Racist Comments from NBA Owners are Awful, but so are Racist Institutions

Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson recently announced that he would sell the controlling interest of his NBA franchise due to a self-reported email containing racist comments. Levenson’s email is racist and pejorative ipso facto, and has been justly characterized as such — but it also reveals a phenomenon that many white Americans refuse to confront: structural white supremacy.

In the July 2012 email, the eight-year-owner complains about the Hawks’ predominantly black fan base, arguing: “the blacks [have] scared away the whites.” To correct this “problem,” he suggests the Hawks’ administration make the stadium atmosphere and culture more “white.”

Levenson’s comments bring to memory the infamous saga of Donald Sterling, ex-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was recorded expressing racist sentiments in April, and, as a result, was banned from the NBA and forced to sell his team. The ban, while righteous, granted Sterling leverage to sell the team — which had an estimated worth of $575 million — for $2 billion. Sterling, in effect, profited from racism.

In light of Sterling’s monetary gain, many have raised questions about Levenson’s motivesmost namely, whether or not he self-reported in order to garner similar leverage to sell the Hawks at a relatively higher price. If this is the case, it is indeed disgraceful. However, as indicated below, Levenson and Sterling are only the tip-of-the-iceberg when it comes to financially benefiting from white supremacy.

Levenson’s racist comments and potential monetary gain have generated media uproars and have been met with public outrage, and rightfully so. However, the same level of attention and scrutiny — especially from white people — is absent in regards to structural racism.

Though Levenson’s comments are his and his alone, they aren’t as far removed from systemic racism as one might think. In his email, Levenson laments of the low purchasing power of black fans, and insinuates that white fans are thus more valuable, writing:

“Many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income, which explains why our [food and beverage] and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games, sales were nearly triple what they are at Hawks games.”

In this context, these comments are indeed pejorative, but, unfortunately, not necessarily erroneous.

Coincidentally, the day after Levenson announced he would sell, Demos, a public policy think-tank, using the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances report to calculate the distribution of wealth, found that the median white family has a net worth of $134,000, while the median Latino family and the median black family have $14,000 and $11,000 net worths, respectively.

The report also shows that white families hold 90 percent of the country’s wealth, whereas black families have 2.6 percent, and Latinos 2.3 percent.

Like Levenson’s comments, these figures are worthy of great attention — but, alas, they have yet to find their way to Yahoo’s front page; they have yet to trend on Twitter; they have, in short, yet to penetrate our national discourse.

As a white guy, I have never felt the powerful and inhumane oppression of either structural or interpersonal racism, and thus, I have no way of understanding which one is worse. In fact, I have unfortunately benefited from both in many ways. Therefore, I can’t argue that the racialized wealth gap is more important than Levenson’s comments; or, vice versa.

It is, however, worth contending that white people shouldn’t be exclusively showing outrage over Levenson’s statements, but also extolling disgust over systemic racism — disgust over the racialized wealth gap, the racialized incarceration gap, racialized policing, and the continued existence of segregation.

These systemic injustices warrant outrage: outrage that should be used to inform, construct, and implement public policy that makes our society more equitable and just. Just as quickly as the NBA discards racist owners, we should eradicate structural white supremacy.

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