Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was weirdly quiet at the outset of the Donald Sterling scandal, though he finally emerged out of his initial unwillingness to talk to say he wasn’t sure whether he’d vote to force Sterling out of the league because he worried about a “slippery slope” of legislating stupidity.
Cuban spoke again on the issue Wednesday at a conference in Nashville and returned to that point, telling an audience that he wouldn’t comment on how he planned to vote when Sterling’s ownership came up. Asked how the league should police bigotry, he responded: “You don’t. There’s no law against stupid,” adding later, according to the Tennessean, “I’m the one guy who says, ‘Don’t force stupid people to be quiet.’ I want to know who the morons are.”
But the comments that drew the most attention came from a sit-down interview with INC Magazine, which put on the conference. In the video interview, Cuban talked about internal struggles with bigotry and prejudice.
“I mean, we’re all prejudiced in one way or another,” Cuban said. “If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. So in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I’m not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it’s not appropriate for me to throw stones.”
Setting aside the comparison Cuban makes, which seems to toss in a white guy with tattoos simply to give the appearance of equivalence between the two hypothetical people of whom he speaks, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was trying to make an honest and crucial point: that all of us, especially those of us who grew up in the comfort of white skin in a country in which that is the number one marker of privilege and security, have internal racial biases that we must acknowledge. That is more honest than many Americans and many NBA owners would be when asked.
But there are problems with Cuban’s words that simply hailing them as refreshing, honest talk doesn’t address. The first is the easiness with which Cuban turned to the “black kid in a hoodie” stereotype. That draws immediate comparisons to Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was killed by a neighborhood watch vigilante who found Martin, a black teen in a hoodie walking around a night, suspicious. As Martin’s story went national, NBA superstars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony used pictures of themselves in hoodies to draw attention to the racial nature of the killing; Wade later appeared on the cover of EBONY Magazine in a hoodie with his sons. Cuban’s words might be honest, but so clearly evoking a cause that was significant to a population that makes up a majority of the NBA’s players and a sizable piece of its fan base isn’t exactly the way to begin a constructive discussion about racism.
Where Cuban’s honest talk about internal biases and bigotry truly falls short, though, is in his commitment to doing something about it. Acknowledging that biases exist doesn’t accomplish much if we’re not also willing to confront them and take action against them. Learning and professing that Donald Sterling is an ignorant bigot is one thing. But what good does it do to recognize that bigotry if Cuban isn’t also willing to punish it? If you talk about the racism inherent in those words but don’t punish them and work to address the root causes of them, you’ve fixed nothing. If you acknowledge the internal biases that cause you to think about crossing the street when you see a black kid in a hoodie but cross the street anyway, you’ve made no progress at all.
We all have biases inside of us. The challenge for people like Cuban — and, when it comes to racial biases, for white people in general — is to question them, to ask ourselves why they exist and why we allow them to continue in every part of our society from NBA ownership (and the league’s economic system) down to our sidewalks, and then to confront and do something about them. Cuban is a giant step ahead of most of America in that he recognizes and acknowledges that those biases exist, and that he can try to talk honestly about them. The question is whether he’s willing to act on the more challenging half of that equation. The question is, does he still cross the street?