Bruce Levenson's Racism In Broader Context: We need to be smarter.

Donald Sterling appears to be a hard core racist, and this, appropriately, got him in trouble. Recently, Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson released an email he had written some time back, which discusses race related issues vis-a-vis the Hawks, and announced that he was bowing out of ownership from the team because of this racist email.

The media reaction to this has been fairly uniform, and includes an aspect that I think should be examined more closely. Bruce Levenson, and his statement, have been placed in the same category as Donald Sterling and his statements. But they should not be. Given the relatively high degree of personal and institutional racism found in professional sports in the US, one could argue that Levenson’s racism is mild. One could even go further and say that he indicates a disdain for racism, and this disdain is reflected in the offending email.

The reason this is important is that racism is important, and racism associated with a major American institution like sports is very important. A child who brings a switchblade to school is treated in the same way, by school regulations, as a child that brings a plastic knife to school to make it easier to eat his apple, in some districts, because both are seen as the same thing by an unthinking (or, worse, pre-thinking, let the rules do your thinking for you style thinking) policy. The equation of Levenson and Sterling is a similar phenomenon. The discussion about race and racism in America and in sports needs to be smarter than this.

To expand on this idea I’ve Fisked Levenson’s letter (leaving off the first part). My objective is to give Levenson something of a break in considering his written words, pointing out where he is actually being anti-racist. Having said that, it is true that the email is insufficiently critical of certain aspects of the Hawks’ situation, and makes some assumptions that are probably incorrect and essentially racist, by someone who is not a trained sociologist or anthropologist. But, it is just an internal memo expressing thoughts for consideration, so to some extent that can be understood.

I don’t want to say that Levenson should or should not own the Hawks. I do want to say, though, that equating and placing in the same narrow category Levenson and what he has said and done, and Sterling and what he has said and done dumbs down the conversation too much.

From: Bruce Levenson

To: Ferry, Danny
CC: Foreman, Todd (; Peskowitz, Ed (
Sent: 8/25/2012 11:47:02 PM
Subject: Re: Business/Game ops

…4. Regarding game ops, i need to start with some background. for the first couple of years we owned the team, i didn’t much focus on game ops. then one day a light bulb went off. when digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35–55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league….

This is not a racist statement per se. It is probably true that wealthier white males and traditional corporations (owned and operated mainly by wealthier white males) are the market for season tickets for major professional sports. This reflects many aspects of how our society works, and therein certainly lies racism. But pointing it out as the guy trying to sell the tickets is a simple observation.

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 hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games
– we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.

Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience.

Before we bought the hawks and for those couple years immediately after in an effort to make the arena look full (at the nba’s urging) thousands and thousands of tickets were being giving away, predominantly in the black community, adding to the overwhelming black audience.

These statements can be taken as observation, not a judgement. One might ask for verification or more information, but the author of these observations has not said here if this is a good or a bad thing intrinsically, but rather, is simply pointing it out as background. The equation of various observations with a race-based trope is potentially problematic. Also, this is a laundry list of things to blame for bad sales, and that is more than a little uncomfortable. But this is a memo about bad sales.

My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. 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.

There is simply no way to interpret this analysis as blatantly racist. It is quite the opposite. Levenson is pointing out that there seems to be racism among the fans, and that a threshold of sorts has been crossed making racist white male potential fans less likely to go to the arena.

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.

This is a very important statement. He is expressing disdain for racist attitudes about the venue.

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.

One could argue over what the best approach to handling the lack of high price ticket sales is, but if that is the goal, appealing to a white audience by including among some of the amenities and concurrent events more white is the same as appealing to any effort at diversity.

The problem with this is the intent to undue what appears to be an overwhelming interest by African Americans in this particular team and venu. Saying that these components of the experience is “too black” certainly seems racist, but it is also couched in terms of the goal of “increasing diversity” (in this case white male country western listening potential ticket buyers, which is not the sort of diversity we are usually concerned with). A better statement might have been to express an interest in maintaining what appears to be a very successful inclusion of the African American community which is apparently predominant at the location of the venue while at the same time encouraging others to engage. In other words, it looks like the idea is to “undo” a shift towards a strong African American fan base.

Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.

This is obviously a sensitive topic, but sadly i think it is far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low.

This is a potentially important statement because it reveals Levenson’s feelings about the situation. He acknowledges the racist nature of the situation and the discussion, and expresses a dislike for the apparent fact that “too many” black people scares away white people.

And many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income which explains why our f&b and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games sales were nearly triple what they are at hawks games (the extra intermission explains some of that but not all).

Regardless of what time a game starts, we have the latest arriving crowd in the league. It often looks and sounds empty when the team takes the floor.

In the past two years, we have created a section of rowdy college students that has been a big plus. And we do a lot of very clever stuff during time outs to entertain the crowd. Our kiss cam is better done than any in the league.

