Bruce Levenson and His Fellow Oppressors

Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson watches from his courtside seat in the second half of their NBA basketball game against
Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson watches from his courtside seat in the second half of their NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 101-99 in overtime. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

Atlanta Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson has announced he will sell the team after self-reporting a racially charged email sent in 2012. The email, distributed to Hawks general manger Danny Ferry and two other members of the team's ownership group, outlined Levenson's observations on the team's inability to attract white fans and corporations. The racially charged contents of the correspondence have re-ignited the conversation on race and the National Basketball Association post Donald Sterling's recent gaffe. Levenson's email, however, is an example of the much bigger, lesser talked about implications of systemic racism in America.

Every business or corporation must hold discussions on demographics and marketing strategies as it pertains to the bottom line. The problem with Bruce Levenson's email wasn't his (attempted) brainstorming on ways in which to broaden the team's outreach and diversify its fan base. Levenson's shortcomings were in his failure to denounce stereotypes and (in his own words) to "challenge... not to validate or accommodate those who might hold" biases and preconceptions when it comes to race. When reading the full text of Levenson's email, we see several missed opportunities:

Levenson missed the opportunity to make sure his players felt supported in their community. The Atlanta Hawks are a predominately African American team and their home arena sits in the predominately African American city of Atlanta. Love it or hate it, that's what it is. With the understanding that every Atlanta Hawks player is most likely considered a success in their respective communities, it is deplorable to imply the support of fellow African Americans would be viewed as problematic -- or that their overwhelming presence was "scary" to whites. Bruce Levenson had an obligation to advocate for his players, for their friends and families, and to make sure his team remained supported in their city. His follow up actions (detailed to fellow executives in his email) and attempt to resolve the perceived issue not only sent the overarching message that "white fans are more valuable than ... black ones", Levenson sent a message to his team: you may be good enough to make the NBA millions and perform at the highest level of professional sport in the world, but your kind aren't good enough to witness your athleticism or delight in your talents. This flawed ideology cuts deep for African Americans and harkens back to the exploitative Cotton Club era when black entertainers were commissioned to perform for a white-only clientele.

Levenson missed the opportunity to denounce racism. While the email only stated his "observations," and because he never made mention of personally hearing the account of any "white southerner" who was uncomfortable being in the company of blacks (though he implied much of the language he did hear was "code"), Bruce Levenson enforces what he claims to be against; racist garbage. By taking action based upon his alleged light-bulb moment of insight as to what white people may be feeling -- and through his willingness to make changes in effort to accommodate that feeling of white discomfort -- Levenson effectively made himself an enforcer and mouthpiece for racists:

"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 tickets 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."

Desmond Tutu's famed quote, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor" can't even be applied to Bruce Levenson. He was far from neutral to a blatant injustice, and through his actions, he became the oppressor.

Levenson missed the opportunity to advocate for inclusivity instead of divisiveness. In order to build a strong and sustainable business, one must think outside of the box. In his email, Levenson stated, "35-55 white males and corporations" are "the primary demo for season tickets around the (N.B.A.) league." The time for the NBA to restructure their outreach methodology is overdue, and Bruce Levenson could have been the catalyst for big change. White men, ages 35-55 aren't the only people in the country with disposable income. That is a ridiculous falsity and easily disproven through very basic research. Now more than ever, the NBA needs to be more creative in their marketing strategies and work harder to include not only women, but every demographic. Sport should unite, not divide. If Levenson believed the merchandise sales at Hawks games were low because "black fans don't have the spendable income," he should have encouraged the NBA to decrease the cost of their already overpriced merchandise/sought out talented designers capable of creating merchandise that every Hawks fan would want to wear on their backs. That would have been innovative.

Law Professor Vernellia Randall, one of the nation's most distinguished legal scholars and analysts on issues involving race and health care, explains the difference between overt and covert racism:

Racism...takes three closely related forms: individual, institutional, and systemic. Individual racism consists of overt acts by individuals that cause death, injury, destruction of property, or denial of services or opportunity. Institutional racism is more subtle but no less destructive... (it) involves polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities' access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. Systemic racism is the basis of individual and institutional racism; it is the value system that is embedded in a society that supports and allows discrimination.

When we witness lack of inclusivity -- from our schools to our corporations, from the advertising industry to Hollywood -- Levenson's email is the example of how it is allowed to happen. Be it overt or covert, racism is allowed to exist when people in positions of power enforce and condone its existence. This teachable moment serves as a reminder: if you're not a part of the solution, you're part of the problem. In addition, Bruce Levenson's correspondence with top brass officials gives rare insight into conversations the general public typically is not privy, conversations usually held behind closed doors, in every Fortune 500 boardroom and institution in America. The outcome of these conversations -- and the actions of individuals like Bruce Levenson -- is what largely determines opportunity, upward mobility, inclusivity and justice for people of color in this country. That is scary.