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David Aldridge

Cuban tone deaf but honest in talking about race


Posted May 22, 2014 7:53 PM

We are all in desperate need of a grip.

Twitter makes gripping impossible.

Thursday, an interview with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was all the TwitterRage. Cuban spoke at the GrowCo conference in Nashville on Wednesday, sponsored by Inc. Magazine (in what appeared to be some sort of one-off in exchange for the magazine's cover story). Cuban talked about many topics, but the "newsworthy" bits were his thoughts on race, racism and prejudice. Talking about race is always fraught with peril, and especially so when you're an NBA owner who's about to render judgment on whether Donald Sterling's racist comments warrant his being removed as owner of the Clippers.

Cuban was not ranting. He was not at all flip. He was quite sober (and, it appeared, a little tired) in that portion of the interview. During the interview, he said he knew how he'd vote on Sterling, but wouldn't divulge; he said he didn't want to keep "idiots" out of the NBA because he wants to know who the idiots are, and talked about how he often goes "over the top" in selling the Mavericks to fans and potential ticket holders because he views the team, primarily, as an entertainment vehicle.

The section on race began with Cuban lauding the progress American society has made in recent years in speaking out against racism, citing the strides made by the LGBT community. "We've come a long way," Cuban said, "and with that progress comes a price, where we're a lot more vigilant and we're a lot less tolerant of different views. And it's not necessarily easy for everybody to adopt, or adapt, or evolve.

"I mean, we're all prejudiced in one way or the other. If I see a black kid in a hoodie, and it's late at night, I'm walking to the other side of the street. And if on the that side of the street there's a guy that has tattoos all over his face, white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere, I'm walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. And so in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I'm not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it's not appropriate for me to throw stones."

Cuban went on to say that when he discovered "bigotry" -- which, I would assume, means bigoted people -- in one of his companies, he tries to help them deal with their bigotry through sensitivity training and try to help them improve themselves.

"And helping people realize that while we all have our prejudice and bigotries, we have to learn that it's an issue that we have to control," he said. "That it's part of my responsibility as an entrepreneur to try to solve it, not just to kick the problem down the road. Because it does my company no good, it does my customers no good, it does society no good if my response to somebody and their racism or bigotry is to say 'it's not right for you to be here; go take your attitude somewhere else.'"

The question that Cuban was answering was not made available on the clip that Inc. has on its Web site. Without the question it is, at the least, incomplete to offer an opinion on Cuban's answer. I am assuming that the question centered on Cuban's "slippery slope" comments a couple of weeks ago, when he said that while Sterling's comments were abhorrent, he feared that penalizing him for things he said could lead to unintended consequences for others down the road. (More on that later.)

Assuming that Cuban was answering a variation of 'what did you mean by "slippery slope?,"' I have no problem with the substance of what he was trying to say. Repeating, trying to say.

Cuban was trying -- honestly, it seems to me -- to have a conversation about race. Having conversations about race will never be easy, or seamless, or without peril. Many white people are scared to death to talk about race, lest anything they say inarticulately be labeled racist by black people; many black people know full well there are entire swaths of the white population who will attempt to knock down any discussion of race by accusing black people of "playing the race card," among the most odious and noxious phrases ever uttered.

It is irrelevant what I think of Mark Cuban, though I do not think him in any way racist and enjoy him -- most of the time. He acknowledges he has prejudices. What he thinks of himself, and what he does about his prejudices, is much more important.

I own a car and some clothes and a couple of television sets. I'm in the process of buying my house, but it's gonna take a little longer than I thought. But that's all I own. Mark Cuban owns companies, lots of them, and employs thousands of people who depend on him financially. It is much more important that Mark Cuban know what's in his heart and whether he's doing what he should in terms of employment, pay and promotions of people of color in his businesses than for me to praise or condemn him for trying to have an honest discussion.

I always go back to when I was in college at our school paper, one of a handful of black people heavily involved every week. Invariably, we'd have to write an editorial about race. Invariably, the other students -- almost all white -- would ask me what I thought. Which was nice. But it was much more important what they thought, and I finally ginned up enough courage to say so, refusing to write the next editorial.

Any discussion of race gets us one step closer to where we all want to be. It will necessarily be indelicate, and feelings will be hurt. But it's necessary.

Take the "black guy in a hoodie" visual. That's what it was, a visual. A straw man, if you will. The chance that Mark Cuban walks down any street, alone, late at night, and encounters anyone, of any race, at this point of his life, is microscopic. We all know this. He is a billionaire who lives in a mansion, and when he goes out, it's rarely alone.

He was using imagery to make his point -- dramatic and, fairly, tone deaf imagery, given the Trayvon Martin verdict. (Later Thursday, Cuban Tweeted that he understood that using that imagery probably wasn't the best, and he apologized.)

Tone deafness, however, is not racism.

My criticism of Cuban, such as it is, is that he went right to the fear of crime analogy to express how he, a white man, holds prejudicial thoughts. White fear of black people often begins in this Law and Order framing: terrorizing, hypothetical Negro male (no one ever says they're afraid, say, of three African-American women coming down the street in hoodies) causes me to think ill of black people. Any black male becomes an acceptable stand-in. This is troubling and frightening to black people. My two boys both have hoodies. In a few years, they'll be young black teenagers wearing hoodies. In some parts of this country, that will make them a target.

As far as Cuban's "slippery slope," I think he knows full well the First Amendment refers to keeping the government from making laws limiting speech, not private companies such as the NBA. If there are 23 owners who think it's okay for Sterling to say what he said and keep his team, well, they can vote that way June 3. And live with the consequences. Of course, we all know full well that, being business people, they won't dare bring such scrutiny upon themselves and their teams, and they'll vote Sterling out.

Cuban will, too. And, hopefully, he'll continue this dialogue in other venues, in front of other people -- of all races. He's right. We've come a long, long way in the last few years, because we've said that, as a society, it's not okay to make fun of gay people or black people just because they're gay or black. Some think that's political correctness. I think it's progress. After all, I'm a black guy who has a column on NBA.com where I can call out the white owner of an NBA team. Pretty sure that's a new thing.

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