [of Sterling’s] housing practices. On July 21, 2003, Ms. Jones passed away as a result of that stroke.”

This exploitation is not isolated. It is a direct result of the systems that govern.

On WNYC’s Brian Leher Show this morning, the Washington Post’s Clinton Yates talked about the incredible structures of power at play here.

If you think about what that [Housing Rights Center settlement] is on its own, and the fact that the NBA knew this, understood this, and allowed him to continue unfettered in his ownership of an NBA team points to you — I mean it points you to how the major structures of power really, really work.

This last point — “how the major structures of power really, really work” — is worth repeating and emphasizing. The same type of people that govern the systems of the NBA — wealthy, middle-aged, heterosexual, white men — govern the systems of government that in turn dictate the laws and regulations of housing in New York City and beyond. Yates goes on:

[Sterling] indicates that there is a certain fear of his own feelings, which is that he’s afraid to not be racist because he doesn’t live in a world in which that doesn’t automatically benefit him. And that in itself is a frightening concept if you really think about, again, how the power structures of this country work, where a guy like that is emboldened — and it makes sense to him to operate in discriminatory manors because it makes him more money.

When privileged individuals are encouraged to exploit others in order to become wealthier and more privileged, we know the systems that govern have failed. When it is good for business — and legal — to harass tenants into leaving their homes so you can raise the rent, we know the systems that govern have failed us. When landlords are allowed to take out mortgages they can’t possibly pay back to buy buildings they have no intention of maintaining, we know the systems that govern have failed.

Sterling’s comments and the full backstory behind them should remind us that we need to continue to push our elected officials and organize en mass for a system that works for all people, no matter their race or income.

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