On Friday, LeBron James stopped a wildfire of free agency speculation when he announced he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The announcement was made via an essay published by Sports Illustrated. The essay speaks to LeBron's tremendous personal and professional growth over the last 4 years and his strong desire to return to the Northeast Ohio community he calls home. I do not question the sincerity of those points. I do wonder, however, if the emergent media and social chatter around LeBron's decision to rejoin the Cavs reifies and ignores a grievous problem facing our society: people in the business world may disrespect black people at will and with impunity. All this disrespect has got to stop!
Dan Gilbert was understandably very upset when LeBron left the Cavs. Still that is no excuse for the open letter he published on the Cav's website decrying LeBron's decision to play for the Miami Heat. The letter implied in bad faith there was no rationale for the decision, though it was clearly the result of complex calculation by LeBron and his representatives. It also attacked LeBron's character, calling him "narcissistic", a "deserter" and "cowardly." The letter's tone was condescending and inappropriate for it's subject matter- a business and personal decision made by LeBron. It was designed to humiliate and shame LeBron, each which could have negatively impacted his ability to do business in the future by altering the his public image. At the time the letter was published, a number of commenters objected to the letter for various reasons.
I do not believe Dan Gilbert would have published the letter if LeBron James was white.
Since the first African slaves arrived in this country, black people have fought for the respect that can enable us to be treated with dignity appropriate for all human beings. This fight continues today (not for lack of effort!). The American system of racism is at base, a collection of diverse forms of disrespect in the social, economic, cultural, political, media and justice structures targeted at oppressed minorities. In many public spheres, black people remain subject to dehumanizing and disparate treatment, demeaning characterizations, discriminatory practices, and straight up disrespect. Many black people in the business realm must confront covert and overt racism in the form of institutionally sanctioned disrespect. If you don't believe me, browse some discrimination claims filed with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
Dan Gilbert's open letter was the "diss" heard around the world. It was unethical, patronizing, tortious, and wholly unacceptable conduct for the business sphere. Treating others, even counter parties or competitors, with respect is a basic element of business ethics (actually all ethics), and when a business person breaches this basic precept in such a public manner, it is a big deal. I am not aware of another instance in which Gilbert posted a similar toned letter, though he surely must have endured many failed transactions in his career. So why was it ok with LeBron? Gilbert recently invested Genius, f/k/a Rap Genius, an annotation startup run by Ivy Leaguers, none of whom is black. Imagine if they had decided to walk from the deal at the last minute and Gilbert published a similar letter aimed at them. He would have hell to pay. It would be perceived as beyond the pale. But he wouldn't do this because he would treat them with respect.
In business, showing respect is to done by offering basic regard for other's worth as a fellow business person or human being, even if you feel they have wronged you or you have differing opinions. As an accomplished businessman, I trust that Dan Gilbert is well accustomed to stated mores of the business world and principles of business ethics,- congeniality, fair dealing, and treating colleagues and treating counter parties with respect.
Why then, would Gilbert believe it was perfectly ok for him to publicly disrespect LeBron, a transactional counterpart also at the helm of a wildly successful sports, multimedia, investment, and charitable conglomerate, i.e., his equal? Gilbert's failure to afford LeBron common respect was just a very high profile example of the countless put downs, back handed comments, paternalistic tones, social exclusion and impolite treatment blacks endure every day in the business world.
You will note that I have made it a point to characterize the facts in the business context. Some people do not regard black professional athletes as sophisticated businessmen and high value employees in business organizations. The owners and team front office are perceived as such though. This perceptive imbalance fosters an environment where players may not always be treated as business equals by owners and team executives. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the players in the NBA are black and the overwhelming majority of the owners are white exacerbates this issue. Disrespect of black business people (including NBA players), too often goes unchecked unless the offending behavior will cost the organization serious money a la Donald Sterling-gate. Gilbert was not punished or reprimanded by the league for the unethical behavior.
This instance of disrespect was so compelling and widely-reported that it demanded redress because of its cultural impact. LeBron James is one of the young black businessmen most known and admired by other young black men - and one who can wield considerable leverage in business transactions, has a global customer base, and had been highlighted for his business acumen. How many young black men internalized the view that if LeBron can be so utterly disrespected, it must be normal for them to endure disrespect as well? The letter begged the question, do white businessmen have to treat their black counterparts with respect.
LeBron's relative silence in the face of the disrespect (which has been lauded as a sign of maturity) may imply that it is not ok to speak up for yourself in the wake of disrespect by fellow business people.
The routine and unchecked disrespect that black people face in business causes stress, self-doubt, and the trauma of being denied your dignity. It can create invalid perceptions that black business people are not competent, limiting their advancement in organizations or opportunities to transact with others. It forces many talented black people to quit or suffer in silence. The cumulative effect of all of these ramifications is to limit black wealth and continue the vast economic subjugation of the black community.
That's why I am really attentive to the unspoken racial signals being communicated right now. I am hoping that amid the excitement (and anguish) surrounding LeBron's decision to return, something equally as public and outspoken will also occur to refute the pernicious message amplified by Gilbert's letter and absence of any appreciable punishment. To date, Gilbert has essentially referred to the letter as a result of a bad night and offered a limited and generalized sorry.
LeBron's decision about where he wants to live and work is his alone, and I would not dare question what he has chosen. Further, I understand that LeBron and Dan Gilbert may have personally resolved their differences. But the message that was cast by the letter, which remained posted until just last week, did not only impact LeBron James, it impacted all black people working to establish or advance in business. I fear that his return will wipe away a valuable teachable moment. Therefore, there is an an alarming need for a clear public exploration of this issue.
If I was Dan Gilbert, my conscience would compel me to say something like this right now:
"I was wrong to disrespect LeBron James. He deserved to be treated courteously as a business counterpart and as a human being. As a person with white privilege, originally saw no issue with publicly disrespecting and disparaging LeBron because he is black. Sadly, my behavior and thought process reflected a longstanding and pervasive pattern and practice within the business world and society at large. Unjustifiably, black people have frequently been treated unequally and discourteously in the business sector by businessmen like me. I now understand how wrongheaded and harmful these attitudes and behavior are. What's more, they reflect very poorly on our character as business men and community leaders. I am sorry for my behavior and any negative impact it may have caused to the courageous black people striving to succeed in business. We must be vigilant to ensure that disrespect aimed at black men in the NBA and in every other business sector is eradicated. I will take a leadership role in ensuring this is the case."