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Rich Vs. Wealthy: Race & The NBA Hierarchy

News & Features | December 12, 2014

“Shaq is rich. The white man that signs his checks is wealthy.” – Chris Rock

This past summer, Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, bought the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association (NBA) for $2 billion. This came after after the league finally pried the team away from its patently horrible incumbent owner, Donald Sterling, who was caught on tape spewing racist drivel last spring. In contrast to Sterling, who had also previously dodged an employment-discrimination suit alleging that he wanted “a Southern plantation-type structure” for the team, Ballmer, by all accounts, appears at the very least to recognize what century he is living in.

Ballmer, simply by virtue of not being explicitly bigoted, represents a breath of fresh air for the Clippers, but demographically, he is the archetypal NBA owner: male, extraordinarily wealthy, and white. In fact, in the 68-year history of the league, every owner has been white but two. Vivek Ranadivé, who is Indian, has owned the Sacramento Kings since 2013, and NBA legend Michael Jordan has owned the Charlotte Hornets since 2010.

According to the US Census Bureau, about 13% of the US population is black, yet nearly 75% of the NBA’s players are black. For players, the NBA is perhaps the largest and most conspicuous American industry in which it is the norm to be black. However, the stratum of the league with the most money and influence is not the pool of players, but the ownership.

The whiteness of NBA ownership reflects the extent to which race and wealth remain structurally intertwined in the United States. Astonishingly, of the 492 billionaires in the United States, just two are black: Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. Only 1.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are black, and the median wealth of black families is currently just 12% that of white families. Forever reinforcing this wealth gap is the great disparity in opportunities afforded young blacks and whites. The particular social, educational, and economic conditions that enable entrance into the upper reaches of the corporate world are categorically less available to black youth than white. Thus, few NBA owners are black in part because few black Americans are wealthy enough to buy an NBA team—even the lowly Milwaukee Bucks sold for $550 million earlier this year.

This opportunity gap preserves not only the continued whiteness of the super-rich but also the rest of the professional world. People in power tend to surround themselves with people of the same race and cultural background, which means front offices throughout the NBA are predominantly white. White owners are more likely to hire white general managers, for instance, who are more likely to hire white coaches, and so on. This discrimination is a mechanism that perpetuates the divide, as the whiteness of the ownership trickles down into the rest of the organization.

Of course, the same restrictions do not extend to black players. But even though the NBA has made hundreds of black players millionaires, the success of black players in basketball does not necessarily imply systematic progress in the American workplace. Basketball is fundamentally unlike other industries in that it requires relatively few socioeconomic advantages; nearly everyone has access to basketball.

Conversely, gaining a foothold in the professional subdivisions of the NBA that more closely resemble other industries—namely ownership and management—necessitates greater advantages, and NBA front offices are therefore mostly white. The causation goes both ways. NBA management is like other industries because it’s white-dominant, and it’s white-dominant because it’s like other industries.

Despite the preponderance of black NBA players, black Americans seeking NBA management positions continue to be denied access. For instance, just five of the league’s 30 general managers are black. Of the 77 head coaches hired for the first time across the league since 1995, 31 lacked NBA playing experience (instead largely coming from within the organization). Among those 31, just 5 were people of color. Last summer alone, six white rookie head coaches without NBA experience were hired, yet a black rookie head coach without NBA experience hasn’t been hired in a decade. In fact, in a league in which about one-fifth of the players are white, a full 42 of the 77 total rookie coaches hired in the last twenty years were white men.

Donald Sterling’s intentionally malicious brand of racism is uncommon in the modern NBA. Yet an equally real, though more passive and surreptitious form of discrimination remains pervasive across the league, as evidenced by these unequal hiring practices. The value of the NBA as a case study for how race and wealth intermingle in 21st century America is thus twofold.

First, broad structural inequalities in society between white and black communities contribute to the massive racial wealth gap, which means the wealthiest members of society are overwhelmingly white. In fact, so strong is the white community’s hold on wealth in the United States that even in an industry as black as the NBA, the top rung is almost totally white. And second, as positions of power are generally awarded by those in other positions of power, and white people hold most positions of power, the hold on power is forever recycled back into the white community. The racial homogeneity of the NBA management structure is a direct result of the racial homogeneity of the ownership. In business, whiteness perpetuates whiteness.

Header image by Danny Bollinger/Flickr via Creative Commons.