We have all the same halftime acts that other arenas have but i question whether they make sense. people are on their cell phones during half time. i wonder if flashing on the scoreboard “$2 off on hot dogs during halftime tonight” just as the half ends would be a better use of our halftime dollars and make the fans happier.

We do all the usual giveways and the fans are usually their loudest when our spirit crew takes the floor to give away t-shirts. It pisses me off that they will yell louder for a t-shirt then for our players.

These are all context-free observations about how the games are sold together with an observation about late arriving fans and cell phone use. These issues may be generally true across sports, or the league, when a team is not generating enough excitement.

Our player intro is flat. We manufacture a lot of noise but because of the late arriving crowd and the fact that a lot of blacks dont seem to go as crazy cheering (another one of my theories) as whites, it is not great. Even when we have just returned from winnng four straight on the road, i am one of the few people in the arena standing and cheering when our team takes the floor. Bob has kicked around ideas like having the starters coming down aisles rather than off the bench during intros. Sounds cool but may highlight all the empty seats at the start of games.

This is more about the nature of the games and lack of excitement, but embedded within it is a statement about “blacks” behavior at games … less crazy cheering than white people. I have no idea what to make of that. This may be mainly an unexamined bias in observation or attribution of a lack of enthusiasm because the team does not generate it to being explained as a “black” trait. One gets the feeling more focus should be placed on the team and its ability to generate enthusiasm.

Not enough of our fans wear hawks jerseys to games. i have just begun to push for ideas like discount food lines for folks wearing jerseys, special entrances, etc. I think we need a committed and perhaps incentivized fan club. We need to realize atl is simply different than every other city. Just adopting nba best practices is not enough. we have to create our own.

If this team, this city, has a local culture, it would be just like a lot of other urban sports venues. Only Wisconsinites wear cheese on their heads. Saint’s fans (NFL) seem to like to watch their team beat up the other team. And so on. It is not unreasonable to address the local culture no matter what it is or how it might arise, though obviously a more careful analysis would be preferred.

I am rambling and could probably go on forever. If you have any specific areas you would like my thoughts on, let me know.


ps – I have cc’d todd and ed so they can chime in with additional or different thoughts.

Sent from my iPad

In the end, Levenson decided that he was too much like Donald Sterling to own the team and gave up ownership. He stated “If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be. I’m angry at myself too."

That is a lot more than Donald Sterling ever did.

There is an entirely different perspective out there that has to do with Levenson's motivations vis-a-vis his career and business. I don't accept that as an alternative to the race-related narrative. Levenson's memo exists and is a discussion of race in relation to business, regardless of whether he fabricated it from thin air or really thought these thoughts. Nonetheless, the it's business viewpoint does have a ring of reality to it. So I'll end by quoting Mo Ivory who is one of the commenters who has suggested this, and who lives in Atlanta (though she is originally from New York and is not a Hawks fan):

So, like all other non-Atlanta natives living in Atlanta long term, when the Hawks play the New York Knicks, this native New Yorker whips out her Carmelo Anthony jersey and heads to Phillips Arena. The reason Bruce Levenson could not make the Hawks profitable is not because black people don't buy season tickets, or arrive at games late, or spend all their time at the bar, or black fathers don't bring black sons to the games. It's because the Hawks suck. They have no marquee players and they don't win games!

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Excellent observations. I have always felt that honest observation of racial issues, and some level of objective analysis of those issues, should not be automatically construed as racist in nature - and it seems to me that most of what you have repeated here by Mr. Levenson is precisely that - objective observation and analysis. It is sad, to me personally, that after 150 years of increasingly enlightened U.S. laws and (hopefully) attitudes about race that work to emphasize our important similarities as human beings rather than our irrelevant physical differences, we even still have to be discussing race - but when it is discussed honestly, objectively and without malice, we should keep cool heads and open minds and hearts. I think Mr. Levenson's comments, as repeated above, deserve this treatment.

By Bruce Jensen (not verified) on 08 Sep 2014 #permalink

Racism has become so complicated

we now use the word in so many ways and so automatically

consider just how much of a weasel word it has become - eg if you protest at the terrible fate of Palestinians you are an anti-Semite

it's now used in a parallel fashion to "terrorist" - its a label often used to isolate a minority by those who are actually guilty themselves of being the real terrorists or real racists

whatever criticism we make of others it should always be as thinking loving beings

not automatic shooting from the hip type reactions that we develop so that we can go through life happily believing these terms do not apply to us

when Israel wakes up and sees they are both terrorist and racist

when the US administration does likewise

when honesty trumps big bucks


ho hum


By The Peak Oil Poet (not verified) on 08 Sep 2014 #permalink

#4 and #5 - Mal, you may be surprised to find that I agree with you, and am not going to say what you perhaps thought I would say.

