The blatant bigotry of The Economist and Atlanta Hawks’ Bruce Levenson are just the latest examples of Malcolm X’s declaration about the place of Black people in American society.
Last week, The Economist’s controversial review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism sparked intense outrage due to the clear racism dripping from every word.
The unnamed writer, who probably had “Dixie” playing softly in the background as he typed, took umbrage at Baptist’s assertion that the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was the bloody foundation of capitalism in the United States. Instead, he opines, we should look at the bright side: “Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton.”
It gets worse.
Due to this vested interest in the “supply” of prime African property, according to the Economist, surely plantation owners treated them better than those cheap Irish peasants and Baptist should be ashamed of himself for crafting such a biased portrayal of the peculiar institution: “Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment … Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”
The hypothetical speculation that less violence against enslaved Africans equaled “better treatment” and, subsequently, higher productivity, is not only vile and asinine, it is a study in White privilege and systemic racism—and that is never “objective.” Rather, it is advocating for the reframing of slavery as something that can be accurately measured by mere dollars and cents.
Once The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized the review on Twitter, the outrage spread like wildfire. That fire was further flamed when The Economist issued a half-hearted apology claiming that they had withdrawn the review, when, in fact, they simply edited the page where it originally appeared then linked to another page where it could still be read in its entirety.
We were apparently supposed to believe that this was “in the interest of transparency” and had nothing to do with capitalizing on the review through increased page views and ad revenue.
Just as the social media backlash—best evidenced by the creation of the scathing #EconomistBookReviews hashtag—began to slightly fade, news broke that Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson self-reported a racially charged email he wrote back in 2012 and planned to sell his controlling stake in the struggling team as penance.
In the email, Levenson attempted to frame low Hawks season-ticket sales as a by-product of Southern White racism fueled by a proliferation of Black stereotypes:
“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. On fan sites I would read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick-pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many Blacks at the games. I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some Wwhite cheerleaders and while I don’t care what the color of the artist is, I want the music to be music familiar to a 40-year-old White guy if that’s our season tixs demo.”
Read full email here.
“Mr. Levenson notified me last evening that he had decided to sell his controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks. As Mr. Levenson acknowledged, the views he expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association. He shared with me how truly remorseful he is for using those hurtful words and how apologetic he is to the entire NBA family—fans, players, team employees, business partners, and fellow team owners—for having diverted attention away from our game.
“I commend Mr. Levenson for self-reporting to the league office, for being fully cooperative with the league and its independent investigator, and for putting the best interests of the Hawks, the Atlanta community, and the NBA first.”
Let’s be clear: The email was a strong indictment of Southern White racism more than an expression of personal bigotry. It is fact that there are White people who will avoid venues because they’re “too Black.” As reporter Robby Kelland said to the Daily Beast: “Levenson isn’t wrong with what he said. He made some poor choices of words and, to me, comes off as out of touch more than racist … The Braves are moving out of downtown Atlanta to go to affluent Cobb County to make the wealthy White fans more willing to go to games.”
It is also fact that disparities in income—more than 1 in 4 Blacks live in poverty, while less than 1 in 10 Whites do—potentially means that Black attendees are less apt to spend money on snacks and team merchandise.
These facts in and of themselves are not racist, but they are predicated upon a racist system and as Levenson said in his apology: “We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.”
That’s what privilege does; it allows space—demands space—for the perpetuation of racist systems.
And as Malcolm X taught us, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
Instead of focusing on the fact that of the 12 Hawks seasons preceding his 2012 email only three of them were winning, Levenson decided to kick around the idea that maybe too many Black people on the Kiss-cam were keeping wealthy, White, potential season ticket-holders away.
Instead of noting that Atlanta is a city with professional football (Falcons), baseball (Braves), and through the 2011 season, ice hockey (Thrashers), which may just—don’t quote me now—cause a significant decrease in White season-ticket holders, Levenson noted that there were fewer fathers and sons at the games, due no doubt to the disproportionate rate of Black attendees.
But that’s how capitalism and racism in the United States work, right?
In a predominately Black city with a predominately Black team playing a predominately Black sport, it makes good business sense to push Black audiences to the margins while brainstorming on ways to further capitalize on Black labor and tap into White racism in a league where most of the owners are White.
Though some have quickly drawn comparisons between Levenson and Sterling based solely on his email, those comparisons deflect from the treacherous and stealthy nature of racism.
Just as it was easy to point to V. Stiviano’s recordings as proof of Sterling’s racism, while ignoring his long, documented record of housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles, the systemic implications of Levenson’s words, the casual and perhaps inadvertent positioning of Blackness as a problem to be solved, should be much more frightening.
Institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our everyday lives that it can rear its ugly head anywhere from an Economist book review that whitesplains slavery—which was not simply a free-market exercise during which enslaved Africans were treated better as time went by, but a fluid, structural dynamic that continues to shape and inform everything from the Prison Industrial Complex to the extrajudicial murder of Black people in the United States at least once every 28 hours—to the front offices of the Atlanta Hawks.
These issues collide upon the realization that the author of The Economist review is “advocating” for exactly what is detailed in Levenson’s email: The revisionist rendering of a capitalist system built and maintained on the brutal exploitation of Black labor, while simultaneously privileging Whiteness in such an insidious way that, on paper, contempt for Black life is framed as a smart business decision.
And once it’s understood that racism is deemed good for this nation’s bottom-line and always has been, the true danger of being Black in America becomes clear.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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