USA Today called it a “racist e-mail.”
CNN called it a “racially charged e-mail”
In three separate articles, The New York Times called it “a racially charged memo,” “racially insensitive views,” and evidence of “deeply rooted racism.”
Sports Illustrated said it contained “a series of ignorant, racially insensitive remarks.”
Those are the types of statements basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was referring to when he wrote:
“Well, the pitchforks are already sharpened and the torches lit anyway, so rather than let them go to waste, why not drag another so-called racist before the court of public opinion and see how much ratings-bragging, head-shaking and race-shaming we can squeeze out of it? After all, the media got so much gleeful, hand-wringing mileage out of Don Sterling and Michael Brown.”
I applaud Mr. Abdul-Jabbar for courageously denouncing the paternalistic forces of racial correctness, who attacked Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson for writing a memo to business partners that, in fact, reveals no racist views. Quite the opposite. I refer you to Abdul-Jabbar’s incisive article in Time Magazine, where he argues Levenson’s e-mail was an “entirely reasonable” discussion of how the Atlanta Hawks franchise could increase revenue by attracting more white fans to the arena. (Google “abdul-jabbar bruce levenson email.”)
Lessons to be Learned
In the over-wrought world of political and racial correctness, actual words – what someone actually said or wrote – does not really matter. If someone “takes offense,” then the remarks are “racially charged,” ”racially insensitive” and even “racist.” Off with his head.
By no means is this always about blacks taking offense from the remarks of whites. Juan Williams (did I mention he’s black?!) lost his job at NPR because he said he got nervous when Arabs got on an airplane. Forget the 9/11 attacks, the Fort Hood massacre, the Boston Marathon bombing and dozens of other attacks by Islamic terrorists on innocents of all faiths; in NPR-land Williams’ remarks reeked of “Islamophobia.” He had to go.
What Levenson Actually Said—the Opposite of Racism
As a business historian who has read thousands of business letters (mostly by 18th century merchants), I find Levenson’s memo interesting reading. Operating in the real world of making a buck in the Atlanta entertainment market, he was simply trying to figure out how to attract more fans to Atlanta Hawks games. If you actually read what he said, as Abdul-Jabbar did and most reporters apparently did not, you can easily see he was not racist. He merely made the error of recognizing cultural and economic “facts on the ground.”
Levenson starts by observing that “from day one I have been impressed with the friendliness and professionalism of the arena staff—food vendors, ushers, ticket takers, etc.” Because the Phillips arena is in a neighborhood with a large black population, I am pretty certain many of these employees whom Levenson praised are black. No sign of racism there.
Then he considers “why our season ticket base is so small.” Speaking as a money-grubbing stock market investor, I would note that Levenson is talking here about the “Holy Grail” of running a business—recurring revenue. Every business craves it. Rain or shine, heat wave or snowstorm, winning season or cellar dwelling, the revenue of season ticket-holders rolls in.
So Levenson wonders, why does the Hawks’ season ticket revenue suck, compared to other basketball teams? “I was told it was because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tickets and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. When I pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. Then I start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
–it’s 70 pct black
–the cheerleaders are black
–the music is hop hop
–at the bars it’s 90 pct black
–there are few fathers and sons at the games
–we are doing after game concerts that attract more fans and the concerns are either hip hop or gospel”
Levenson goes on, “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. On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around Phillips [the Hawks’ arena] 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 game.”
He concludes, “This is obviously a sensitive topic, but sadly I think it is far and away the number one reason our season ticket base is so low.”
It is obvious that Levenson is not racist or even racially insensitive:
- He is trying to attract more whites to Hawks games, which would increase the racial diversity of the audience. So he is promoting desegregation, a primary goal of the civil rights movement. No racism there; quite the opposite.
- He denounces as “racist garbage” the suggestion that crime is high at the arena. No racism there.
- He dismisses as “code for there being too many blacks at the game” the fact that “some people [say] the arena is in the wrong place.” No racism there; quite the opposite.
- He observes that “southern whites” were uncomfortable going to games where a majority of the crowd was black, and entertainment extras such as the music and cheerleaders were oriented toward black tastes. Recognizing southern whites’ aversion to being a racial minority at the arena definitely does not reveal racism on Levenson’s part.
- He acknowledges all this is a “sensitive topic” and it is sad that affluent whites are not keen to go to games where the majority of spectators are black. No racism there; quite the opposite.
So, as Abdul-Jabbar observed, there is no evidence of racist sentiments in Levenson’s e-mail. He is just recognizing on-the-ground-in-Atlanta economic and cultural realities that are depressing season ticket revenue.
What We Really Have Here is Fear of Racial Equality
The media’s rush to brand Levenson’s comments as racist actually reveals their own racial paternalism. They cannot conceive of Atlanta’s black population being treated as just another demographic segment of the market that can be discussed by a down-to-earth, real-world entrepreneur person as he or she would discuss any other market segment – fashion-conscious women, middle class homeowners, college grads in their 20s, working class Hispanics, wealthy golfers, whatever.
Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2014. All Rights Reserved.