Bruce Levenson should check his demographics. Levenson is the owner of the Atlanta Spirit, an investment group that owns stakes in various professional sports franchises in Georgia, including the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. He also happens to be in hot water, embroiled in controversy, and all the other cliched idioms used to describe the effects of private stupidity gone public.
You see, Levenson's business is in Atlanta, a predominantly black city. With a higher number of affluent black families than almost anywhere else in the country, African-Americans represent 54 percent of Atlanta's population, and they're more civically and commercially influential there than in any other U.S. city. Plus, the basketball team Levenson owns plays in a league where four of five players are black.
In a recently leaked e-mail, Levenson lamented the "overwhelming black audience" at Hawks games, saying it is harder to sell season tickets to a black customer base because "black fans don't have the spendable income" for these pricier packages. Levenson also griped that there were "few fathers and sons at the games." He astonishingly theorizes that white folks are frightened off at the site of black people at a basketball game played mostly by black players.
From Levenson's email:
then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
— it's 70 pct black
— the cheerleaders are black
— the music is hip hop
— at the bars it's 90 pct 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 pct black audience.
Some context: Atlanta is a horrible sports town. Fans show up late, they rarely support their teams except during playoff races, and attendance ranges from mediocre (the football Falcons) to outright putrid (the Hawks were third to last in 2013-2014). Aside from the weak fandom, as we've established, Atlanta is mostly black. Those who do show up are going to look a lot like the city's demographics, as they have for decades. It's surprising that Levenson didn't understand either of these important market drivers before buying the Hawks in 2004. Season ticket sales were going to be elusive, as they've always been.
The common thread with Levenson, whose comments were defended as business-minded by no less than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and former-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's Disney villainesque, unrepentant bigotry, is in its power. This isn't ignorance being flamed about by a broke redneck tweeting slurs from the obscurity of his doublewide. These are very rich men with controls over the communities they live in; men who wield the power to dictate outcomes. Outcomes, for instance, that result in substandard living conditions for minorities, as was the case of Sterling the slumlord, who made exploiting mostly minority populations. Or, in the case of Levenson, who is perfectly happy to sell black athletic performance as entertainment but strategizes to limit the black consumer from enjoying his product because he doesn't think they can afford the premium offerings.
When you dismiss Levenson's dollar status scale, reproduced above in its likely entirety, as mere business strategy, it becomes harder to criticize the implications of the strategy. But that doesn't change what it is: a soft prejudice that results in real disadvantages for real people that, if not for a boneheaded e-mail, probably would not have become visible.
Racism is often not immediately apparent. Like banks and groceries stores focusing their giveaways and marketing efforts in affluent communities, the quiet prejudice of unspoken business strategies, like its redlining forebearers, corrodes without making a sound. These days, if you're entrusted with a position of power, you can be loud, and you can be stupid, but you can't be both. Not without the world finding out.