Just How Racist Is Bruce Levenson?

Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson will sell his interest in the team, following the release of a racist email he sent in August 2012.

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Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson will sell his interest in the team, following the release of a racist email he sent in August 2012.

Levenson, who had been the team's governor and controlling owner since 2004, had self-reported the email sent to Hawks President Danny Ferry to the NBA in July. In it, Levenson wrote the Hawks' fan base was too African-American, stating that "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base." (You can read the full email here.)

The former owner already apologized for his email in a Hawks news release Sunday morning announcing his departure:

I wrote an email two years ago that was inappropriate and offensive. I trivialized our fans by making cliched assumptions about their interests (i.e., hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e., that white fans might be afraid of our black fans). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans."

Despite Levenson's apology and swift decision to leave the Hawks, many have questioned whether his email was actually racist. Some publications have called it "racially offensive," or "racially insensitive," or "racially charged," leading to an odd situation where thought leaders appear to debate racism on a scale of 1 to 10. It's a case reminiscent of the sale of the LA Clippers, when the team's former owner Donald Sterling was found to have made racist comments and was banned from the league. The difference? Levenson reported his email himself.

But that's exactly why many are speculating his motives.

Chris Mannix, writing for Sports Illustrated, questioned the league's handling of the revelation and whether Levenson released the email so he could make a clean exit, knowing it could be found one day:

But what if Levenson didn't want to sell? Should the NBA have the right to force him to? Should anyone?

Levenson isn't Donal Sterling. Sterling, the recently deposed Clippers owner, had a documented history of racist, discriminatory behavior well before his rant to a former mistress. Levenson has none. But make no mistake, Levenson's fate is directly connected to Sterling. [...]

Banishing Sterling was the right thing to do, but the NBA opened Pandora's Box when it did. One comment, one email, one statement never meant to become public can have catastrophic results. Levenson had an ugly skeleton buried in his closet, a skeleton he had to know would eventually emerge. Across the league, other NBA owners must be asking themselves the same question: Do I?

But the larger issue, Nancy Armour of USA Today wrote, is that Levenson was clearly as "vile" as Sterling in his comments, and that racism has prevailed in the NBA:

Levenson's email to his co-owners and general manager blaming blacks for the Hawks' low number of season ticket holders may not have had the blatant vitriol of Donald Sterlin's racist comments as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. But make no mistake: His views were just as hateful, ignorant and damaging — maybe even more so because they were couched as being somehow well-intentioned.

Former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabar disagreed in an op-ed for Time. Abdul-Jabar wrote that Levenson was not a racist, and that "there are assumptions he makes that are cringe-worthy—but the questions about how to attract more white fans were entirely reasonable."

I read Levenson's email. Here's what I concluded: Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats. [...] If his arena was filled mostly with white and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn't he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias toward white contestants and cheerleaders? Don't you think every corporation in America that is trying to attract a more diverse customer base is discussing how to feature more blacks or Asians or Latinos in their TV ads?

Robert Silverman of The Daily Beast echoed the sentiment, while also berating Levenson for airing his concerns over email:

Levenson's strategy is probably one that's been espoused by many other pro sports executives—though they're probably wise enough not to say it via email—specifically in NBA front offices. Throughout the league's history, it's made efforts to court or make the game more palatable to white fans, including the infamous dress code that was installed in 2005, which was intended to curb the perception that it was becoming 'too black,' or 'thuggish,' under the racist assumption that hip-hop and crime go hand in hand."

But in an op-ed for The New York Times, William C. Rhoden brought the conversation back to the NBA's long history of difficult relations. Levenson's email, racist or not, was simply one more uncomfortable story that the NBA must handle and work to prevent:

I'm curious to hear how Ferry responded to Levenson's email. Did he agree? Disagree? Was Levenson chastised within the organization when he made the remarks, for sending something so potentially explosive? Was there general agreement among the recipients of the email that the content was O.K., or did they simply decide not to voice their thoughts in writing?

Because the email was so open and earnest, it is likely that Levenson believed he was not being racist but was simply addressing a problem that seemed obvious to him.

"Racism in the United States is as virulent as ever," he concluded, no matter what the NBA decides to do in light of its two high-profile cases this year.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.