Last Updated Apr 27, 2014 8:47 AM EDT
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - President Barack Obama on Sunday described comments reportedly made by the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers "incredibly offensive racist statements," before casting them as part of a continuing legacy of slavery and segregation that Americans must vigilantly fight.
"When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don't really have to do anything, you just let them talk," Obama said when asked to respond to Donald Sterling's reported comments.
Obama's description of the controversy as part of a larger historical context is the latest example of his continuing willingness to expound on matters of race in his second term.
After avoiding much mention of race relations during his campaign to become the first black president and in his first term, the president last summer offered a personal reflection in response to the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin. And now Obama has spoken out against an audio recording of a man identified as Sterling telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to games.
The firestorm over Sterling's comments has quickly engulfed the NBA. Obama cast the comments through a broader prism of racism in America, adding 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 the legacy of race and slavery and segregation, that's still there, the vestiges of discrimination," Obama said during a news conference in Malaysia, where he was traveling.
"We've made enormous strides, but you're going to continue to see this percolate up every so often," he added. "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 statements like this stand out some much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves."
In the recording attributed to Sterling recording and posted on the website TMZ, a male voice questions his girlfriend's association with minorities. TMZ reported the woman, V. Stiviano, is of black and Mexican descent.
The man asks Stiviano not to broadcast her association with black people or bring black people to games. The man specifically mentions Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson on the recording, saying, "Don't bring him to my games, OK?"
Anger, frustration and calls for action echoed around the NBA on Saturday after the audio recording surfaced.
Everybody except for the embattled Clippers owner, who has a decades-long history of discrimination and offensive behavior, seemed to have a response.
The league said it was investigating the recording, calling the comments "disturbing and offensive." Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, a target of Sterling's remarks, said he wouldn't attend Clippers' games as long as Sterling was the owner. Miami Heat star LeBron James asked new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to take aggressive measures, saying "there is no room for Donald Sterling in our league."
"Obviously, if the reports are true it's unacceptable in our league," James said. "It doesn't matter, white, black or Hispanic - all across the races it's unacceptable. As the commissioner of our league they have to make a stand. They have to be very aggressive with it. I don't know what it will be, but we can't have that in our league."
Obama said he's confident NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will address the matter. He said the NBA has "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."
Silver had said the NBA needs to confirm authenticity of the audio tape and interview both Sterling and the woman in the recording. He called the tape "disturbing and offensive" and promised to investigate quickly.
Magic Johnson responded on Twitter.
He also said the alleged comments are "a black eye for the NBA" and said he felt bad that friends such as Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Clippers point guard Chris Paul had to work for Sterling.
Paul released a statement through the players union that said "this is a very serious issue which we will address aggressively." He also said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star guard who is the chairman of a search committee to find a new director for the union, would take a leading role to help players address the matter.
Paul and Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin declined further comment on the issue after the team's practice at the University of San Francisco.
Other players were not made available as Rivers said he would speak for the team.
"A lot of guys voiced their opinions. None of them were happy about it," Rivers said. "This was a situation where we're trying to go after something very important for us, something that we've all dreamed about all our childhoods. Donald or anyone else had nothing to do with that dream, and we're not going to let anything get in the way of those dreams."
On TNT's halftime studio show Saturday, host Charles Barkley said: "This is the first test of Adam Silver. He's got to suspend him right now. First of all, they've got to prove that's his voice on that tape. But this is the first big test for Adam Silver. You can't have this guy making statements like that. You have to suspend him and fine him immediately."
NBA TV analyst and former player Chris Webber said that "the NBA owners need to handle their own."
A spokeswoman for the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, Jacky Johnson, said the organization planned a protest outside Game 5 of the Clippers-Warriors series Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
"No one should be allowed to own a team if they have in fact engaged in this kind of racial language," Sharpton said in a statement to CBS News.