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June 1, 2015

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Explaining Sterling’s racial honors

Exactly 50 years ago, the Beatles declared that money can’t buy you love.

They hadn’t met Donald Sterling.

Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, just did the impossible. He wrested the racist-of-the-moment mantle from Cliven Bundy, thanks to an audiotape that captures remarks of his to a female acquaintance, who is being berated for publicly associating with black people and, worse yet, appearing in a photo with one. A lady can really ruin her reputation that way.

It’s a jaw-dropping snit, attended by this mind-bending fact: The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was about to bestow upon Sterling a lifetime achievement award, which would have been his third honor from the NAACP in recent years.

If you’re thinking that his recurring lionization is explained by an unblemished history until the audiotape, well, you’re as naive as those adorable lads from Liverpool.

Sterling has been sued repeatedly for racial discrimination, and he put an end to one case, which accused him of trying to eject minority tenants from apartments that he owned, with a multimillion-dollar settlement that was among the largest payouts ever of its kind. (He admitted no wrongdoing.) A former property supervisor of his, in sworn testimony, said that Sterling even fumed that black tenants were smelly and dirty, and that Mexican ones were lazy and drunk.

He has contested these accounts, but has also, perversely, joked about them, exhibiting amusement about his ability to sail above the rap against him. In a profile of him that appeared in ESPN’s magazine in 2009, writer Peter Keating describes Sterling’s arrival at an NAACP event that year. Sterling, referring to reporters’ interest in him, reportedly says, “They want to know why the NAACP would give an award to someone with my track record.”

The answer’s no mystery: money, which most certainly buys you love, in the form of encomiums, endorsements, acclaim. Just as you can purchase an ambassadorship, you can purchase an image of altruism, and if you want inoculation from, or forgiveness for, the bad you’ve done or may yet do, there are few strategies wiser than taking out your checkbook. Put enough commas and zeros in the amount you’re scribbling and the love will be all the larger. It will wash over you. It will cleanse you.

Sterling surely appreciated this. He placed newspaper ads celebrating Black History Month. He gave minority children free seats at Clippers games.

“He also has, over the years we looked at, contributed to a lot of minority charities, including the NAACP,” said Leon Jenkins, president of the organization’s Los Angeles chapter, at a transcendently awkward news conference Monday.

Jenkins was rationalizing the latest lifetime achievement award, which the NAACP has rescinded, and its coddling of Sterling over time.

Jenkins dismissed the ugliness attributed to Sterling even before the audiotape as mere “rumors about someone’s character” that were best ignored. They simply didn’t receive as much publicity as the audiotape, which isn’t ignorable.

I don’t mean to single out the NAACP. Among many advocacy groups, there’s a cynically transactional ethic: cash for karma. You fund me, I’ll friend you. Advance my cause and I’ll absolve your sins.

In March 2013, the gay advocacy group GLAAD invented a whole new honor — the Ally Award — for Hollywood movie­maker Brett Ratner. This happened little more than a year after he publicly used a homophobic slur and was forced to resign a role as producer of the 2012 Oscar telecast.

What rehabilitated him from devil to angel? Well, he devoted his time — and money — to public service announcements for GLAAD. He also raised funds for Christine Quinn, an openly lesbian candidate for mayor of New York City.

In a 2010 story in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer noted that David Koch had given tens of millions to cancer research and had also, unsurprisingly, received a seat on the National Cancer Advisory Board and the Excellence in Corporate Leadership Award from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Meanwhile, Koch Industries was involved in aggressive lobbying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying formaldehyde, which the company produces, as a known carcinogen.

Some philanthropy is purely generous. Some is prophylactic or penitential: The polluter supports environmentalists, while the peddler of sugary soft drinks contributes to campaigns against obesity.

And some stems from simple vanity, as givers chase glory. Charitable groups play the game, essentially selling seats on their boards and having well-publicized dinners with well-publicized accolades for bigwigs who are hardly the backbones of the cause.

No, these honorees are pathways to whole networks of potential donors. So they’re given seals of approval. They bathe in applause. It’s a strange kind of love. And it’s definitely for sale.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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