What the Bruce Levenson Case Says About Race, Money, and the NBA
Understanding why the Atlanta Hawks owner is selling his stake in the pro basketball team.
To understand the story about the owner of the Atlanta Hawks selling his stake in the basketball team after the disclosure of an email in which he urges team executives to hire "some white cheerleaders," remember this: it's not about race. It's about money.
The cases of Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, and of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling before him fit all too easily into the off-the-rack explanatory framework of racism. That bias is at the top of people's minds anyway these days because of the protests against the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
But the more accurate explanation is that these situations aren't as much about racism as they are about money—more precisely, the envy of people who have a lot of it by people who have less of it.
Don't believe me? Read New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden, who is so worked up about Levenson's comments and Sterling's that he urges a league-wide "investigation" to unearth "the racists, the sexists, the homophobes" among the National Basketball Association's owners and executives.
Rhoden quotes from Levenson's apology letter, which asserts, "we may all have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race." Then the Times columnist replies, "Perhaps. But we're not all multibillionaires whose wealth and power can transform dinner-table bigotry into large-scale policy and practices that affect the course of human events."
Got that? The problem isn't the bias, it's the billions. So concedes the Times columnist, in an impressive display of his own anti-billionaire bias.
Levenson's entire email is not without nuance. He himself is condemning the whites in Atlanta for being racist while at the same time suggesting that the team change some things to make them more comfortable: "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. Please don't get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena back then. 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."
The email says, "On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is … 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."
There was a time when the response to these sorts of situations was humor, or humility. As the lyrics to a song in the hit musical Avenue Q go:
Everyone's a little bit racist, it's true
But everyone is just about as racist as you
If we all could just admit that we are racist a little bit
And everyone stopped being so P.C.
Maybe we could live in harmony
Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, who is black, writes in his new book Please Stop Helping Us, "when I see groups of young black men walking down the street at night I cross to the other side. When I see them on subways I switch cars."
The Levenson letter is no laughing matter, alas, for any black cheerleader who tried out but who was not hired because the owner ordered up some white cheerleaders. On the other hand, people whose genetic makeup doesn't suit them to a skimpy cheerleader uniform are already out of the running for the job, so perhaps there's a kind of poetic justice to the injustice of an otherwise qualified cheerleader getting turned down for a superficial reason.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a piece for Time, writes that Levenson's email isn't racist. "Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business," the former NBA star asserts.
Sizing up these cases involves making some distinctions. Is the alleged "racism" a matter strictly of impure thoughts, or does it spill over into hiring decisions or the treatment of employees or customers? Is the racism accusation surfaced or aired by someone else with a financial or personal motive of his or her own? Is the "racism" condemned uniformly and consistently, or only when the person displaying it is rich enough to own a pro basketball team?