Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson: racist or realist?

As every informed observer of national sports issues has heard, Bruce Levenson, owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, has found himself at the center of a racial controversy just months after the Donald Sterling debacle that left the NBA reeling.  This new round of public outcry was catalyzed by the release of an internal email sent by Levenson to many Hawks employees and strategists.  In the email, Levenson wonders openly whether existing racism in the Atlanta community has stood in the way of the Hawks drawing in their primary target demographic: 35-55 year old white males.  Does this evidence alone make Levenson guilty of racism? 

I believe that in order to answer this question we must discern whether Levenson’s analysis represent an acknowledgement, but not an endorsement, of racism coupled with suggestions for how the Hawks could proceed and maximize profit in the existing market.  If so, we still must determine whether any willingness to increase profit by pandering to racism in the market still represents racism on the part of Levenson. 

Levenson’s email includes the qualification, “[sic] Please dont get me wrong…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.”  To me, this qualification reflects an understanding on Levenson’s part that there is something inherently racist and unjust about the way his target demographic feels about the presence of minorities.  He is not engaging in a racial analysis of the Hawks’ fan base as a way of rationalizing his own racist views.  Rather, he is engaging in a realistic and pragmatic analysis of his target demographic.  As a businessman, it is his obligation to seek to maximize profit for the good of his corporation—and to do so he must reach his target demographic, however possible.  To me, it seems clear that Levenson has an extreme distaste for the way he thinks his target, the southern white demographic, sees the crowd at Hawks games.  He perceives the injustice of the sense, imagined by him or not, among white people that the area around the arena is dangerous.  He understands that his business exists in a flawed market, where terrible issues such as racism do play a role.

In a perfect world, the leader of a business would have control over what the consumer wants.  In reality, Levenson is beholden to the whims of the market.  If he needs to attract a different demographic, he must provide what that demographic wants.  In this particular case, he seeks a different demographic not because he has a problem with African-Americans, but because he has a problem with the propensity to consume of those currently attending games.  It is here that he differs entirely from the aforementioned Sterling.  Donald Sterling is, on all levels, unforgivably racist.  Levenson, in contrast, wants to maximize profit.  From what he states in the email, it seems clear that if the African-American population of Atlanta was more affluent than the white population, he would be doing everything possible to draw that demographic in.  It is not race that Levenson is seeing, but wealth.  For this reason, Levenson seeks to identify things the Hawks could do differently to attract their target demographic.  He specifically states, “[sic] 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 tics demo.”  The key phrase here is, “[sic] if that’s our season tics demo,” which clearly implies that the only reason he cares about the music being “familiar to a 40 year old white guy,” is because this is the demographic that the Hawks have previously decided to target.  When I read Levenson’s email, I hear a pragmatic business owner who is struggling to find ways to draw in his target demographic, not a raving racist like Donald Sterling who is grasping at straws to rationalize his despicable thoughts. 

As Levenson seems to be writing with business, rather than personal feelings, in mind, I believe it is unfair for him to be seen with such anger and hatred by the public, to be vilified by the media, and to be forced out of the NBA. 

He, by no fault of his own, runs a business in an area where his target demographic is racist.  In order to cater to these despicable people, he must keep all facets of their persona as consumers in mind.  Therefore, although he disagrees with their feelings, he must cater to them in some sense as he seeks to run a profit.  Does it pain him to do so? Hopefully.  Is it necessary to keep the Hawks in existence? Unfortunately. 

Given that Levenson seeks not to subjugate black fans, but instead to attract white fans, and given that he is doing this out of business necessity and not out of desire, I would submit that he is guilty only of wording an email less sensitively than we as a nation would have liked but not of racism.  However, it would be entirely fair to argue that every prominent business has not just an economic but also a social responsibility to promote what is good and seek to end what is bad. 

If this is taken as a fact, then Levenson should have sought to promote lasting change by seeking to make fans of all races comfortable together, united by their love of the Hawks rather than divided by racism.