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White Fight, White Flight: The Atlanta Hawks and the Race Card

The history of anti-black racism in Atlanta is a long and ongoing embarrassment that puts the controversy over the city's NBA team in perfect context.

Shrill Cosby

Photo by Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY Sports

The latest turn in the long saga of racism in the NBA's executive class was the indefinite banishment of Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry for racist remarks made about Luol Deng. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin closed his statement on the issue with this:

"I am deeply saddened and embarrassed that this has put a blemish on our team and our city, which has always been a diverse community with a history of coming together as one. We should build bridges through basketball, not divide our community or serve as a source of pain."

There have been many odd and hilarious racist remarks uttered during this scandal—Ferry's expression "he has a little African in him, but not in a bad way," has a distinctly antiquated feeling, evoking images of an old colonial adventurer, enlightened for his time, describing a black native who had earned his favor—but the assertion that Atlanta is a city of racial harmony might be the most ridiculous and revelatory. That the Hawks would write and publicly issue this sentence betrays not only their deep ignorance of the city of Atlanta, but a professional incuriosity about the marketplace they wish to serve. One need only glance at the history of the city to understand this.

The tale of Atlanta is not one of racial cooperation, but one of constant, pitched conflict. In 1860, blacks comprised 20 percent of Atlanta's population, but by 2010, the number had swelled to 54 percent. However, black urbanization was contested at every turn. When simply excluding blacks from the city became impossible, whites fought to maintain their distance from blacks, segregating and ghettoizing black communities. When these efforts eventually failed as well, whites simply left, abandoning the city for the suburbs. A particularly irreverent historian might summarize the story of Atlanta as "white fight, then white flight".

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In 1906, racial tensions in Atlanta led to a riot in which white mobs attacked black people and businesses over never-substantiated rumors of black men attacking white women. In his book VeiIed Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race, David Fort Goodshalk explains how in the aftermath, the white community retrenched, racially rezoning the city into black and white neighborhoods. The south and west parts of the city were zoned for black residential development, and the north rezoned for whites. This basic blueprint has shaped the city of Atlanta until today.

As the black population continued to rise after World War II, white Atlantans did everything within their power to keep blacks away from their communities. White homeowner's associations tried to buy up property on the borders of their residential communities to keep it out of the hands of blacks, and used their influence to keep the Atlanta real estate market segmented into two markets—one for whites and one for blacks. City officials constructed physical barriers to buffer neighborhoods, cutting them off with cemeteries, highways, expressways, parks, or even just undeveloped land. When even that didn't dissuade blacks, white citizens threatened blacks with harassment and violence. In his book Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta, Ronald Bayor describes how racial dynamics shaped not just Atlanta's spatial demographics, but the physical structure of the city itself.

In 1961, the city began to segregate its schools and downtown businesses. But these tactics failed. White political supremacy collapsed in the face of the Civil Rights Movement, as blacks flexed their new political power and began to dismantle Jim Crow. In 1962, the steel and concrete barricades on the north-south running Peyton Road, meant to thwart black expansion into white neighborhoods in southwestern Atlanta, were ordered torn down by the courts. As the political barriers to blacks fell, many whites simply sold their homes and moved out of the neighborhoods, rather than live near blacks. Kevin M. Kruse outlined this process in his book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. In 1968, the year Atlanta's son, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, real estate developer Tom Cousins and former Georgia mayor Carl Sanders bought the St. Louis Hawks and moved them to the city of Atlanta.

By 1970, blacks represented more than half of the population of Atlanta. White flight was well under way as whites moved out of the city limits, seceding to the suburbs—Cobb County in the northwest, Gwinnett County in the northeast. In 1972, the Hawks moved to the Omni Coliseum in downtown Atlanta, and in the following next year, Atlanta elected its first black mayor. By the 1980s, Cobb County was the fastest growing county in the nation, on the strength of whites who decided that a black Atlanta was not a place that they wanted to be a part of.

