Bruce Levenson, the owner of the Atlanta Hawks, announced that he will sell the team after self-reporting racialized comments he made in a 2012 email.
The email is inoffensive for the most part, when Levenson brainstorms on how to get more white people to come to games:
“My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base”
“… I want some white cheerleaders and while i don’t care what the color of the artist is, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo. i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.”
“I never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around philips yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.”
The owner held himself accountable for his words, apologizing to the league with this statement:
Levenson’s comments were similar to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling (who chastises his girlfriend for associate with Black people), in the sense that they were more concerned with obliging systematic racism than dismantling it. Whether it is social capital or dollar bills, NBA owners are businessmen invested in the perception of others, even if those perceptions are racially-biased. This highlights the central paradox of Levenson’s statements:
Does making business decisions based on race make you a racist, even though your customers make decisions based on race?
Let’s give lower-profile example. You own a restaurant and the majority of your patrons are non-Black. If you have a perception (regardless of it is a reality or not) that non-Black people don’t want to be served by Black waiters/waitresses, you may not higher them. You being racist personally makes no difference in the fact of your hiring practices are discriminatory. Almost 80% of NBA players are non-white, but white fans make up an estimated 45.7% of the fan base. They are the largest consumer base (the biggest demographic in basically every market in the U.S.), so attracting them to games is sound business. The problem is the economic racism certain decisions on how to get them there are based on.
Business models resting on racial stereotypes are not something unique to the NBA. A study showed that 3,200 children’s books were published in 2013, but only 97 had any Black characters. Looking at the film industry, Hollywood’s racially-biased business model is not so secret. In movies with interracial love, the male is typically white. When actor Danny Glover tried to get funding for a biopic about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, he said that Hollywood executives wouldn’t finance the film because “it lacked white heroes”. USA Today described Best Man Holiday (a movie about love, loss, and friendship) as “race-themed” because of its Black cast. Multi-talented Donald Glover (aka. Childish Gambino) spoke about receiving racist comments in his #DonaldforSpiderman campaign, but expressed the most sickening comment was the polite racism of a fan arguing that Spiderman couldn’t be Black because there aren’t Black people like Peter Parker (i.e. “A Black person who likes science and photography”). Diversity in the modeling industry has improved slightly, but is still mostly white. In the porn industry, white actresses are steered away from doing scenes with black actors for fear of devaluing their market value and decreasing their longevity in the business (with the premise that white males, the largest viewership demographic, don’t want to see white women have sex with black men). On the reverse, non-white women who do scenes with white males increase their value and extend their career.
All of these incidences stem from stereotype that most white people don’t want to be around, see, and cannot relate to minorities, especially Black people. But this idea is not new.
We have lived and still live in a segregated country where the presence of Blacks lowers property values and induces white flight (read Ta’Nahesi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” for more in-depth analysis). Historically, non-Blacks who own businesses in Black neighborhoods do not live or spend money there. Schools are no less segregated than in the past, and even colleges with more diverse student populations have problems of segregation (studies have showed that though white students typically see minority students as the ones who self-segregate, white students have the lowest cross-racial interaction during college years). 40% of adults in the U.S. have no friends from a different race than themselves (with a new study showing that “in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend“). It comes as no surprise that these facts, trends, and perceptions materialize into other facets of life like the sports and entertainment industries.
At the end of the day, arguing whether Levenson is good or bad person, or the dreaded R-word may not be the important conversation. We can’t surmise if he released this information as a preemptive PR measure before being exposed or with the hope of transparency and forgiveness. But I’m glad he did. Because whether his conceptions are based on his personal feelings and insight, or acquiescing to problematic perceptions of his customers, they show a clear phenomenon:
Heads of corporations see white customers as implicitly biased towards whiteness and against minorities, and they incorporate this idea into their businesses. Business makes very few moral judgements and it surely doesn’t wait for society to change.