President Obama’s criticism of an NBA team owner Sunday for making “incredibly offensive racist statements” showed his increasing willingness to delve into the highly charged issue of race relations in his second term.
At a press conference in Malaysia, Mr. Obama called Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling “ignorant.” The billionaire is suspected of telling a female friend in an audio recording not to associate with black people or to bring them to Clippers games.
Mr. Obama stepped into a raging national debate over Mr. Sterling’s secretly taped remarks.
Fellow National Basketball Association owners, star players, the NAACP, politicians and even the Clippers’ players and coach expressed objections to the 81-year-old billionaire’s comments. The NBA said Sunday that it was examining the validity of the recording and the circumstances under which it was made, but league Commissioner Adam Silver vowed to act “extraordinarily quickly” once he had all the facts.
Mr. Obama, who has struggled at times to find the right words and tone in addressing racial controversies, did not wait when asked about the remarks on his four-nation Asian trip.
“The owner is reported to have said some incredibly offensive racist statements that were published,” Mr. Obama said in response to a reporter’s question. “I don’t think I have to interpret those statements for you; they kind of speak for themselves. When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything; you just let them talk.”
During his first campaign on the way to becoming the nation’s first black president, Mr. Obama largely avoided discussions of race relations. He made an exception during the Democratic primary race to address questions about his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an outspoken Chicago preacher.
In his first term, Mr. Obama touched on race once, in an episode that might have backfired. He accused police in Cambridge, Mass., of acting “stupidly” when they arrested a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, as the educator tried to enter his own home. The president attempted to close that chapter in July 2009 by hosting a photo-op “beer summit” at the White House with Mr. Gates and the police officer, Sgt. James Crowley.
In his second term, Mr. Obama seems to be looking more often for teachable moments in race relations, as demonstrated by his comments about Mr. Sterling and talking openly of his mixed emotions in the case of the fatal shooting of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
After a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in Martin’s death in July, Mr. Obama made unscheduled remarks at the White House in which he reflected that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” He tried to describe the experience of black men in America.
“There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me,” the president said. “There are very few African-Americans who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often.”
On Sunday, Mr. Obama cast his comments about Mr. Sterling in the broader context of racism in America by saying that “we constantly have to be on guard on racial attitudes that divide us rather than embracing our diversity as a strength.”
“The United States continues to wrestle with a legacy of race and slavery and segregation that’s still there — the vestiges of discrimination,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve made enormous strides, but you’re going to continue to see this percolate up every so often. And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it, teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why some statements like this stand out so much is because there … has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”
For his audience in Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Obama went on to say, “Like Malaysia, we constantly have to be on guard against racial attitudes that divide us rather than embracing our diversity as a strength. And I know that the people of Malaysia are committed to wrestling with those issues as well. We have to make sure that we stay on top of it — and we will.”
Mr. Obama, a known basketball fan, said he is “confident that the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, a good man, will address this.”
“Obviously, the NBA is a league that is beloved by fans all across the country,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s got an awful lot of African-American players. It’s steeped in African-American culture. And I suspect that the NBA is going to be deeply concerned in resolving this.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the president’s response was “appropriate.” He called Mr. Sterling’s reported remarks “beyond belief.”
“It’s just outrageous in 2014 that comments like these are being made,” Mr. Corker said.
TMZ.com published the 10-minute recording on its website late Friday. The website described the recording as a taped conversation between Mr. Sterling and a model who goes by the name V. Stiviano.
“The audio recording posted by TMZ is truly offensive and disturbing, and we intend to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible,” Mr. Silver said Saturday.
It was not immediately clear when and how the conversation was recorded.
Los Angeles Clippers President Andy Roeser issued a statement saying the team has listened to the recording.
“We do not know if it is legitimate or it has been altered. We do know that the woman on the tape — who we believe released it to TMZ — is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family,” the statement said. “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings.”
The NAACP said Sunday that it will not go forward with plans to give a lifetime achievement award to Mr. Sterling at its 100th anniversary celebration next month. NAACP interim President Lorraine Miller condemned the racist remarks that Mr. Sterling is accused of making.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson told TMZ that the NBA must punish Mr. Sterling.
“There must be some form of punishment,” he said. “There must be a response and if they don’t respond, there must be picket signs.”