Donald Sterling's Obsession With Purity Is an American Tradition

It's tedious, but if you listen to the entirety of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling's whiny, racist tirade, caught on tape by his girlfriend V. Stiviano and then widely disseminated this weekend, you can eventually get to the root of the couple's argument. It seems Sterling was upset that Stiviano, reportedly his mistress, had taken a photo with Magic Johnson and then posted that photo to her Instagram account.

"I'm just saying," says Sterling in the recording, "in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with—walking with black people."

Later in the tape, Stiviano apologizes for posting another Instagram photo of herself with L.A. Dodgers player Matt Kemp, telling Sterling that she presumed he'd find the biracial Kemp acceptable because his skin is not dark. "He's lighter and whiter than me," she says. But Sterling remains steadfast, telling Stiviano, "If my girl can't do what I want, I don't want the girl. I'll find a girl that will do what I want!"

It would appear that what Sterling wants is for his for his mistress to not spend time with black men, despite the fact that said mistress is, by her own description, part black and part Latino herself. Sterling finds Stiviano's closeness to black men crude, he finds it embarrassing, he finds it unnecessarily demeaning for her and injurious to her ability to pass as something other than what she is (on the tape Sterling says he wishes for Stiviano to be perceived as "a delicate Latina girl or a delicate white girl.")

And yet while Sterling's views are so backwards that they seem cartoonish—as most commentators seem to agree—it's worth remembering at this point in time that some of what Sterling believes is not all that rare in American society. Sterling may be a billionaire buffoon, but his anxiety about black men tainting his woman is widespread and rooted in generations of white-supremacist alarmism.

In her book Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America, Oberlin professor Renee Romano explains that concerns about blood purity spurred on white people's rejection of interracial relations in 20th Century America. But there was a specific qualification to that fear: While a white man sleeping with black women was certainly frowned upon, it was considered nowhere near as ugly and detrimental to the race as white women cavorting with black men.

Only men, the assumption went, had the capacity to transfer their blood (through their semen); men were the active spreaders of blood and women the passive receptors. Thus white men could have sex with black women without degrading themselves. White women, however, were tainted through intercourse with a black man, contaminated by his blood/semen. White men could stray and produce half-black children without compromising the "integrity" of the race; the black race might be made more white, but the white race would remain pure and untainted by "black blood." If white women had biracial children, however, it would make the white race less pure; in short, the survival of the white race depended upon its women, who were designated as the guardians of white racial purity.

To Romano's point, in 1947, United States Senator Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi self-published Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, in which he wrote, "As disgraceful as the sins of some white men may have been, they have not in any way impaired the purity of the Southern Caucasian blood." It wasn't white men who were saddled with the protection of the white race, but white women, whose possession of wombs made them guardians of racial purity. Romano quotes one white minister as saying, "the presence of the seed of the black man in the womb of the white woman was the most dreadful thing that could be imagined."

Decades later, this absurd panic, with its origins in racial hygiene, continues to manifest itself in black-white relations throughout America. In the late 1970s my paternal grandparents told my black father to not get involved with my white mother.

"I'll be fine," said my dad, "I'm not worried about racists."

"It's not you we're worried about," said my grandmother. "Do you have any idea how white folks are going to treat that woman from now on?"

Shortly after that my mother's parents disowned her. Twenty years later, a couple years after my parents got divorced, a white man who'd gone on a few dates with my mother would stand up from the dinner table and leave after seeing a picture of me, her brown son.

"You didn't tell me your husband was black," he said as he rose.

"I didn't know that it mattered," she said.

"It does," he said, and he walked away.

In a "Dear Abby" letter from earlier this year, an anonymous reader, "Rocky Road in the South," wrote in to ask for advice about her relationship, which had cooled when her boyfriend discovered that she had dated black men in the past. "He can't seem to get over it, but he keeps saying he wants to try to make it work," she wrote. "He says cruel things sometimes when he gets mad, and it seems to be on his mind constantly. I don't know what to do or how to make this better." Abby's advice was, "Give him a hug and let him go."

Lest anyone should think this a problem of the very old or those confined to the Deep South, consider Jane's story. Jane, a 23-year-old white stylist currently living in New York City, says she once wrote something to the effect of "I don't really date white guys" under the "Message me if" section of her OKCupid profile. She says that although she never specified what kind of men she did tend to date, these are typical of the responses she received when she lived in Los Angeles last year:

Donald Sterling's Obsession With Purity Is an American Tradition

"I got dozens of similar messages," Jane says. "And I constantly hear comments like these if somehow race and dating comes up in conversation. Most often I hear, 'What's wrong with you?' or a myriad of crude comments about sex."

I've written about this before, but it bears repeating: Time and again, throughout the centuries, white men have made it very clear that they perceive white women to be their most valuable pieces of property, even more valuable than all their titles and lands and riches. White men have also made it clear that there is nothing a white woman can do to sully herself beyond reformation quicker than associate with black men. Faced with this truth, and prevented via any number of barriers from fulfilling themselves with things like higher education or career prosperity, some black men have attempted to retaliate—unconsciously and not—by making it clear that they can and will sleep with white women.

Just before murdering him in 1955, Emmett Till's killers allegedly dared the child to assert that he'd slept with white women, to which Till responded, "You bastards, I'm not afraid of you. I'm as good as you are. I've had white women." Nowadays you find Big Sean bragging that "white girls like Anne Hathaway going way out they way for my bandwagon," and Kanye West rapping at an invisible white antagonist, "Black dick all in your spouse again/ And I know she like chocolate men/ She got more niggas off than Cochran."

Not too long ago, as was the case with Till, such bravado might have found Sean and West slaughtered, perhaps castrated and lynched, their penises stuffed in their mouths as they gasped for air. In his book of essays, Home, Amiri Baraka explained the castrations that frequently accompanied American lynchings as the disgusting and savage nadir in the white male's pursuit to keep black men away from white women, "the white man's most prized possession":

The act of cutting off a man's sex organs and stuffing them in his mouth should be analyzed as closely and deeply as possible. By removing the black man's organs, his manness, the white man removes the threat of the black man asserting that manness, by taking the white man's most prized possession. Trying to strangle a man with his own sex organs, his own manhood: that is what white America has always tried to do to the black man—make him swallow his manhood.

In the middle of all this, of course, are women, women pushed, pulled, embraced, rejected, and castigated based on the grudges, prejudices, and insecurities of men. V. Stiviano and her black ancestry were tolerable to Donald Sterling until her public associations with black men shattered the "delicate" veneer he expected from his brown-skinned toy. Jane, the New York stylist, is a "pretty girl," but god forbid she ever let a white man discover she once loved a black man, because that's a "deal breaker." On the other side, the white women referenced in Kanye West's lyrics are fine sex partners, but that sex has been weaponized in the fight against centuries of oppression and degradation. Respectively, that's a woman being treated as a doll, a woman being treated as a punching bag, and a woman being treated as a sword, each of their humanities cast aside, casualties in a war they didn't even know they were fighting.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]