The slow-motion war for Atlanta permanently shaped and marked the city, as surely as trenches and artillery scar battlefields. And the racial politics of Atlanta didn't end with white retreat to the suburbs. As Leon Eplan, commissioner of budget and planning for the city explained in 1985, "There are virtually no major decisions that are made in the city of Atlanta that do not have a racial factor built into it. Everything has a racial component," (Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta).

Eplan's statement is still true, almost 30 years later. Look at a racial demographic map of Atlanta and you can still see the battle lines, all the way back to 1906.

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The email that got this scandal rolling, from Hawks owner Bruce Levenson to Ferry was the embodiment of contemporary white flight. Levenson complained that white fear of blacks was leading to low season ticket sales. "I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black," he wrote, quaint and refreshingly blunt coming from a middle-aged multimillionaire businessman.

It is tempting to read Levenson's emails and attempt to carefully place each statement on a gradient from "clearly racist" to "just business". This temptation reflects the degree to which we've swallowed our own propaganda about the relationship between American capitalism and American racism. Racism is not an aberration disrupting the frictionless machinery of business, but rather a cog in its gears. You would think that this lesson would be hard to forget in a country founded on stolen land and built by stolen people. The uncomfortable truth is that "clearly racist" and "just business" are often not at odds, but working in harmony with each other. Housing discrimination and segregation were also "just business".

Racism has always come wearing shined shoes and bearing spreadsheets. In his diagnosis of the Hawks' home attendance problems, Levenson was attempting to draw from this particularly deep well of history. But his proposed solutions bely how superficial and shallow his understanding of race actually is. Against the disease that is white racism, virulent enough to warp the shape an entire city, he prescribes... dumping hip hop for classic rock? Putting a few more white faces on the kiss cam? Advertising $2 hot dogs at halftime? His method of mollifying anti-black racism doesn't even rise to the level of a joke. Fortunately for the Atlanta Hawks and their future owner, though, it seems likely that the problem is even more mundane than white racism, if just as intractable: the problem is that nobody really likes watching the Hawks, in any arena.

The NBA collects statistics on the average percentage of the arena each team sells out at home and away. If the reason why people don't come to see the Hawks at Philips Arena stems from the arena experience, then we would expect to see the Hawks do much better in other arenas than they do in their own. The Hawks do draw slightly better on the road, but it seems that nobody really wants to watch them anywhere. They have ranked in the bottom third of the league for the past three years no matter whether they're playing at home or away.

And it's pretty easy to see why people don't want to watch the Hawks—the Hawks aren't very good. The Hawks haven't made it out of the second round in the 46 years they've been in Atlanta. Not only are they bad, they're bad in a way that's aimless, hopeless, and boring—mired in mediocrity. And so we're treated with a hilarious, pathetic spectacle: a white man using anti-black racism as an excuse for his own professional failure.

This organizational incompetence apparently trickles down from the ownership, judging by Danny Ferry's sepia-toned racist remarks about Luol Deng. Ferry's comments have also obscured a far more disturbing allegation made in an email by minority owner Michael Gearon: that Ferry's hiring practices have led to a markedly less diverse management staff. It's not clear whether this is true, but nobody on the Hawks or in the league office seems interested in investigating or accounting for the claim. As usual, the drama of loose racist talk gets headlines over the more serious problem of racist actions. Racist talk is easy to identify and censor, but racist actions, especially dressed in the garb of business? We'd rather let those pass.

Because if we start talking about unspoken racism, we'd have to talk about why Shelly Sterling hasn't been banned from the league with her husband. We'd have talk about how much racism has been hidden because it wasn't found politically useful in organizational power struggles. We'd have to talk about the NBA's racially motivated dress code. We'd have to talk about why Joe Lacob is moving the Warriors from Oakland to San Francisco. We'd have to figure out the answer to the question Levenson is implicitly asking in his email—how did all those other NBA arenas stay so white?