The sports world has spent the last five days focused on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, after TMZ and Deadspin published audio recordings purporting to display Sterling making racist remarks about African-Americans, including NBA legend Magic Johnson.
NBA superstars including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have called on the league to strip Sterling of his ownership, and even President Obama has weighed in. It’s possible the league will do exactly that — or at least level some measure of heavy punishment against Sterling — at a press conference this afternoon.
The uprising against Sterling has provoked questions about why the NBA didn’t take action against him — and why NBA superstars didn’t speak out against him — before, given that Sterling has been the subject of two multimillion-dollar housing discrimination suits related to property he owns in Los Angeles. According to details of those lawsuits, Sterling refused to rent apartments to black and Latino tenants.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones wrote about Sterling’s housing discrimination in 2006, when he said that it was time for the league and the media to give more attention to Sterling’s racist housing policies and the problems they created that went beyond the NBA. Monday, Jones, who said that article has gotten more attention now than it did at the time, was a guest on ESPN’s Dan LeBatard’s radio show, and he delivered an impassioned monologue about his feelings about the fact that the league, players, and media are only turning their attention to Sterling now. Housing discrimination, Jones declared, is the problem we should focus on not just in relation to the league but in America as a whole because of the dangerous effects it has on black communities. Listen to the entirety of Jones’ segment (via Deadspin). The key part begins around the 4:30 mark:
Housing discrimination, as Jones said, is hardly unique to rentiers like Donald Sterling. It is a systemic part of the American economy and a systemic part of American culture. It is a business strategy employed by Wall Street banks and smaller firms alike. It is, in many ways, a plague perpetuated by the policies of the very United States government charged with keeping it from happening and punishing those who practice it.
Sterling’s past legal troubles provide a clear look at what happens to many black families who try to rent homes and apartments in predominately white neighborhoods. But discrimination pervades the entire housing industry, and discrimination in the initial loan process leads to discrimination in every other aspect of housing.
The most obvious housing discrimination practice from banks and lenders is a process known redlining, named as it is because lenders draw “red lines” around certain neighborhoods — often predominately low-income and minority — where they don’t want to offer mortgage services. Lenders also regularly practice price discrimination, charging higher mortgage interest rates in such neighborhoods than they would for similarly-priced homes in other areas. The Federal Reserve in 2013 said that in addition to perpetuating discrimination, both of these policies made the housing collapse and financial crisis worse, especially for black families, who were twice as likely to enter into foreclosure during the recession than were whites.
Even when banks and lenders don’t practice obvious discrimination — and incidents of such are decreasing — they figure out ways to keep it going, primarily by telling potential black buyers about fewer homes and showing them fewer too. A 2013 Department of Housing and Urban Development study, in fact, found that lenders told black families about 17 percent fewer homes and showed them 17 percent fewer too, relative to potential white buyers.
The foreclosure process isn’t free of discrimination either: both Wells Fargo and Bank of America, two of the largest mortgage lenders in America, along with other banks have faced criticism that they have neglected homes they foreclosed on in minority neighborhoods, even as they maintain homes in whiter areas. That depresses the value not only of that home but of homes around it, hurting everyone and causing the effects of foreclosure — often made more likely by predatory, discriminatory loans in the first place — to last long after the foreclosure process itself is actually complete.
All of this makes home ownership more costly for minorities, and one of the major effects of that is lost wealth. Housing plays a direct role in the accumulation of wealth, and discrimination has widened gaps between whites and blacks. Over the last 25 years, the wealth gap between whites and African-Americans has tripled, according to one study, and access to equitable housing plays a huge role in that. According to the study, whites are “more likely to live in a place where home equity rises more quickly,” and the gap perpetuates itself, as white families, based on the wealth they’ve accumulated in part through housing, are better able to provide assistance to their relatives to help buy home. The government, meanwhile, spends far more money subsidizing home ownership for the wealthy than it does for low- and middle-income families, and that’s before budget cuts to housing programs are factored in.
And it has other effects that impact African-American and other minority communities too. Housing discrimination and educational segregation go hand-in-hand, depressing educational attainment in low-income areas. The list of effects exacerbated by discrimination — poverty, violence, teen pregnancy, drug use — goes on and on.
The racism on display in the recordings that may push Donald Sterling out of the NBA is deplorable, and if he’s no longer an owner once the NBA’s press conference concludes this afternoon, it’s hard to say he won’t have deserved everything that came to him. But the truth, as Jones noted and as he wrote about in 2006, is that the racism on display in those tapes is far less damaging to African-Americans than the racism Sterling displayed in how he ran his business. It’s that sort of structural racism we as a media and society didn’t address then and still don’t today. And the truth is also that the racism present in American housing and American society goes far beyond Sterling’s privilege as an NBA owner. We can boot Donald Sterling out of the NBA, we can run him into the ground with shame. But if we stop there, none of it will matter, because our problems are far larger than him.