Atlanta Agonistes

I will try to elaborate on some of this later, but I wanted to mention the email that has led Bruce Levenson to decide to sell his share of the Atlanta Hawks.

The email and reactions to it illustrate some of the fundamental problems we have as a society (I hate that phrase, but…) talking about race. No, the email is not in the same category as Sterling’s bizarre and addled rant earlier this year. Or like the overtly racist comments that Danny Ferry passed along in evaluating Luol Deng.

Neither are Levenson’s comments *only* reflective of a businessman trying to “do his job,” as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jason Whitlock argued (the opening discussion in Whitlock’s piece, about how he tried to cultivate a multi-racial audience for his radio show in Kansas City is interesting and worth reading). Levenson’s email is all over the place. At times he is obviously frustrated with the assumptions he assumes southern whites are making about Blacks and how those assumptions – “racist garbage,” he calls it – are affecting attendance.

At other times, Levenson himself seems to be articulating his own assumptions about how the “blackness” of Hawks games, from the the dancers to the kiss cam, might be bad for business.  When he trumpets the fact that the audience at games has declined from 70% to 40% African American, there is no effort to analyze how that does or doesn’t affect the bottom line. It’s seems to be a given that it’s a step in the positive direction. The claim about the lack of fathers and sons also betrays certain biases.

Our discussions of race tend to be black and white. Either you’re a “racist,” or you’re being unfairly smeared as one. This binary is unproductive, obscures the deeper harms that racism inflicts and prevents us from achieving real insight about the role of race in American life. The Sterling episode was, in that regard, something of an unfortunate distraction.

Levenson’s email was, in part, an (unintended) lament about the lack of economic power of African Americans, and why that fact was bad for the business that is the Atlanta Hawks, given the city’s demographics. It also reflected the thinking of a guy who sees African Americans as constituting, in part (and I repeat, “in part”) a kind of alien culture in our midst. And that, too, Levenson suggested, was bad for business. There is no way to fully disentangle the intersection between American capitalism and race. Levenson’s trying to do so, clumsily. That doesn’t make him a villain, and his perspective, in its many dimensions is, one can assume, widely shared among sports owners.

Whether or not that makes Levenson a “racist” is less important than what it means for African Americans living in the United States.

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