For years, the NAACP’s Los Angeles chapter maintained a mutually beneficial but head-scratching relationship with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
But the civil rights organization was finally forced to confront Sterling’s alleged transgressions this weekend when reports of racially charged remarks exploded from the gossip website TMZ.
Leon Jenkins, president of the chapter, gave a statement and fielded questions Monday at a press conference in California, attempting to explain why his branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been planning to give Sterling a lifetime achievement award, despite the basketball team owner’s history of alleged racist behavior.
Jenkins’ tone was strikingly defensive, asserting that he didn’t know whether it was really Sterling whose voice could be heard making racist statements on audio recordings that became public on Saturday. Jenkins also left the door open for future collaborations with the Clippers owner if Sterling proved penitent.
“There is a personal, economical and social price that Mr. Sterling must pay for his attempt to turn on racial relations,” Jenkins said in his opening statement.
The chapter also plans to return Sterling’s recent donations to the group, Jenkins said, though he declined to disclose how much the owner had given, saying only that it was “not a significant amount.”
It was the culmination of a strange affair between a man alleged on multiple occasions to hold racist beliefs and a group founded with the goal of eradicating those beliefs.
The 20-minute press conference, during which Jenkins was openly combative with the media, did little to illuminate how the NAACP had managed to ignore the prior allegations against Sterling. Jenkins portrayed the team owner simply as the winner in a philanthropic contest between Los Angeles area sports franchises.
“We looked at the body of work that he’s done. What we looked at all of the sports franchises in L.A. We look at how involved all these organizations in the community,” Jenkins said. “His organizations gave more money to the minority community.”
Sterling had already been given an award, which has alternately been described as being for lifetime achievement or humanitarian work, by the group back in 2009. There was outrage then, too, because Sterling had been sued for wrongful termination and was accused of allegedly freezing an ex-employee’s salary because of his race. He had also been sued in 2004 and 2006 for alleged housing discrimination. He eventually settled a $2.73 million lawsuit from the Department of Justice in 2009.
“He has a unique history of giving to the children of L.A.,” Jenkins said in 2009. “We can’t speak to the allegations, but what we do know is that for the most part [Sterling] has been very, very kind to the minority youth community.”
Jenkins was pressed on Sterling’s alleged past actions again Monday. He asserted that he had spoken with Sterling about the previous incidents and told him to “make amends” if he had indeed wronged anyone. But Jenkins also seemed ambivalent about whether they were true, and they obviously had not prevented the NAACP from continuing to work with Sterling. The relationship had been ongoing for more than 10 years, according to Jenkins.
“We don’t deal in rumors, guys … Rumors about someone’s character is not something that we deal with,” Jenkins said Monday when asked about Sterling’s already existing reputation prior to the latest allegations. “We deal with the actual character of the person as we see it and as displayed. If there are rumors and stuff, that doesn’t factor into our decisions.”
What seems evident from their history is that Sterling and the NAACP’s Los Angeles branch had a mutually beneficial relationship: Sterling gave money to the organization and offered other support to the community the NAACP serves. In turn, the NAACP gave Sterling commendations, such as the 2009 award, that he could, explicitly or not, use to help rebuff the charges of racial discrimination.
The Donald T. Sterling Foundation awarded a $5,000 grant to the NAACP in 2010, according to Non-Profit Quarterly. Jenkins was also listed as a recipient at the Sterling foundation’s 2013 awards luncheon, though the amount of that award has not been publicly disclosed. On top of those direct gifts, Jenkins in 2009 said that Sterling donates thousands of Clippers tickets to youth groups. The Clippers team foundation also donates to local youth and sports activities, Non-Profit Quarterly reported.
On top of that, the NAACP has been in talks with Sterling to give an endowment to the Los Angeles Southwest College, which is heavily African-American, in addition to funding scholarships for African-American students at UCLA, Jenkins told reporters Monday.
“That is something that shows — I don’t want to get into good or bad — but it shows that there is a consciousness about the plight of African-Americans and Hispanics,” Jenkins said Monday.
Sterling has no trouble highlighting these charitable endeavors himself. His official biography on the NBA’s website devotes four long paragraphs — most of its content — to his philanthropic giving and notes, among other things, his 2009 “lifetime achievement” award from the NAACP.
Some see a quid pro quo give-and-take at work, considering the NAACP’s apparent ability to ignore Sterling’s multiple incidents of alleged racist behavior.
“The only explanation is that these awards were repayment quid-pro-quos for Sterling’s contributions to the NAACP,” Occidental College professor Peter Drier said in an email to TPM. (Drier also wrote a piece for TPM on the subject.)
But it appears the relationship is no longer sustainable given the public outrage over the tapes — at least for now, as Jenkins’s comments Monday indicate. The national NAACP has also said the local chapter should have done a better job vetting Sterling for the award and pledged to develop guidelines that will help prevent such an embarrassment from happening again.
Despite all that, the organization’s relationship with Sterling may not be over, though.
“There is room for forgiveness,” Jenkins said Monday.
“God teachers us to forgive,” he said. “The way I look at it, after a sustained period of proof to the African-American community that those words don’t really reflect his heart, I think there is a room for forgiveness.”
But what exactly does that look like? “I have no idea how he does that,” Jenkins said. “That is something that he has to within his heart make a decision.”