It is so easy to find a headline-grabbing sentence out of a full paragraph. So easy! So easy to destroy somebody’s career by ignoring the context of what he or she said. We pull a word here or a line there to make an average Jose sound like a bumbling idiot – or worse – a racist!
Never mind that what they are saying may be valuable or worthy of serious discussion. Never mind. In fact, we don’t even have to read or listen to their entire spiel. That’s way too much work. Why not just go for the “gotcha?”
What Levenson was doing in his email was sharing an open and honest opinion. It should be the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one.
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson is not a racist, yet he’s being portrayed as one by lazy reporters and headline writers who seem to believe that a “good” story for them today offsets a lifetime of pain and reputation repair for the person they write about.
Unlike Ray Rice’s infamous punch to his wife’s jaw, for which there is no justification, Levenson’s treatment by the media seems well ... unjustified. His own words belie the description of him splattered across headlines around the country in bold font with the word “racist” next to his name. Really, have we come to that? Are we that lazy that we can’t examine the full context of his words? Here’s what he says in his own controversial inter-office email (this is the one that got him in trouble), on the issue of racism:
“On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips (Arena), yet in our 9 years, I don't know of a mugging or even a pickpocket 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'.”
Levenson’s hope is to attract more white anglos to the Hawks basketball games. His is, pure and simple, a business goal to achieve a larger and more diverse audience. If his email had said we’d like to attract more Hispanics by playing Pitbull or Enrique Iglesias songs – or if he’d said we need to play more hip-hop music to attract an urban audience – I doubt he’d be criticized as fiercely, if at all. In fact, there’s a good chance he’d be praised for encouraging diversity.
So why is he being punished for wanting to grow a certain demographic audience that happens to be white? Here’s what he wrote that some find offensive:
“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 (year-old) 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 percent black, the cheerleaders are black, the music is hip- hop, at the bars it's 90 percent 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 percent black audience.”
Taking out the reference to a lack of fathers and sons, which is in and of itself a hotly debated topic among African Americans, what Levonson points out in his email is observable and documented data. To make the point even more comprehensively, let’s change out a few of his words. Suppose instead of “black,” he’d written “white.”
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 (year-old) black 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 percent white, the cheerleaders are white, the music is country, at the bars it's 90 percent white.
Change the words and ask yourself if the headlines would have read the same, like this one in USA Today: “Bruce Levenson Will Sell Atlanta Hawks After Releasing Racist Email.” Would it have been racist to want to increase the African-American attendance?
Here’s how one of America’s most thoughtful African-American Sports Writers and former athletes answers the question:
“I read Levenson’s email, writes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “Here’s what I concluded: Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats.”
Jabbar is not afraid to say what too many of us won’t. He attributes the attack on Levonson to “white guilt” and fear. What do we fear? Is it what others will say about us? Is it what we’ll learn if we have a real open and honest conversation about race? Do we fear our own deep-seated ignorance or even bigotry?
Uncomfortable truths are a funny thing. By failing to look them in the eye, we hurt not just ourselves, but those we attempt to inform. What Levenson was doing in his email was sharing an open and honest opinion. It should be the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one.
Unfortunately, we may never be able to have that conversation in this country, because there’s always someone waiting in the wings to use a bludgeoning tool instead of a compassionate and understanding heart.
You want to know what’s wrong with pre- and post- Ferguson, Missouri race relations in America? Look in the mirror, because until all of us see race as a wonderfully complex topic worthy of a full contextual discussion and not a "gotcha" moment, we’ll all be resigned to reliving Ferguson, Missouri.