Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sports and Race: Implicit biases of NBA refs

by Rajeev Ravisankar, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Something that has interested me for some time but is often overlooked is the intersection of race and sports. For many progressives, this intersection might even seem irrelevant considering professional sports reinforce the worst forms of wealth concentration and disparity that have become a fundamental aspect of our society. In addition, some have gone so far as to suggest, in what can be described as reformulation of Marxian ideology, that sports are the real opiate of the masses.

As someone who became a sports fan while growing up, but recently took a step back toward a more analytical approach, sports are very revealing of attitudes, biases, and norms in society. However, they also offer prescriptive mechanisms to address the problems that exist.

Let’s take a recent example to illustrate this point. A study conducted by a professor from Wharton School of Business and a graduate student from Cornell, which analyzed data from 1991 to 2004, suggests that white referees in the National Basketball Association called fouls on black players at a higher rate than they did on white players. The two researchers stated that the bias “is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”
(Source: “Study of NBA Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls” by Alan Schwarz)

The study clearly illustrates how deeply embedded race is in our society and the impact that it has in decision-making. The snap judgments by referees that were analyzed are indicative of subconscious racial attitudes which are related to the broader concept of implicit association bias. While foul-calling and game outcomes are affected by implicit biases in the NBA, it is perhaps more instructive to consider the impact that such biases have on employment, education, housing, healthcare, criminal justice, etc.

Aside from implicit biases, there are other ways that this example is revealing with respect to race. One question that hardly came up was why whites continue to be overrepresented in positions on and off the court as referees and owners in a game where the players are predominately African-American. This trend is connected to historically rooted notions of black intellectual inferiority which continue to be pervasive in the current context. It is also reflective of the disproportionate level of exclusion we see across the institutional spectrum.

The situation in sports indicates that a person of color cannot buy their way to a position where they are immune to racial discrimination. With this in mind, how can we use sports as a mechanism for change? First, because of the sheer number of fans, sports can be used to broaden the discourse around race and bring more people to the table. Also, there have been interventions in both collegiate and professional sports seeking to redress disparities along the lines of race and gender. In addition, sports provide a number of minority role models in high positions who can serve as de-biasing agents. This is especially important in a context that requires both deconstruction of existing norms and a new kind of socialization process.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Affirmative action – Key to a more just society

By Lidija Knuth, Research fellow at the Kirwan Institute

There is no consensus regarding the term “affirmative action,” which is most commonly used in the United States. At the international level, the preferred phrase is “special measures.” The European Union (EU) originally used the awkward “positive discrimination” to describe this concept, but started using the new term “positive action” quite recently. In India, the equivalent term is “reservations.” As the terminology varies by region, so differs also the definition, meaning and legal justification of this concept.

Affirmative/positive action is not about equal treatment regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, etc., but rather achieving equality in terms of outcomes. It aims at increasing the participation of marginalized groups in the economic, political or social fields. Independently of the differences in terminology and meaning, positive action is not about “favors” for marginalized groups but it is the basis for building a fairer society.

Affirmative or positive action may require different approaches to achieve its objective; for example, preferential treatment for members of the targeted group, proactive address of ‘indirect discrimination,’ reasonable accommodation measures and/or the preventing and remedying of direct discrimination.

The case of the European Union

In 2000, the European Council adopted two ground-breaking directives, the “Racial Equality Directive” and the “Employment Equality Directive,” both of which aim to ensure that everyone living in the EU can benefit from legal protection against discrimination. The directives also provide for positive action measures. With regard to legislation, the EU has one of the most advanced legal frameworks in this area to be found anywhere in the world.

But one may ask, why then do the EU countries still face major challenges of social and economic exclusion? Why do marginalized groups remain under-represented in most EU countries? One of the reasons is that the directives are still quite young, with deadlines for their transposition into national law only in the year 2003. Another major difficulty, however, is a lack of data and statistical indicators in the field of non-discrimination. In some EU countries it is simply not permitted to collect certain kinds of information, such as census data on ethnic minorities. The consequence is that it is much harder to understand, prove and justify the case for affirmative action. Thus, relevant non-discrimination data and studies are urgently needed to monitor and evaluate affirmative action measures in the EU. Fundamental to the effective implementation of the legislation is the commitment of national authorities, the active support and involvement of civil society. Referring to the incorporation of all levels of society, we touch upon the concept of mainstreaming.

