We know what Donald Sterling is.

But what about the NAACP?

How is it that the NAACP has repeatedly honored a guy who turns out to be the biggest bigot in America, and was about to give him his second lifetime achievement award?

What’s that all about?

As America learns what Los Angeles already knew, that the owner of the Clippers has a long history of screwing black and Latino people as their landlord and employer, how is it that the most storied organization in the black civil rights movement has repeatedly honored this man?

Sadly, it’s for exactly the reason you suspect.

“He paid the most,” the leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP said at a recent press conference.

This year’s NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award. His previous NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award. The 2008 NAACP Humanitarian Award. The 2009 NAACP President’s Award.

Those were all about the checks.

He donated the most, he got the most.

Put more cynically, NAACP honors are meaningless trinkets for sale to the highest bidder.

Which reinforces the quiet perception that some civil rights organizations operate on a principle of friendly extortion and payoff. You give us money and we don’t cause any trouble. Any number of boycotts and protests have been averted by generous corporate or personal contributions to activist groups and “education” funds.

In the case of Donald Sterling – the only Los Angeles team owner to regularly set aside blocks of free seats for disadvantaged minority kids – it’s easy to presume that his generosity might have been a smokescreen. The year he wrote a big enough check to get the NAACP President’s Award is also the year he paid the Justice Department $2.9 million to get out of a discrimination suit, for example.

But if he’s a hypocrite for buying racial cover, what’s the NAACP for selling it?

And what are the real motives of civil rights organizations which regularly pocket big bucks from big donors looking to buy peace? Is the legitimacy of an organization or leader called into question by the dollars they collect?

Is the transfer of money always a pure transaction involving only the generosity of the donor and the selflessness of the activists?

Or have some people figured out a scam in the name of civil rights?

Inasmuch as we can’t know what’s in a person’s heart, we’ll never know. But instances like this do make us wonder.

In the worst light, it’s a further exploitation of minorities by other minorities. In the best light, it’s an inadvertent shadow cast over civil rights organizations.

Either way, it’s something the activist and civil rights community needs to come to grips with. Because the NAACP is certainly not alone in conduct like this, and neither is the civil rights movement. Any number of cause and non-profit communities have their own pay-to-play cultures in which honors are bestowed and protests are averted if contributions are big enough.

And that’s not right.

Because at their base, many of these organizations could actually accomplish worthwhile things. The people and issues which could be truly served by these activists and organizations end up neglected when the game becomes about money. When we’re negotiating pictures in the annual report, we’ve strayed from the basic mission. We’ve stopped being the solution and started being the problem.

The Los Angeles NAACP has said it will return Donald Sterling’s donations of the last year. Of course, the NBA’s actions against him include a $2.5 million fine. That money is to be – jointly by the league and the players’ union – donated to civil rights organizations.

How much do you want to bet enough of it goes to the Los Angeles NAACP to make it whole for the money it is returning on “principle?”

We all need money, and we all struggle with making sure it is our servant and not our master.

Yes, it’s hard to fund non-profits.

Yes, it’s hard to resist the human tendency to greed.

Yes, it’s hard to maintain ethical integrity.

But all those things are essential. If you are doing a good work, you must have clean hands.

In recent days, America has learned that Donald Sterling apparently paid for love.

From his girlfriends.

And from the NAACP.