Watching like a Hawk

This month’s misadventures point toward the need for an Atlanta-style resolution to race-related issues within the Hawks’ ownership and management. This region can set an example for the nation.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

The rolling thunderstorm over the unveiled racial sentiments expressed within the Atlanta Hawks’ ownership and management ranks provides an opportunity to break the national stalemate over discussing race.

The blowback against the Hawks over an email and a meeting conversation are but one recent event proving that we aren’t yet at the promised land foreseen by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve come an admirably long way. But the reality that there are still two increasingly hardened, broadly divergent views on whether we’ve already crossed the finish line proves there’s work left to do. Cries of “race-baiting” on one side or “racist” on the other don’t alter that simple fact.

Which means America — and Atlanta — need a more-effective methodology to again begin to move the ball further on matters of race. So Atlantans should set to work. This city’s civic, political and business leaders long ago proved they could begin tough conversations around race and convert talk over time into tangible results for all involved. We need to do that again.

As with many hard tasks, starting may be the hardest step. Whites and blacks are each largely uncomfortable broaching the topic with the necessary level of honest, back-and-forth communication. Opening up oneself can lead to hurt feelings or misunderstandings at best — and open hostility or repercussions in workplace or social settings at worst. We have to somehow get beyond merely hollering at each other.

In the matter of the Hawks, that means dealing with a general manager who made derogatory accounts about the African heritage of a playing prospect, as well as co-owner Bruce Levenson who bemoaned in a long email a dearth of whites and oversupply of blacks filling the seats at Philips Arena.

What was racist, and what was just business? Those are the multimillion-dollar questions.

Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry’s, well, racist comments comparing a player of African descent to a duplicitous bazaar owner have been rightly condemned. The Hawks were correct to grant Ferry an indefinite leave. They likely face little choice other than to make that absence permanent at some point.

And co-owner Levenson fell under intense criticism this month for his 2012 email to Ferry that included gems like this : “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. Please don’t get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena back then. I never felt uncomfortable, but I think Southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority.”

Many saw only racism here. It’s apparent to us that, however impolitic Levenson’s typed sentiments were, he was focused on the age-old business tasks of demographics and marketing. No company succeeds without knowing who their customers are — and are not. All firms likewise work hard to woo their target audience. As Levenson inartfully wrote, race and income are often part of that mix.

Is that racist — or classist — on its face? We’d suggest the answer is more nuanced than some critics believe.

Levenson’s thoughts, in our view, show he didn’t understand our town. His email should have insulted Southern whites as much as blacks. Levenson may honestly be oblivious to why the phrase “Soul Food” is a rarity here, but a commonly used term up North. That’s because you’re equally likely to see Southern whites or African-Americans sitting down to a Sunday supper of fried chicken, candied sweet potatoes and collards. That isn’t often the case above the Mason-Dixon line.

That cross-cultural similarity, and others, defies his implication that blacks and whites here don’t interact much, or understand each other.

Levenson’s comment about the dearth of affluent blacks in Atlanta also shows an ignorance of this city that’s been a bedrock of black capitalism for 150 years.

Levenson was smart enough to write that “We need to realize that atl is simply different than every other city. Just adopting NBA best practices is not enough. We have to create our own.”

He got that part right. Now it’s up to the Hawks to build a leadership structure that puts them in position to capitalize on our town’s uniqueness. It’s up to the rest of Atlanta to demand — and then help them do — just that.

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