Shelly Sterling, the Righteous Defender of Ill-Begotten Wealth

Black day-laborers await their pitiful payment at a plantation in 1940s Mississippi (Library of Congress)
Black day-laborers await their pitiful payment at a plantation in 1940s Mississippi (Library of Congress)

In the wake of her husband’s impending ouster, Rochelle “Health Inspector” Sterling has grown increasingly defiant in a rancorous defense of her ownership stake in the Los Angeles Clippers. Last week, her lawyers issued a statement asserting her property rights:

“She will not agree to a forced or involuntary seizure of her interest,” [‘Health Inspector’ Sterling’s lawyer Pierce] O’Donnell said Thursday. “As her lawyers we will fight vigorously to defend her property rights.”


“We abhor guilt by association in America,” O’Donnell said. “The sins of the husband cannot be imputed to the wife or children.”

As has been noted, Rochelle Sterling is not guilty by association. There is evidence to show she is responsible for the same racist and reprehensible mentality that has gotten her husband a lifetime ban from the NBA. Remember, she wasn’t the wife of Donald Sterling when it came to housing discrimination suits. She was the co-defendant alongside Donald Sterling. Accusers in the trial recalled Rochelle Sterling dropping racist and bigoted statements:

In a 2009 deposition, a tenant at one of the Sterling’s apartment buildings in Los Angeles County said that Rochelle Sterling called him a “black m—f—” during a discussion at the building.


Oliva: “She said, ‘Oh, my God. This is so filthy. I can’t remodel my apartments the way that I want because Latinos are so filthy.”

Rochelle hopes her saving grace is that any evidence of her racism has only involved “trivial” matters like housing discrimination and not the all important sanctity of attending a sports event. Grace has further fallen upon Rochelle because in America, rarely are restorative measures taken to cripple the beneficiaries of discrimination.

Yes, America has been decent in somewhat apologizing for past racism and enacting laws to dampen its future impact, but it has been downright miserable at concretely rectifying the physical and economic damage wrought by racism and its institutions.

The victims of racism rarely enjoy a full measure of justice over their oppressors. Rochelle Sterling was blatantly complicit in Donald Sterling’s racist enterprise, and their relatives, whether directly complicit or not, have (in)directly benefited from the ill-begotten wealth derived from racist practices.

Par for the course in America.

In the aftermath of emancipation, African-Americans freed from slavery rightly argued that true freedom meant having economic power to resist the control of their former masters. True justice meant the ex-slavemasters paying a penalty for their abuses, not simply losing legal title to their personhood.

Sadly in 1865, a dejected General O. O. Howard (the namesake for Howard University), informed freedmen in South Carolina that land they had settled during the Civil War would be awarded back to plantation owners, the vast majority of whom had rebelled with the Confederacy. The information enraged and sorrowed the freedmen, who had toiled for years as slaves for those owners. Furthermore, many of them had fought as soldiers and served the Union army in the Civil War.

Howard recalled cries of “No! No!” ringing out from the assembled people. Others bellowed, “Why, General Howard, why do you take away our lands? You take them from us who are true, always true to the government! You give them to our all-time enemies! That is not right!”

The problem for the freedmen was that racists had the benefit of the tortuous law.

Even leading Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s confiscated property in Arlington, Virginia, was awarded back to his family by the Supreme Court. Much like Rochelle Sterling, George Washington Custis Lee (son of Robert and himself a Confederate general) got together his team of lawyers and refused to accept any removal of “his property” by some incredulous outside authority like the United States government. His father’s failure to pay taxes to the federal government didn’t mean he should suffer by association. Never mind the racism and the rebellion.

Ultimately, the U.S. government retained the land but only after purchasing it from the Lee descendants in 1883. Even after defiant rebellion, the Lees pocketed $150,000 from the government for land enriched for decades by chattel humanity. Meanwhile, the freedmen who had actually kept up that land, and then kept up the government of the United States, were swept aside and put in a racial caste system a notch above slavery. Any real sense of justice would have seen some of that land transferred to the formerly enslaved instead of, somehow, still benefiting the pride and joy of racism.

This is the cloak Rochelle Sterling seeks to hide behind.

Even accepting her sin-free argument as genuine holds a cynical and poisonous result. She doesn’t want to pay for Donald’s sins. Yet, she eagerly claims the benefits of his sins. And the sad thing is that she’ll have a legal leg to stand on exemplified by the Lees and South Carolina freedmen. Surely a marvelous system for Shelly to enjoy and a shoddy spectacle for those with a judicious conscience to endure.

To its credit, the NBA and its players are sending strong messages that they don’t want any Sterling involved as owner of the Clippers. Hopefully they succeed and continue to publicly shame them for bigotry (or the flagrant public display of bigotry). One just wishes that public shame translated into a complete deconstruction of the wealth they accrued from their decades of immoral behavior.

After all, if this country had done so in prior instances to folks like the Lees, people like the Sterlings might not have gone down the road they did. Nonetheless, the NBA’s impending, although incomplete, act of justice can serve as some beacon of hope for the future.

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