The Atlanta Hawks are in the headlines again after General Manager Danny Ferry apologized and received an undisclosed punishment for disparaging comments he made about prospective player Luol Deng — who was born in Sudan — were made public. Ferry reportedly said that Deng "has a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back."
This came days after Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson shocked the basketball world by announcing he will sell his stake in the team after reports surfaced about an email he wrote to colleagues two years ago in which he made comments disparaging the racial makeup of his fan base.
Saying the demographics were responsible for the dearth of season-ticket holders, he ordered his subordinates to make changes to attract more white, suburban fans. He suggested changing everything from playing music "familiar to a 40-year-old white guy" and hiring more white cheerleaders to making sure there were fewer blacks featured on the "kiss cam."
In announcing that he will give up his ownership stake, Levenson apologized for the comments that he himself called "inflammatory nonsense."
But while Ferry's comments about Deng were clearly demeaning — he reportedly equated African heritage with being a liar and a cheat — some people might be asking exactly what it was that Levenson said that was so terrible and that should cause him to forfeit his ownership.
This is an edited version of our conversation.
What did he say that was so wrong?
He cast [the lack of season-ticket holders] as a black problem instead of an Atlanta problem, or a problem for his organization, or just a problem. That the black people who were there were driving everybody else away. That's just wrong. If the problem is you can't attract enough white people, that's your problem. Don't use your black fans as a scapegoat; that's just offensive and it's wrong.
Is part of the issue that he has no basis in fact for this?
I think that is a large part of it. He has no facts here. Intuition is how CEOs run a large part of their business, but it's intuition based on a set of facts.
What do you think other executives can learn from this experience? Because I think some people might say that you can't have candid conversations anymore.
You can have plenty of candid conversations. I think if you're an executive — even if you're just a person working with people who are not like you — you have to understand that if you're Christian, white, heterosexual, with no disabilities in this country, you are part of the majority population.
The majority culture holds most of the cards when it comes to economics and positions of power. If you look at politics, or if you look at elected officials, police chiefs, clergy, professors, [people in] any position of power overwhelmingly are disproportionately white. So you have to mind your P's and Q's, or your white privilege will end up stepping on other people's toes. If it's to a small degree, you make yourself unpopular in the workplace. And if it's to a degree that exceeds that, you lose your job.
Because if you become the kind of person who makes everybody else in the organization lose productivity, it's just as bad as coming to the office and smashing computers with a hammer. There's no difference. You're costing the place money.
Diversity Inc. was founded in 1997. In that time, you've done a lot of surveys of companies around these issues. You've done a lot of reporting on companies as they've grappled with these issues. Have you seen anything like this?
This goes on all the time, [but] I think that the days that people could get away with it are over, period. I think that you're seeing more and more people come to the table on this subject, even if it's just out of a sense of self-preservation. People complain, "Oh, you're telling people to be politically correct." When you hear the phrase "politically correct," it is the first sign — usually — of a white person who, all of a sudden, realizes they can't insult people with impunity, and that's the first reaction to it: "Oh, I can't tell this joke anymore." And it's like, "That's right, you can't." And so, I think things are not nearly where they need to be.
If you look at our corporate data, gender is still more of an axis of discrimination than race, but there's still plenty of discrimination to go around. Even at the best companies, there are biases and failure to develop talent properly that results in the tops of the organizations not looking like the people who were recruited in the first place. So I think what's happening is, you're finding more and more companies, in their financial best interests, are pursuing this subject with more vigor.