How Donald Sterling won 'humanitarian' awards

Team owner Donald Sterling

Team owner Donald Sterling of Los Angeles Clippers talks with team owner Peter Holt of the San Antonio Spurs as the SPurs host the Memphis Grizzlies during Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 19, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas.

Among the sanctions NBA Commissioner Adam Silver loaded on Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald T. Sterling today for what can charitably be described as Sterling's racist remarks, was a lifetime ban from the NBA, and a $2.5 million fine. The NBA will donate the money to organizations that "promote anti-discrimination and tolerance."

Those groups, though, have actually already gotten a fair amount of money from Sterling and his charitable foundations. This comes as no surprise if you live in Los Angeles and still read the newspaper. The Los Angeles Times periodically prints giant ads that Donald Sterling designs himself, promoting his donations to, and awards from, all sorts of community groups.

Just this weekend he took one out celebrating his pledge to UCLA to support kidney research. (Today, UCLA rejected that pledge.) Past ads have celebrated Sterling's honors from the Black Business Association, and his first lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP.

Sterling has "contributed to a lot of minority charities, including the NAACP," Leon Jenkins, president of the Los Angeles NAACP chapter, said at a press conference on Monday, explaining why his chapter had planned to give Sterling another life time achievement award next month—a move they thought better of this week.

Sterling has been accused of racist behavior several times over the course of his career. But that shouldn't make his donations to groups that promote tolerance, or their celebration of his donations, all that surprising, says Rob Reich, co-director of Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

"Philanthropy has too frequently been a form of 'reputation laundering,'" Reich says, adding that using charitable gifts to "wash" one's reputation has a long history. Think: an oil company that gives a university money for a clean energy research center.

In the case of Sterling, he's known for small donations to dozens of community groups—a strategy that has the benefit of maintaining your social status in the local circles where you do business, Reich says. "Because one stands in actual relationships with people in the local area, the philanthropic donations one makes goes to sustain ones local relationships."

Regardless of Sterling's motivations, or his racist comments, Augustin Pantoja, the financial manager at Jefferson High School in south Los Angeles, is glad for Sterling's local charity.

"He's helping our community," Pantoja told me when I reached him by phone at the school, which has a largely black and Latino student body. Pantoja says he won't refuse the annual $5,000 that Sterling gives to help Jefferson students go to college, many of whom "have the capacity to further their education, but because of lack of money they don't pursue that."

"I'm a minority," Pantoja tells me, cautioning that he doesn't want to wade too deeply into the controversy around Sterling's comments. But, he says of Sterling's charity, "at least he's doing something."

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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