No, I do not think what Levenson implies is progress. I was commenting only on the repeated phrases shown in the blog.

I do not think that if a white person avoids a football game because he does not enjoy the half time music, that equates to racism. If I were a football fan, and they played nothing but country music or acid rock at half time, which I find execrable generally, I might not go either. Having said that, if I actually enjoyed football, I'd watch anybody play as long as they're decent.

I do think that there *may be* a deeply entrenched racism in America among the whites, bubbling just under the surface. It may not be overt in many cases, but may be a simple vague mistrust. I wish that it is not so.

On the flip side, I wish more people of color would come to national parks and etc. Nature is racially blind, and the beauty of mountains and rivers and forests knows no cultural boundaries. Only in recent years do I even see a trickle of African-Americans coming to the parks and wilderness areas, and I wish it could be a far greater percentage - everybody needs this beauty, I believe, to have the proper perspective. I do see multitudes of people from other nations - but so few Black Americans. It is depressing. Parks are found everywhere, and are not especially expensive, so cost is not always the reason why they do not come to the parks. There could be many reasons, but I wonder if one of them could be a perception that a park is a White Man's legacy...again, I wish it is not so.

I do not lament the lack of white history month. In school, that is the GREAT majority of what we learn, and there is no need to pound it home with a "boo hoo" holiday (holimonth?) of white people feeling sorry for themselves.

By Bruce Jensen (not verified) on 09 Sep 2014 #permalink

In reply to by The Peak Oil Poet (not verified)

#1 Levenson's "objective observation and analysis" is based strictly on supposition, not data or even well thought out hypotheses. He doesn't even consider the possibility that Georgia has always been football country and that the Hawks as a rule are simply not that good of a team. Instead he attributes his attendance (both quantity and quality apparently) problems to white people being afraid of black people (evidence?), white people not finding black cheerleaders appealing (evidence?) and white people not wanting to see so many black people express affection towards each on camera (evidence?) The solution of course is to take measures to discourage black attendance at Hawk games, fire some cheerleaders due to their race and replace them with white women and show more white people kissing on camera because after all they have lips too.

#1, do you call this progress?

But at least I can say, no he is not Donald Sterling.

By mal duroque (not verified) on 08 Sep 2014 #permalink

Let me add, that if Levenson is indeed correct it is a sweeping indictment of white people and their entrenched racism (this is america). Oh, and before you say what you're going to say, let me mention that there is a vast difference between a minority culture lamenting a lack of representation and the majority culture doing the same. The same as the person who observes black history month ans latin history month and laments the lack of white history month not realizing that there is one. It starts on January 1 and ends on December 31.

By mal duroque (not verified) on 08 Sep 2014 #permalink

mal: all good points.

Maybe there should be a white history month. It would be instructive, but perhaps a bit uncomfortable!

I didn't think this rose to the Sterling level of racism at all.
There may be one "racist" assumption, that white fans would spend more money than black fans. I don't think this is unreasonable if you look at national data.
However it makes use feel uncomfortable. The Hawks want to get a higher income fan, which means attracting more white fans. Is this unreasonable? Is it racist per se or just a fact of life?
I have more questions than answers.

he's not so much racist as defeatist

he could not ramp up the teams income

so he found the easiest logical explanation

the best way out might have been to grow the surrounding economy so that blacks filled the same demograph that rich whites fill

but that wasn't his job

you can't really call him racist - you can only respect him for being big enough to resign for not knowing how to tackle a problem bigger than the team


By The Peak Oil Poet (not verified) on 10 Sep 2014 #permalink

In reply to by Phil (not verified)

"the best way out might have been to grow the surrounding economy so that blacks filled the same demograph that rich whites fill"

Exactly, and it sort of is his job as it is the job of community leaders and such. Not a job for one person, but for an association of business owners and other stakeholders. Such things almost certainly exist in the neighborhood already.

yeh but then he would have had to negotiate with all the leaders of the black community

maybe he was just not up to such a challenge

i'd have no idea how to approach it other than suggest a black guy take over the job

but then maybe all the black community leaders were begging for a white dude to come in and tell them how to grow their economy


and a bunch of red-neck gun-toten sheriffs to back him up

ho hum


Koan for the day:

What is the difference between making a statement that is racial in nature, vs making a statement that is racist in nature?

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 10 Sep 2014 #permalink

the racist is the one that can't tell the difference?

as i say above - "racist" is now a weasel word - doublespeak in many mouths

it's so slippery most people are afraid to go anywhere near it other than to use it like a cudgel when they think it appropriate or useful or it slips out when they are angry

Zionists, who's nation is apartheid, and very many Jews call anyone who sides with Palestine an anti-Semite - the worst of the racists

if that's not the world turned upside down

what is?


By The Peak Oil Poet (not verified) on 10 Sep 2014 #permalink

In reply to by Brainstorms (not verified)