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Bruce Levenson Takeaways, Plus 5 History Lessons To Add “Oomph” To Your Business Ethics Training

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Bruce Levenson Takeaways, Plus 5 History Lessons To Add “Oomph” To Your Business Ethics Training

It’s amazing to me that we’ve made it to 2014 and we’re still hearing widespread reports of racism and race-based harassment and discrimination. In 2013, the EEOC received 8,519 race-based harassment and discrimination charges. That equated to 35.7 million dollars in payouts – more than any other year to date and a 38% increase from 2012. What is going on? Is racism so drastically on the rise or have reporting awareness programs succeeded in encouraging employees to report discrimination?

I don’t know the answer. Either way we need to turn to business ethics training. Your business ethics training is instrumental in disseminating information to employees about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, but it should also answer the question why and provide employees a background of the issue being discussed. After all, you can tell a child a hundred times not to touch  the stove, but unless you say why, he or she doesn’t have context, so the request doesn’t seem necessary and they do it anyway. The same goes for training. We need to explain why. The best way to do this is with real life examples. Here’s a recent one that caught my eye:

The Bruce Levenson Event

In 2012, NBA Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson was grappling with a problem, namely how to increase attendance to Hawks basketball games. In an email to Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and Ownership Partners Todd Foreman and Ed Peskowitz, Levenson stated what he saw as the reason for low attendance at the games: a predominantly black audience.

Fast forward two years to June 2014. During a conference call with the Hawk’s ownership group, Danny Ferry made racist remarks while discussing Free Agent Luol Deng. The comments were so offensive that Hawks co-owner Michael Gearson called for Bruce Levenson to fire Ferry. Levenson instead took the blame, citing his 2012 email as fodder for Ferry’s comments. You can read Ferry’s comments here and Levenson’s original email here.

I’ve read both and I’m having a hard time pegging Levenson as a racist. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar states, “Bruce Levenson isn’t a racist; he’s a businessman” and goes on to state that while some of Levenson’s assumptions were hard to hear, his ideas for attracting more white fans were valid. Identifying fan characteristics and preferences is not racist, it’s marketing. Despite the accusations Levenson has acted with nothing but class. He has expressed his sincere apologies, acknowledging that his views were “unacceptable” and in stark contract with the views of the league.


  1. Be careful what you say – Your employees and organization need to be extremely aware of what they say. Racism is a very real issue and where we draw the line between racism and strategic analysis (in Levenson’s case) can be hard to discern.
  2. Understand the history – We as a nation have a long history of racial discrimination that puts everything we say and do under a critical lens for interpretation.

Next, we’ll look into understanding our history of discrimination and harassment and why we have become so quick to identify business functions like “market segmentation” and “analysis” as racist.

5 Racist US Supreme Court Decisions

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford – In 1856 a slave petitioned the US Supreme Court for his freedom. The Supreme Court ruled against him saying that if they ruled in his favor that “African Americans would be permitted to the full liberty of speech in public and in private,” which was not in keeping with the times.
  • Pace v. Alabama – Tony Pace and Mary Cox were sentenced to two years hard labor in the Alabama state penitentiary for having an inter-racial relationship.
  • The Civil Rights Cases – While most of us only associate the Civil Rights Act with the bill passed in 1964, it was originally written in 1875, but was then struck down by the US Supreme Court.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson – In 1896 Homer Plessy bought a first-class ticket and rode in a New Orleans white-only train car. Homer was charged with violating the “separate but equal” standard. The case went to the Supreme Court where despite the defense arguing that Plessy’s civil rights had been violated, the court ruled against Plessy. The Justice on the case felt that while the 14th amendment promised absolute equality of white and black before the law, it did not mean that it was acceptable for blacks to mingle with whites if it made white people uncomfortable.
  • Cumming v. Richmond – When the only black high school in Richmond County, Virginia was closed, three black families petitioned the Supreme Court to allow their children to attend the white high school. The Supreme Court replied that if there wasn’t a black school for their children to attend they would have to go without an education.

Clearly we have a controversial history when it comes to race discrimination. Given these past Supreme Court decisions, it’s easy to see why race is such a sensitive issue. No education for African Americans if there isn’t a suitable “black” school? These Supreme Court rulings and others are why we need to communicate to our employees the importance of being extremely careful with what they say.

Without understanding the context and history, an employee may make a comment about race jokingly that someone else might take the wrong way. Don’t give your employees more reasons to file race-based harassment and discrimination charges. Keep your workplace safe and respectful with your business ethics training.

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