Assume that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is indeed a racist rather than, or at least in addition to, being the victim of a set-up by someone trying to embarrass him. Is the decision by National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver to impose a lifetime ban on Mr. Sterling — he "may not attend any NBA games or practices, be present at any Clippers office or facility, or participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team" — a wise or just one?
The question got me thinking about some other racists in history.
There was Abraham Lincoln, who, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, said:
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
If Lincoln had been banned from politics for life, he might never have gone on to win the Civil War and free the slaves.
Then there was Harry Truman, who privately referred to blacks as "niggers" and to Jews as "kikes." If he had been banned from politics for life, he might never have desegregated the armed forces or recognized Israel.
There was Hugo Black, who joined the racist Ku Klux Klan and used the word "nigger" in court. If he had been banned from the courtroom for life, he might never have been appointed to the Supreme Court, where as a justice he was part of the unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education case that ruled public school segregation to be illegal.
And then there was Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, another Ku Klux Klan member, who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he tried to filibuster. If he had been banned from politics for life, he never would have been around to endorse Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, and President Obama would have been unlikely to praise him, upon his death, as "a voice of principle and reason."
America has changed so that racism is and should be less acceptable today than it was in the days of Lincoln, Truman, Black, or Byrd. That is progress. Mr. Sterling is reportedly 80 years old, and one can also argue that if he hasn't changed by now he is not going to. But as the cases of Lincoln, Truman, Black, and Byrd show, racial progress in America comes not only generationally but also individually. By banning Mr. Sterling for life the NBA seems to be foreclosing the possibility that Mr. Sterling will repent or change, or to be saying that the private remarks are so egregious that they merit a lifetime ban as punishment even if Mr. Sterling does repent and change, the same way some crimes merit a sentence of life in prison with no parole.
In addition, the likelihood that Mr. Sterling will be forced to sell the Clippers will have tax consequences for him — he may be liable for capital gains taxes that his estate might have avoided had he held onto the team and passed it along to his heirs, who would get a step-up in basis when he died.
I don't know Mr. Sterling, so it is difficult for me to judge if he is an incorrigible racist or the sort of racist who is capable of outgrowing the bigotry or of walling it off. I certainly understand why his team's fans and employees don't want to spend a lot of time conducting an experiment about the matter. But in the rush to condemn and punish Mr. Sterling, it is worth remembering the historical lesson that not everyone who is a racist in a private conversation is a racist in their public actions, and that not everyone who is a racist is incapable of changing for the better.