Of all the defenses of Donald Sterling circulating, and surprisingly, there are many, one interests me the most. It's that Sterling is being held to a different standard for his racist remarks. Liberals who have said things just as bad will never come under the same degree of scrutiny that Sterling's remarks have subjected him to. Larry Elder, a popular radio host here in Los Angeles, complained today that director Spike Lee, the court-side presence at New York Knicks games, has said stupid, crazy, and weird things, even racially polarizing things, and never gets taken to account for it. At the very least, Elder says, the two should be held to the same standard.
I disagree. I write in defense of double standards. Not always, not often, but when warranted, using double standards allows us to be faithful to other values that are often more important than the value of fairness. We like to treat people the same way because it is fair to do so. It is enshrined within the political traditions of our country that people ought to be judged the same way, lest factions prefer their own kind. In many arenas, like the law, and in the voting booth, single standards for all is the most important value we can uphold. But in others, it isn't. If we aren't ever allowed to treat two things differently, then we're bracketing other very important principles.
Sometimes, being fair is less important than being right. Sometimes, learning from history is more important than being superficially fair, simply for the sake of being fair. Sometimes, honing our capacity to judge, to make qualitative distinctions, in order to shame harmful conduct, is the more appropriate end result of our deliberative process.
To get back into the reality zone: Spike Lee ain't Donald Sterling. He is an artist, which, alone, gives him a wider degree of latitude to pop off. He does not have a history of actually treating white people as badly as Sterling (through his real estate ventures) has treated black and Latino people. Sterling, as an NBA owner, has a much greater responsibility than Lee does when it comes to the value of being race-neutral in his professional dealings. We expect artists — comedians, even — to be racial. We expect businessmen to be as non-racial as possible. There are good reasons why we expect, and ought to expect, different things from people with different social functions.
Are Republicans held to a different standard than liberals when it comes to race? Yes. Why? In part because most black people, the victims of racism, believe that Republican economic policies, being linked to the modern post-Nixon history of the party, were designed to harm their community. In part because the Republican fetish for voter fraud crackdown is an inelegantly telegraphed assault on minority voting rights. In part because Republican racism has more pernicious effects than Democratic racism. And yes, Democratic racism, historically, has had a more pernicious effect — but the party did things to ameliorate those effects. And so the standard changed. Standards must be linked to judgment, somehow. If not, things become equal which do not deserve to be equal.
And that's why it's OK to treat Donald Sterling differently than Spike Lee.