Sorry, America: Race isn’t ‘yesterday’s problem’

Bruce Levenson knew that he could not remain as controlling owner of the Atlanta Hawks, not in the aftermath of the NBA’s Donald Sterling fiasco. Race, an issue that some would prefer to think that we’ve put behind us, had tripped him up.

By now you know the story: In an internal marketing email two years ago, Levenson had written bluntly about the business impact of Atlanta’s NBA franchise being perceived as “too black,” thus scaring off affluent white fans and their dollars. As he saw it, that marketing problem was compounded by the team’s location at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta, also perceived as black.

“I think Southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority,” he wrote. “…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.”

Levenson then went on to suggest steps to make the Hawks’ product less “black,” such as changing the music and the racial composition of the cheerleading squad. To his credit, he did not try to explain away or minimize his errors once the email became public.

“If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be,” he said in a statement. “I’m angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.”

So let me tell you another thing that you already know: Talking about race gets complicated very quickly. In this case, it’s complicated more than usual by the fact that Levenson’s fateful email contained an awkward degree of truth while also being an exercise in scapegoating.

Yes, a certain number of potential white fans probably are dissuaded from attending Hawks games by racial stereotypes and by discomfort at being in an environment in which they are not the overwhelming majority. It’s a situation that black Americans experience often but that many white Americans experience rarely if ever.

In fact, I’d go further and bet that similar race-infused conversations take place all the time — if quietly — within the management of bars, taverns, amusement parks, shopping malls and any other setting in which people congregate. If you don’t think such thoughts influenced the move of the Braves from downtown Atlanta to Cobb County, for example, I won’t waste my time or yours trying to convince you otherwise.

But in Levenson’s case, his theory that racial concerns are “far and (a)way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low” is also just a lame excuse. One of sports’ redemptive qualities is its capacity to unite people to such a degree that divisions of race, age, income and social status no longer matter. But achieving that generally requires winning, and in their 46 years in Atlanta, the Hawks have never won an NBA championship. In fact, the last time they won so much as a division championship was 20 years ago.

Fixing that may be harder than just changing the music, but it would be more effective. In short, race can make success more difficult, but success can make race less relevant. You probably already knew that too.

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