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Civil rights groups should have refused Sterling's money

By Carol Costello
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carol Costello: Donald Sterling made charitable gifts to civil rights groups
  • She says he had history of housing discrimination, but organizations took his money
  • Some say they will keep the money while local NAACP says it will return it, she says
  • Costello: Is it a betrayal for these groups to take his money?

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Who knew bigotry could bring in big dollars?

Hey Donald Sterling, we know you refused to rent your apartments to blacks and Hispanics, but can you spare some change to help us fight for civil rights?

That's essentially what transpired in Los Angeles between Sterling and the local chapter of the NAACP. Surely the organization knew Sterling was the subject of a Justice Department investigation into discriminatory housing practices. And surely it knew Sterling agreed to pay one of the biggest fines of its kind in history.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

It wasn't enough for the Los Angeles NAACP to shun Sterling. On the contrary, the NAACP awarded Sterling a lifetime achievement award. That was in 2009, just before the Donald T. Sterling organization gave the NAACP $5,000.

"The NAACP airbrushed this away and simply said that Sterling has been a gem in giving oodles of tickets away to needy inner city kids and ladling out some cash to charities and sports camps for them," wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Thehutchinsonreportnews.com. He's a sociologist who has written nine books on African-American politics, following the 2009 award.

But, that was then. Except it's not. The local chapter of the NAACP was about to grant Sterling another lifetime achievement award until that pesky racist rant became public in the past few days. The rant where he berates his biracial girlfriend for posting an Instagram of herself with Magic Johnson, now a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "In your lousy f----g Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with -- walking with black people," he says.

Now the group is returning Sterling's money. He also won't be gracing the stage alongside another of their winners, "Person of the Year," the Rev. Al Sharpton. Today Sharpton asked the NBA to meet with civil rights organizations, including the national NAACP, about his former co-honoree.

As for whether the LA chapter will do business again with Sterling? President Leon Jenkins says yes. "At some point when there has been proof, I think that would be a legitimate time for the NAACP to sit down with Sterling and try to work out how and why he did what he did and what is he going to do in the future. God teaches us to forgive. And the way I look at it, after a sustained period of just proof to the African-American community that those words don't really reflect his heart, I think there's room for forgiveness."

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What will racist rant cost Sterling?

Jenkins' remarks struck a nerve. "That dude needs to be fired." CNN contributor and ESPN Senior Writer LZ Granderson, a guest on my show, did not stop there. "He sounds like a fool. I'm just going to come to you straight up. To even suggest that somehow a sit-down with Donald Sterling now, when if anyone should have known about his racist past, (it) should have been a local chapter of the NAACP. First lawsuit was 2003. To pretend they'll sit down with him now and see if that's really in his heart when he's been sued by the Department of Justice, that man needs to resign or be fired."

Before you jump on Granderson's bandwagon, it's worth noting that at least Jenkins returned Sterling's donation.

Consider what's happening with the other contributions from the Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation of Beverly Hills. He donated $50,000 each to the LA Black Business Association and the United Negro College Fund. Anthony Owens, from UNCF, said the organization did not plan to return the money, which has already been passed along in the form of student scholarships.

He also gave $30,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which teaches about the Holocaust and seeks to enlighten visitors about all forms of discrimination.

Keep in mind that on that now infamous tape, Sterling is also alleged to have said, "There are white Jews and black Jews." He then goes on to infer black Jews are "less than" white Jews.

Still, the Simon Wiesenthal Center will not be giving back that $30,000. "The funds were used to combat racism and teach tolerance. We aren't going to return money of his that was used to do the very opposite of what he said on that tape." said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. He said his organization didn't know about the housing discrimination allegations when it received the money. He said his staff is not large enough to do that kind of research. (A Google search would have done the trick).

Oh, there's more. It seems Donald Sterling was a giving machine, despite his remarks showing disdain for African-Americans and black Jews.

In an article in the Beverly Hills Times, his foundation boasts of giving $5 million in grants and scholarship money at a fancy party at Spago. That's twice the fine he is to pay the NBA.

Thirty charities and eight high schools got checks at his gala after hearing a benediction from Rabbi David Baron and songs from Debbie Boone, of "You Light Up My Life" fame. Recipients included a smorgasbord of diverse organizations like 100 Black men, Nuevo Amanecer, Para Los Ninos, the Special Olympics, Yeshiva Gedolah and Junior Blind of America. Tuesday those organizations told CNN they were asking themselves what his intentions were, but none had resolved the issue of whether to return the money. (An organization not involved in that event, UCLA said in a statement Tuesday that it was rejecting a $3 million pledge from Sterling.)

Para Los Ninos, which works to get a better education for impoverished children, said it didn't want his money any more. "We have asked them to take our pictures off their full-page ad. We will not be accepting their money, or any more money going forward from the Donald T. Sterling Foundation," said Celeste Anlauf, director of major gifts and communications. "We were among a number of organizations that got money from him and up until this moment we had not had an organizational conversation about his ethics. We knew there were some questions but we had every hope that he had the best of intentions."

Perhaps Sterling did have "the best of intentions." But, "hoping" doesn't cut it. I certainly understand how difficult it is to raise money, but is selling your soul worth it?

Apparently the NAACP thinks so. Derek Turner, the spokesperson for the national NAACP, notes that Strom Thurmond, the onetime pro-segregationist senator, was a member of the NAACP. "I'm sure they try to buy favor by supporting the NAACP. Strom Thurmond was a member of the NAACP. We certainly didn't go easy on Strom Thurmond and any of the politicians who support us."

But in the Sterling case -- it did. CNN Political Analyst and HuffPost Live Host Marc Lamont Hill put it best: "You know what it is? We like sexy forms of racism. Someone is on the phone talking to their girlfriend about not letting black people at the game. Denying black people housing is far more damaging than the phone call he made."

I could not agree more.

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