Yes, Bruce Levenson's Racist Email Was Racist

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By now you're aware that Bruce Levenson, controlling owner of the Atlanta Hawks, is selling his stake in the team, at least in part because of fallout from an email he sent to other members of team management back in 2012, theorizing that the team struggles to fill its arena because "the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base."

In the email, Levenson attributes this to an in-arena experience overwhelmingly oriented toward black fans: hip-hop music playing over the PA system; black cheerleaders; a "too black" kiss-cam; hip-hop and gospel concerts after the games; ticket giveaways that (in Levenson's description) went primarily to black Atlantans. He looks out at the stands and guesses "that our crowd is 40 [percent] black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 still feels like 70 to some whites at our games ... I think it is far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low."

A lot of people, like Jason Whitlock—theoretical proprietor of a nonexistent black Grantland—think this isn't racist. Their argument is that rather than animosity toward blacks, Levenson's email expresses a realist's recognition of white racism, combined with the mundane, rational desire of a business owner to broaden the demographic appeal of his product. In the offending email, Levenson does his best to provide some cover for this interpretation, in the following passage:

Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean 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 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.

One way to read this is as proof that Levenson is not racist, but, rather, aware of and disgusted by racism. He's calling out racists, as many observers have described it.

The problem with this line of interpretation—one of the problems, anyway—is that this is all basically the I'm not a racist in an I'm not a racist, but... riff. Levenson's proposed response to all this damnable bigotry, after all, is to make the in-arena experience friendlier to racists. No, really! That's the very next part of his email:

I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them 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 am sick of seeing all these black people kissing each other" will probably not strike you as a particularly bold stance against racism.

Dispense right away with the notion that this merely is a business owner seeking to broaden the heretofore-narrow demographic appeal of his product. In 2011-12, the average Hawks game drew 15,199 fans to the arena; Philips Arena has a capacity of 18,118 for basketball. Recall Levenson's estimate of a 40 percent black crowd at games: Even if diversifying the cheerleading squad and rockin' some sweet Kenny Chesney tuneage on the PA filled all the remaining 2,919 seats with white people, that'd lower black attendance only to around 34 percent, nowhere near the magical 10 percent number he seems to think is the key to unlocking season ticket sales. To get to that number, he'd actively have to drive away around 4,000 paying black customers, at which point, per his theorizing, he could fill the arena with grateful whites.

Perhaps that's an ungenerous interpretation of Levenson's intent. But consider that, by Nate Silver's estimate, the Hawks' overall fan base is 48 percent black. If Levenson's roughly correct in his eyeball guess that 40 percent of game attendees are black, then black fans are roughly proportionately represented at Hawks games, taking into account that black households have disproportionately low incomes, or perhaps even slightly under-represented. No matter how you look at it, Levenson isn't just talking about cold demographics, and he certainly isn't talking about how his team's unique ability to draw black fans is an actual strength. He's talking about stiff-arming black fans to make more room for white ones.

Maybe this dude who managed to make enough money to buy a controlling interest in an NBA team is just bad at math, though. Maybe he's just saying white people are wealthier than black people, so more white fans = more season ticket sales. And hey, that's probably just cold, unfortunate, but observable truth, right? Bruce Levenson didn't personally create systemic injustice; he's just a realist with an arena to fill.

This line of reasoning is, though, an insidious artifact of our time: the notion that because someone—Bruce Levenson, say—is a mere inheritor of American society's racial stratification, this inoculates him against charges of racism when he figures out how to navigate that stratification profitably; the notion that capitulation to the reality of racism—an actual, real-life proposal to engineer an NBA product that presents as more friendly to white bigots—is mere economic rationality, as value-neutral as figuring out the most gas-efficient route to a destination. Hey, take it up with George Washington, buddy: I'm just doin' what I gotta do.

Leave aside, for a moment anyway, the fact that even a dimwitted 6-year-old knows better than to whip out this sort of "Hey, he started it!" bullshit. Leave aside, also, the reality that, as a billionaire, Bruce Levenson could live in uninterrupted comfort and outrageous luxury for the rest of several lifetimes even if he decided he'd rather make no more money at all than profit off of calculated exploitation of racism. This is the logic behind redlining; behind the NBA's dress code; behind Roger Goodell's self-fetishization as the Hammer of Sports Justice. Black people and black culture are repulsive to whites; whites are more valuable than blacks because black money chases off white money; therefore black people and black culture must be contained so as not to impede our access to whites.

This is the logic of systemic racism, distinct from but no better than personal distaste for black people. This is a seemingly reasonable person endorsing the idea that a dollar from a black person is literally worth less than a dollar from a white one, because the dollar from a black person carries an invisible tax: It drives away white people, while a dollar from a white person draws in more of them. In the hands of a business owner—translated into suggested changes to that business's product, into his complaints to his underlings about, say, the number of black cheerleaders that business employs—it ceases to be an idea. It is the enforcement of disparity, the literal devaluing of black dollars: "Your actual ticket purchase is worth less to us than the hypothetical ticket sales we might get from racists by driving you away."

When a sports team owner says he wants some more white cheerleaders so the team can make some more money, do you think he's saying "Double the number of cheerleaders on our payroll for the sake of diversity," or "Replace some of these black cheerleaders with white ones"? When he says that, do you think it matters all that much whether it's because he actively hates blacks or because he's cynically banking on other rich white people's hatred of blacks? Do you think the replaced black cheerleaders will buy an argument that race isn't the reason the white team owner fired them?

This is white flight-as-marketing, different only by degree from the Atlanta Braves taking their business to suburban Cobb County in pursuit of white dollars. It may be a shrewd market calculation. It is also definitionally racist. It poses the business offered by black people against the preferences of white bigots, and prioritizes the latter. That capitalism will reward this choice by paying out for the business owner who makes it is not a defense of the choice; it is an indictment of capitalism. The fact that, in this particular case, we are talking about attempts to render the product of a majority-black workforce more appealing to white bigots, so that the white management class will have more profits to skim for itself, only casts the whole thing in starker relief: Bruce Levenson is racist. So are his buddies. So is the system that enriches them.

Photo via Associated Press