Late in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, Marsellus Wallace—a criminal boss played by Ving Rhames—banishes prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) from Southern California. “You lost all your L.A. privileges,” Rhames says with lethal menace, and Willis leaves the Southland on his motorcycle.
If only it were that easy to kick Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of L.A. But, alas, Tarantino’s film is pure fantasy. There is simply no person, institution, or network in today’s Los Angeles with the clout to force powerful Angelenos to repent their sins—much less drive them out of town.
The racism heard on the leaked tape of Sterling and his girlfriend may be news around the country, but Sterling’s discrimination against renters in his apartment buildings, and his anti-black, anti-Mexican, and misogynist views, have been well-known facts of Los Angeles life for 30 years. Despite that, no one has sought to dislodge Sterling from his role as owner of a major sports franchise. And with his bigotry suddenly a national story, Sterling has become an outrageous example of the inability of L.A. to police itself, and its elite.
Even now, it’s safe to bet that no Southern Californian will pull a Marsellus Wallace and kick him out of L.A. If Sterling faces any consequences for his racism, they will come from the outside—courtesy of the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Sterling’s fellow team owners, or corporations that sponsor pro basketball.
Who here would have the juice to force him to he sell the team?
Prominent business leaders? L.A. corporate types are often more engaged globally than locally. City political leaders? L.A.’s charter keeps mayors and city council members from having too much power. (Ironically, the mayor of Sacramento, former pro basketball star Kevin Johnson, could have more of a role than L.A.’s own mayor since he has been retained by the players’ union for advice on dealing with Sterling.) The town’s newspapers or TV stations? They’ve mostly been shrinking in reach, ambition, and staff.
In L.A., accountability almost always requires outside intervention. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca mismanaged the jail for years, but only resigned earlier this year after the federal government began investigating. When Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was sabotaging the team, it took the commissioner of baseball, in Milwaukee, to force the team’s sale. In the past generation, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s special education program, and the Los Angeles Police Department all have required forms of federal receivership.
When there is no outside intervention, defiance is usually a winning strategy. Consider Brian D’Arcy, head of the biggest union of L.A. Department of Water and Power (DWP) employees. For months, he has refused demands from city leaders and the media to turn over financial documents on two nonprofits that received $40 million from ratepayers—even as an elite commission upon which he served issued a report complaining about a lack of accountability in L.A. Defiance, it seems, is a close cousin of shamelessness.
In Sterling’s case, it’s unclear whether other powerful Angelenos would have moved against him even if they could. For one thing, he’s got the kind of homegrown personal narrative—poor kid from the Eastside (Boyle Heights) who becomes a Westside titan (real estate) —that buys plenty of second chances here. For another, Sterling bought protection by donating money to people and organizations across all lines of geography, cause, and ethnicity—thus incentivizing Los Angeles to ignore his racism. Among those who looked the other way was the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which was about to give him a second lifetime achievement award when the recent news broke.
This particular moment exposes the underbelly of Southern California’s open culture. Weak institutions and leaders free people here to do as they please. But when someone powerful abuses this freedom to damage Los Angeles and its reputation, there’s no one able and willing to protect us.
The taped conversation between Sterling, 80, and his girlfriend, 31—who says romance is dead? —was offensive and nonsensical. But Sterling did say one thing that hit close to home. When his girlfriend asked why he wouldn’t oppose racism, Sterling said: “We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.”
For all the criticism of Sterling you hear now, he is undeniably the product of Los Angeles culture. He thrived here. Now, he defines us.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.