The Sterling Racism Scandal: What about Associating with Muslim People?

(By Juan Cole)

LA Clippers owner Donald Tokowitz Sterling is alleged to have told Maria Vanessa Perez (“V. Stiviano”) off for putting up an Instagram photo of herself with Magic Johnson: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.” He denies the charge. But Sterling has a long history of discriminatory practices, and had to settle an action brought by the Feds against him for allegedly declining to rent to African Americans in Beverly Hills or Latinos in Koreatown in Los Angeles. He is also alleged to have made derogatory comments about both ethnic groups.

Sterling’s alleged remarks have provoked a firestorm of controversy and drew a rebuke from President Obama. He is seen as hypocritical, since most players in the National Basketball Association, from whom he makes money, are African-American. It might also be pointed out that as the son of Jewish immigrants, Sterling’s own family would have faced prejudice and discrimination in the 1930s and 1940s in the US. Sterling presumably changed the family name from Tokowitz to Sterling precisely for this reason.

Sterling’s remark is offensive because he is admitting to not wanting to associate (or at least admit associating) with a whole class of people. Some individuals are douchebags. But all statements of the form “x ethnic group is x [lazy, hotheaded, smelly, etc.]” are not only false but demonstrate prejudice (they “pre-judge” a whole group of people based on arbitrary signs of identity such as language or skin color).

As the nation discusses how inappropriate is the statement attributed to Sterling, it is worth raising the question of whether the outrage would be as deeply felt if he had said something like that about Arab Americans or Muslim Americans. These two groups are among the last toward whom it is still permitted to display open discrimination, and that isn’t right.

In one 2007 opinion poll, 31 percent of Americans said that they did not want to live next to a Muslim (though that fell to 10 percent if they actually knew any, like, real live Muslims.)

Isn’t that like saying, “it bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you are associating with Muslims?” Isn’t that what having one as a neighbor is, a form of association?

A 2010 poll found that Muslims are more likely than Jews, Mormons and atheists to report that they have experienced prejudice (some 48% say that).


A CNN poll in 2011 found that fully half of Americans would not like to live next to a mosque.

Some 41% said that they would not be comfortable if they found out that a Muslim was teaching their children in school.

There isn’t any difference between these widely reported poll results and what Sterling said about associating with African Americans.

Only when Muslim-hating is as offensive to Americans as other forms of bigotry will true American values prevail.

16 Responses

  1. Sorry, Juan, don’t buy the argument. People can change their religion, but you can’t change your ethnicity. Indeed Islamophobia is often a proxy for racism, but they are not the same thing. If Magic Johnson was a white Muslim I doubt Sterling would much care who’s Twitpics or Instagram he appeared in.

    • Really

      People can change being Middle Eastern or Arab? Being of South Asian or North African descent is a religion?

      I guess in your brilliant mind, being gay is a “choice” to…

    • Huh? So if you are tired of being insulted for being Muslim, just change your religion? What kind of nonsense is that?

    • So, theoretically, you can change your religion when it becomes inconvenient and that makes it okay to demonize and discriminate against someone because of their beliefs?

  2. Not counting Peter King, what percentage of Republicans would like to see all Muslims locked up until they can be deported?

    What do the CNN polls say?

    • With the exception of Ron Paul and friends…Most of them.

      Of course, most have never met a “Muslim,” Middle Easterner., etc. I’ve been told by my right leaning friends that I’m not really Middle Eastern or what not, because you know, I don’t act like “them.”

      • To be consistent with his position on abortion, Ron Paul would leave it up to the states to build concentration camps. Then spend all his time fundraising with state politicians who happen to support building concentration camps.

  3. “Only when Muslim-hating is as offensive to Americans as other forms of bigotry will true American values prevail.”

    What American values? Those of the majority that approved the illegal and immoral war on Iraq and would have been willing to do the same to Iran and Syria? Those that have approved the continuing warmongering of the people who caused the iraqi war? Those that go along with the obscene wealth gap? Presumably, you are referring to the values of the minority of Americans who have some sense of decency and morality.

    • I have the same question, but let’s include the word “True” American Values. I’m at a loss to understand what that means. I’m sorry but it smacks of propaganda. Isn’t it time to move beyond our deranged notions of exceptionalism

  4. Dr. Cole: I take some exception to your final statement. “True American values” have unfortunately always included rampant racism, ethnic cleansing, war mongering, and other criminal acts too numerous to quantify. Substantial evolution of American thinking is needed before we manage to get past our all too sorrid shortcomings.

  5. These idealistic values should be universal. Even Canada’s not immune to bigotry including the Muslim-hating sentiments.

    In regards to the Sterling show, he’s been finally banned and fined.

    An interesting take from Bomani Jones on the focus on Sterling’s comments, rather than all the bigoted acts by him and society around.

    link to

  6. You think Sterling wouldn’t care if it was a white Muslim who was visibly (ie headscarf or Muslim garb wearing) Muslim? What planet do you live on?

  7. While I agree that what Sterling said is reprehensible, is the US so different? Can anyone name a country where racism doesn’t exist?

  8. Since tribalism is global, racism is omnipresent. It seems to appear more intense in the instances of nationality, religion and skin color. But, then, what else is there! Insofar as values are concerned, the preservation of human rights may be the best measure of values against which the behavior of individuals and governments may be made.

  9. I thought it somewhat humorous that Tokowitz-Sterling justified his racism by screaming at his mistress….”Look at Israel, they treat blacks like dogs.” That racist rationalization for treating people like animals has not been the topic of many discussions when addressing this unfortunate incident.

  10. You’re right that during wartime Germans, Japanese and now Muslims are looked at with suspicion.

    And as a male, how exactly would I be able to socialize with 50% of Muslims I might encounter?

    I’ve embraced Islam by reading the Qu’ran as much as I’ve embraced Christianity, Budhism, Chaos and Game theories.

    I resounding acknowledge that the VAST MAJORITY (99%) of muslims are wonderful People who participate peacefully and admirably in American life. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”

    We outnumber the racists and Professor Cole acts as a vigilant sentinel in that effort to guard against mission creep in INCLUDING all good People.

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