Llewellyn King: The Hawks' Levenson and 'racial insensitivity'

By Llewellyn King Bruce Levenson, the embattled principal owner of the Atlanta Hawks, is that anomaly in business: a nice guy who has come in first. I have known Levenson since the 1970s, and have marveled at his acumen and how he and his publishing partners built their hugely successful publishing company, United Communications Group (UCG), into the Goliath of the newsletter publishers.

I published business newsletters for 33 years in Washington and was in awe of Levenson’s achievements. His capacity to understand markets and foresee trends put him way in front. UCG, for example, embraced computers when old-line news people like myself were wary of them.

As UCG grew, we, the other independent publishers, were humbled by its success. Yet we always talked of Levenson as a “sweet guy.”

He was also a philanthropist. We, his competitors, with our little businesses, were bowled over when UCG -- in the beginning of what I assume continued to be Levenson’s charity -- donated $300,000, as I recall, to a cause for African-American youth in Washington, D.C. I don’t believe any of us could have mustered a tenth of that then mighty sum. It spoke volumes about Levenson’s business success, but also about his concern for African-American youth. Later, as owner of the Hawks, he served on the advisory board of the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, which provided more than 900 D.C. students with college scholarships.

When I read about Levenson’s “racially insensitive” internal memorandum, I wondered if his accusers -- that rump of the politically correct who wait to take umbrage at anything that might be construed as a racial slur – knew anything about the man and his works. They are those who would have us believe that careless words betray vile hearts, for which they must receive humiliating public opprobrium.

This comes at a time when the police shooting of an unarmed young black man in Ferguson, Mo., has led to a fresh call from people like Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University, for a new dialogue on race. But there will be no real dialogue on race while some of the participants are afraid of being branded “racist” if their speech drifts from the true north of political correctness.

This is tragic, as the changes in the work place make it harder and harder for African-American youth to find meaningful employment and when conditions in the schools, in housing, and in medical care for the African-American community are lamentable. Their plight is visible and moving to anyone who takes a bus or subway in any major city.

There should be a wake-up call for all of those with a concern with social welfare and justice from what has happened in Rotherham, in northern England, where systematic sexual abuse and gang rape of young, at-risk white girls, largely living in public-housing estates, was institutionalized by gangs of Pakistani men. Yet the social services and the police were reluctant to pursue complaints because, according to the official investigation, they were afraid of being called “racist.” A gargantuan 1,400 incidents are being investigated: the price of racial rectitude has been high.

It seems to me that Levenson’s memorandum, which dealt with the economic impact of a lack of white support for the Hawks, was the kind of memorandum we might have written in the publishing business -- like how could we attract more universities to subscribe, or why there weren’t enough law firms buying a particular title.

That doesn't mean that Atlanta doesn't have a severe racial divide and, as Levenson’s memo inadvertently points out, that the African-American community there is disproportionately impoverished.

Race and marketing are entwined, that's why there is a Black Entertainment Network and why certain liquors are marketed more to one race than another. At one level, professional sports is all about marketing.

Within a few days of Levenson’s purchase of the Hawks, I had occasion to meet with him, and he was boyishly enthusiastic. Particularly, he was happy because he was assured that the team would let him on the court during practice. He wanted, more than anything money could buy, to shoot hoops with the pros -- most of whom, of course, are African-American.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is lking@kingpublishing.com.