Hawks show race needn’t be our downfall

Sometimes it seems like race has to figure into every story around here.

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial? It escaped few people’s notice that all the defendants were black. (So were the district attorney and most of the cheated students, but that often got lost.) There might be an expansion of mass transit? Better think about what part of town — if you know what I mean — is getting it. Spending more state dollars on transportation infrastructure? We gotta talk about whether minority contractors get enough business.

These issues tend to be, from the perspective of someone born more than a decade after the height of the civil rights movement, more contentious than necessary. Even, or maybe especially, in the South, my cohort grew up having the virtues of color-blindness extolled — only to be blindsided by the constant color-consciousness of the adult world.

So it’s heartening to see a happier ending to one of our uglier racially charged episodes of recent vintage.

It was just seven months ago that an explosive story broke about race and the Atlanta Hawks. The general manager, Danny Ferry, remains suspended for making racially offensive comments about a free agent player. The team’s majority shareholder, Bruce Levenson, speculated about “Southern whites” staying away from the team’s games because the arena experience was “too black.”

Well, tonight Philips Arena will be packed for the Hawks’ playoff opener, as it has been for the better part of this season. The Hawks have seen an NBA-leading 21 percent increase in attendance this year, even beating out Cleveland upon the return of LeBron James.

Isn’t it amazing what winning 75 percent of your games and topping the conference, as opposed to 46 percent on the way to an eighth-place finish, will do for your business, Mr. Levenson?

Fans, white or black or otherwise, weren’t staying away before because of who they might end up sitting next to, or what kind of music they might hear over the arena’s speakers. They were staying away because the team wasn’t worth watching, much less paying to watch.

And now? Fans, white or black or otherwise, are showing up because the Hawks play the best brand of basketball this city has seen in almost three decades.

OK, good for the Hawks. And good, if perversely, for Levenson and his co-owners who stand to profit handsomely from the team’s resurgence whenever its sale — brought on by that ugly racial episode of last summer — is completed. What does it mean for the rest of us?

Don’t get me wrong: I know not everything’s fine when it comes to racial relations. There are plenty of stories that don’t need over-hyping to prove that’s true. But maybe the Hawks’ story shows we’re too quick to retreat to our racial corners when things don’t go well.

Maybe, for example, the APS teachers weren’t prosecuted because they were black. Maybe it was because they orchestrated egregious cheating.

And maybe, too, white Atlantans are too quick to dismiss any complaint involving race as just “playing the race card.” Maybe there are more instances than we’d like to admit where it’s a legitimate problem.

This much, however, is definite: It doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t take a franchise-best season from a basketball team to show us that.