Nelly seems to be welcome at Hawks games.

Kareem Is Wrong on Hawks Owner's Racism

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has shown us that the idea of a post-Donald Sterling NBA is about as fictitious as a post-racial America.

Levenson says he will sell his controlling interest in the team after "self-reporting" an e-mail he wrote in 2012 in which he made several offensive statements about the black fans who make up the majority of the crowd at his team's home games. According to ESPN, the e-mail emerged during a three-month investigation after general manager Danny Ferry read aloud a report that included a racist reference to free agent Luol Deng.

The entire e-mail is worth a read, with Levenson spouting race-based theories on why the Hawks have trouble drawing white season-ticket holders. An excerpt (typos are Levenson's):

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. 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.

That last part has caused many to characterize the e-mail as a pragmatic business assessment, not racist in itself but rather reflecting the racist climate around the Hawks' fan base. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has written so eloquently about the Sterling case, said Levenson's worst crime is "misguided white guilt." "Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats," Abdul-Jabbar writes. "Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business. They should even be able to make minor insensitive gaffs if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent. This is a business e-mail that is pretty harmless in terms of insulting anyone -- and pretty fascinating in terms of seeing how the business of running a team really works."

The dilemma in this more benign characterization is summed up by Abdul-Jabbar himself: It shows you not just how a team is run, but also how the league is run as a whole, and has been for decades.

Abdul-Jabbar states that Levenson isn't valuing white fans over black fans -- he's just trying to get any fans to buy tickets. But this ignores the current demographics of the NBA's fan base, as well as the league's history of attempting to tailor its image to appeal to white fans, instituting dress codes and discouraging "thuggish" behavior. It's a practice rooted in respectability politics that continues to this day. It's especially odd for Abdul-Jabbar to overlook this, given how vocal he's been on the racial issues he faced when he began his career with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Furthermore, Levenson specifically compares the Hawks' black fan base with the mostly white attendance at Atlanta Thrashers games, positing that the reason the hockey team does so well in merchandise sales is because blacks don't have the same level of disposable income. This theory isn't baseless and actually has league-wide implications: According to Nielsen, the NBA has the most diverse audience in sports, with a fan base that's 45 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic. Conversely, the NHL has the least diverse audience, at 92 percent white. And to Levenson's point, hockey fans are overwhelming the most affluent sports fans, with 33 percent pulling in six-figure incomes.

As I've written before, the NHL's wealthy demographics give the league little incentive to diversify its audience. At the same time, contrasting hockey and basketball fans gives NBA owners impetus to make the game more palatable to rich, and by extension white, fans. The problem is even more stark in Atlanta, a city that's 54 percent black and suffers from the highest level of income inequality in the nation.

Donald Sterling further exposed the plantation mentality on which the league is based, and his ouster certainly didn't signal the end of racism in the game. If anything, Levenson's e-mail is worse than Sterling's comments, if not more overt, because they allude to specific business practices designed to discourage black fans from attending, insinuating that fewer black cheerleaders or less hip-hop and gospel music would create a more comfortable environment for southern whites.

I'm loath to lend credence to the idea that it's OK to hide behind good business practices when it comes to discrimination. The Atlanta Braves are guilty of this, attempting to justify their stadium's impending move from the city to Cobb County by releasing maps and statistics that show the majority of their season-ticket base to be suburban whites.

Just like the Braves' move, any attempt to discourage black fans from attending NBA games is incredibly short-sighted, and completely ignores important population shifts. Newly released Census data reveal that the nation's urban and metropolitan areas are far outpacing our suburbs in growth. Atlanta was the seventh-fastest growing city from 2012 to 2013. And in addition to being the most diverse, the NBA's fan base is also the youngest, with 32 percent belonging to the coveted 18-to-34 age group, and 13 percent 17 years or younger.

Instead of trying to change the landscape of basketball fandom, NBA owners would do better to embrace the way their teams and cities are changing. ESPN's J.A. Adande suggests that encouraging black ownership in the league is the only way to bridge the racial gaps between owners, players and fans. While I support the goal of increasing diversity at the executive level, it would behoove all owners to change their ways. Rather than paying lip service to the jobs created by arenas, they should actually invest in their communities, encouraging attendance among the young and diverse local audience, and support educational and job training programs that can help its poorer fans of today become its more affluent fans of tomorrow.

Now, that's what I call smart business.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net