Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is emerging as one of the most perceptive social critics. I have already linked to his thoughtful pieces on the 2014 Academy Award nominees for best film (I happened to agree with his choice but it did not win) and his reflections on the Ferguson shooting which he said was more than about race and was part of a broader class war.
He has now weighed in with another piece where he defends Bruce Levenson, the owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, who has been pilloried in the press for an email that he had sent out, as if he had atrocious views on race similar to those of Donald Sterling, the former owner of the LA Clippers.
Abdul-Jabbar says that he read the email and what he sees were legitimate concerns by a businessman about how to increase attendance at the games and that he is the victim of a media feeding frenzy whose appetite had been whether by other recent racist news and were looking for the next victim to tear to shreds.
I read Levenson’s email. Here’s what I concluded: Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats. In the email, addressed to Hawks president Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations) the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music and the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90% blacks, kiss cams focus on black fans and time-out contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans.
Seems reasonable to ask those questions. If his arena was filled mostly with whites 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?
Businesspeople 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 gaffes if there is no obvious animosity or racist intent. This is a business email 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.
If the seats had been filled, even if by all blacks, the email wouldn’t have been written. He wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks; he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets. That’s his job.
Race is a hugely touchy subject in America in which the people and the media swing wildly between avoiding the subject altpgether to screaming outrage. What rarely happens is a thoughtful discussion that is respectful of the actual facts and picks its way carefully through the topic. Abdul-Jabbar is one of the few people who seems to be able to do it.