Because I objected to the scalping of Brendan Eich for having donated to Proposition 8, a friend has (perhaps jocularly) challenged me to defend NBA team owner Donald Sterling against an effort to push him out of his franchise for racist remarks and behavior.
I’m not going to do that, because I don’t think these cases are at all parallel. The differences begin with this: Brendan Eich was targeted for bullying because he performed a political, expressive act that his political opponents disagreed with. In both law and custom, we recognize that political expression needs to have the strongest possible protection. None of Sterling’s racist behaviors can reasonably be characterized as political expression.
Another key difference: there is no evidence that Eich ever engaged in bigoted behavior against individual gays – in fact, there are plausible interpretations of Eich’s behavior that imply no prejudice at all (he might, for example, have believed it was important to assert popular sovereignity against a court that has exceeded its remit). There is, on the other hand, ample evidence of Sterling’s racial prejudices being expressed against individuals over whom he had power.
I admit to some uneasiness about the outcry against Sterling; it especially disturbs me that he was outed by illegal taping of a private conversation. I think Kareem Abdul Jabbar put the case that there is excessive finger-wagging going on here very well. But those concerns don’t rise to anywhere near the level of alarm I felt about the way Eich was treated.
Honesty compels me to admit that I am opposed on principle to some of the anti-discrimination laws that Sterling is now said to have been violating for a long time. If he doesn’t want to rent his property to blacks or hispanics, I don’t think the law should force him to do so. But I do think it is ethical and just for him to be boycotted for this odious prejudice, and I join Kareem-Abdul Jabbar in wondering why nobody organized that sooner.