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What We Learned About Donald Sterling, Magic Johnson, and HIV

What We Learned About Donald Sterling, Magic Johnson, and HIV


The racist rants of Donald Sterling earlier this year reveal they are informed, at least in part, by HIV stigma

First, let me be clear: Americans are sick with their obsession over sports. We spend way too much time on sporting issues and controversies and not enough time on issues which directly impact our lives. 

But the Donald Sterling racism tape provided us with a real opportunity to have a discussion about racism in modern America. I opined at the time the tapes broke and Sterling was heard chastising his girlfriend about being seen in public with Earvin Magic Johnson that there was an underlying context of HIV stigma there. Last night on CNN's Anderson Cooper, Sterling proved my theory correct. 

"Well, what kind of a guy goes to every city, he has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV and -- is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?" Sterling tells Anderson in the interview. "I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background."

That is classic HIV stigma. Sterling is demanding that a person who refuses to buy into the shame that society wants to perpetrate on people living with HIV needs to shut up and disappear. His implication here, tying it to the girlfriend is clear, particularly when you read the transcripts. Sterling was worried that she was going to sleep with the men she was taking to the games. And he moves to hyper-sexualize Johnson, a not unsubtle act of racism harkening to the construction of black men as being hyper-sexual which dominated much of American racism for centuries. He admits he is jealous of the men. And his jealousy is borne of a vile misconception of black men in America. In his mind, they are hyper-sexual. 

Sterling doesn't stop there. He hyper-sexualize Johnson as well and brings a shaming on him for being sexual. If there was ever a question whether Sterling is a racist, that should be laid to rest. He is not only a racist, he is also a bigoted shame master bent on silencing people living with HIV, particularly those who have made their lives a resounding success. And Johnson is a success. He is a successful businessman, something Sterling tries to denigrate and deny. 

I will, however, concede that in 1991 when Magic announced his HIV-positive status, I was angry and disappointed with his public responses and I still am. I live in Lansing, where Magic got his start. He is a hero here and nearly mythic. But his protestations that he was not a homosexual detracted from his larger message that straight people can get HIV; and his pity party of having "attained HIV" being the reason he could not play anymore fed hysteria and fear mongering. He still has not apologized for those remarks, nor do I expect he ever will. 



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Todd Heywood