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Farah Stockman

Becoming white: Donald Sterling’s past offers clues to current outcry

Donald Sterling speaks with reporters after the announcement of his purchase of the then-San Diego Clippers basketball team for $13.5 million in 1981.

file 1981/associated press

Donald Sterling speaks with reporters after the announcement of his purchase of the then-San Diego Clippers basketball team for $13.5 million in 1981.

There’s something worth remembering about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was banned from the NBA for life for his outrageous racist comments: Sterling, 80, wasn’t born white.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Sterling — originally named Donald Tokowitz — would not have been considered exactly white by much of America when he was a child.

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For the early half of the 20th century, Jews, Italians, and Slavs were widely viewed as different and inferior. The book “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America,” by anthropologist Karen Brodkin, notes that a celebrated Saturday Evening Post journalist once warned that admitting more non-Nordic immigrants, including Jews, would result “in a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America.”

For decades, Congress severely restricted Jewish immigration. Ivy League colleges limited the number of Jewish students. Jews were excluded from certain neighborhoods through the same racial covenants that banned the sale of homes to blacks.

The common bond of poverty and housing discrimination forced Jews, blacks, Mexicans, and Japanese to crowd together in Boyle Heights, the poor section of East Los Angeles where Sterling grew up during the 1930s and ’40s.

“During the Depression, no one had any hope of getting out of Boyle Heights,” said Bruce Phillips, a sociologist whose father grew up there. “On the ‘social distance’ scale, Jews were in the middle, between people of color and white ethnic groups. They were either the most acceptable nonwhite ethnic group, or the least acceptable whites.”

Being on the “cusp of whiteness” caused some Jews to join Hispanics and blacks to fight discrimination. In 1949, Jewish businessmen from Boyle Heights helped elect the first Mexican-American on the LA City Council.

But that “almost-white” status led others to focus feverishly on full acceptance. As they grew more prosperous, nearly all of the Jews in Boyle Heights moved to white suburbs in places like the San Fernando Valley, where blacks and Hispanics couldn’t follow. For years, Sterling couldn’t afford to follow either. After he graduated from Roosevelt High in 1952, he married a girl from his class and worked at her father’s furniture store.

Eventually, he became a divorce attorney, one of the few fields Jewish lawyers could enter, since corporate law firms didn’t hire Jews at the time. He saved enough money to buy his first apartment building in 1963. Then he bought more buildings. Today, he’s one of the world’s richest men.

It’s unclear how much solidarity he feels with the Jewish community that raised him. He donates the same amount to the Jewish Home for the Aging as to the United Negro College Fund: a paltry $10,000 a year. His old high school, now 91 percent Hispanic, gets even less: $5,000. His name change, from Tokowitz to Sterling, was a way to leave his ethnicity behind.

This history helps explain, but not excuse, his racist comments. And it explains his bond with V. Stiviano, 31, who also grew up in Boyle Heights and attended Roosevelt High. She, too, clawed her way out of poverty. She, too, changed her name. Sterling assumed that she, too, would want to be accepted as white.

That’s what the fight on the tape was really about: She was squandering her whiteness. “You are perceived as either a Latina or a white girl,” he told her. Why post photos with black people to ruin the illusion? Her choices around ethnicity implicitly criticized his own. “Why,” he asked, “do you have to disrespect. . . the world that came before you?” He had fought too hard to reach the top of America’s racial hierarchy to watch her young generation tear it down.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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