Why NBA's latest racism flap hints at signs of progress

Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson self-reported to the NBA a racially insensitive e-mail he wrote in 2012 and has agreed to sell the team.

John Bazemore/AP/File
Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson cheers during a game against the Indiana Pacers in Atlanta in April. He's agreed to sell the team after acknowledging writing insensitive racial remarks in an e-mail.

If the National Basketball Association's Donald Sterling affair showed that baldly offensive racism can be lurking in plain sight, a new scandal is showing the nascent struggle to combat subtler forms of prejudice.

The comments made by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Mr. Sterling, both in secretly recorded conversations and openly on television, occasioned almost no defense. He crudely belittled black men and their culture, and Commissioner Adam Silver permanently banned him from the NBA on April 29 because of it.

The newly released comments by Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, however, speak to the insidious assumptions that whites and blacks often make about each other, and how even these more hidden forms of prejudice are no longer being tolerated. He has voluntarily agreed to sell his controlling share of the team in response.

The situation revolves around an internal 2012 e-mail in which Mr. Levenson is essentially trying to understand why the team's season ticket base is so small. His primary conclusion was that there were too many black people at the games, and that scared off the richer white fans. 

"My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant [sic] season ticket base," he wrote. He continues: "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."

He complained that there were not enough white cheerleaders, that there was too much hip-hop music on the public address system, and that the "kiss cam" only showed black people.

The e-mail does not come across as Levenson hating blacks. At one point, he derides the supposed reservations of the whites staying away from Hawks games as "just racist garbage."

At its core, the e-mail is about business. Levenson wants to know how to attract more white men aged 35 to 55 – a highly desirable marketing demographic – in order to increase his season ticket base, and he's trying to figure out why they're staying away.

But the tone at times comes across as callous and dismissive of black fans and their preferences, and it plays into assumptions that have fueled racial tensions for decades.

Indeed, Levenson felt ashamed enough to turn himself in; the e-mail was self-reported, not a result of an NBA sting. In an apology to fans posted on NBA.com, he explained why:

If you're angry about what I wrote, you should be. 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.

The issue of racism is particularly problematic for the NBA. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight concluded that many NBA teams have majority minority fan bases.

In that way, the league has become a laboratory for the frontiers of addressing racism in America. Comments that might be ignored or minimized in other businesses are a major threat to the public relations of the NBA. It simply must have a zero tolerance policy, and that offers a unique compass to the rest of the country – one that is especially poignant after a month of racial strife in Ferguson, Mo.

In May, when league owners were considering whether to back the commissioner's sanction of Sterling, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confessed:

We're all prejudiced in one way or the other. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it's late at night, I'm walking to the other side of the street. And on that side of the street there's a guy who has tattoos all over his face – white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere – I'm walking back to the other side of the street.

Mr. Cuban said his point was that deeply held stereotypes need to be exposed and addressed so that the foundations of racism can be undercut – and that this should be done with compassion.

This weekend, another of the NBA's owners exposed his own struggle with racial stereotypes and responded with compassion rather than contention, even when his mistakes appeared far more defensible than Sterling's. In doing so, the NBA set a more demanding standard for how America views and defines racism.

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