How can we mainstream affirmative action?

First, concerned groups need to be involved in the process. Secondly, people in power are essential to achieving real change. Any moral arguments for decision-makers to change the status quo must be supported with concrete incentives and disincentives. Thirdly, the concept of affirmative action needs to be understood by the mainstream society. Society as a whole must be persuaded of the need for affirmative action, because its acceptance is key to achieving a more just and equitable world.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The “R Word”

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Assistant Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate, Kirwan Institute

Not long after white comedian Michael Richards, aka Cosmo Kramer of Seinfeld fame, had his infamous “N word” meltdown, African American comedian Chris Rock appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show (February 28, 2007 CBS). A few minutes into the broadcast, the queen of the midday airwaves asked Rock about Richards. After a brief reflective pause, he said, “People come up to me and they go, ‘Do you think he’s a racist?’ He’s screaming ‘N*&&#!’ in the club. What’s he got to do, shoot Medgar Evers to be a racist!” Oprah was in stitches, as were the members of her overwhelmingly white studio audience. I’m pretty sure, however, that the audience members did not know that Evers was a slain civil rights activist from Mississippi – I could be wrong, but I’m not. After everyone quieted, Rock drove home his point by asking, “What does a man have to do to be a racist nowadays?”

The answer, in short, is ‘a whole hell of a lot.’ The reluctance of public personalities, from journalists to politicians, to use the “R Word” - to call someone a racist when he or she espouses racist beliefs either verbally or in written form, or engages in prejudicial or discriminatory behavior - boggles the mind. Recall the recent coverage of shock jock Don Imus. The mainstream media insisted on referring to his disparaging remarks about the African American women on the Rutgers basketball team as merely “racially insensitive.” They raked him over the proverbial coals, but not for being a racist, but because his word choice was obnoxious and inappropriate. Enough already. If it quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, it ain’t a confused chicken, it’s a damn duck!

People hesitate to use the “R word” because popular notions of racism revolve around historical misunderstandings. In contemporary society, people assume that there has only been one type of racist – the Byron de la Beckwith type (he’s the white Mississippian who assassinated Medgar Evers). Thus, if you aren’t a murdering Klansman, then you aren’t a racist. But America has produced all kinds of racists through the years, including the Thomas Jefferson racist, who believes all men are created equal, except black men; the Abraham Lincoln racist, who opposes the extreme exploitation of African American workers, but believes in white supremacy; and the Don’t-move-into-my-neighborhood racist together with his liberal cousin the Don’t-too-many-of-you-move-into-my-neighborhood racist. There is also the Rush Limbaugh racist, who revels in disparaging black people in the name of politics, and the Dick Cheney racist, who revels in ignoring black people in the name of politics. In addition, there is the Ward Connerly racist, who does everything humanly possible to get in the way of his fellow African Americans.

Identifying racists will not fundamentally change racial inequality in today’s society. To achieve this end, structural racism has to be eliminated. But in order to have open and honest dialogue about race and racism, we cannot be afraid to drop the “R word” when it applies.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Notes from Staff & Affiliates: A new page in Kirwan Institute website

The Kirwan Institute website has added a page to our site titled "Notes from Staff and Affiliates" that provides a venue for staff and affiliates to share their opinions and thoughts. We're launching this page with ten book reviews written by our own Marguerite Spencer that focus on whiteness, with an emphasis on such theological concepts as sin, repentance, reparation, reconciliation, and redemption. Keep an eye on this section as we anticipate it will fill out quickly with thought provoking and challenging content. If you're interested in contributing a piece either to the blog or the website please contact

Monday, May 7, 2007

Acknowledging the isms: Why is sexism still our dirty little secret?

by Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In light of the Don Imus misdeed, issues of racism, sexism, and the intersection of the two have been given more attention than they have in many years. Much of the fallout has landed in the lap of the music industry with hip-hop taking much of the heat for the sexist and misogynistic language it often employs.

This is not the first time hip-hop has come under fire. C. Deloris Tucker and Tipper Gore called for accountability and reform in the music industry some 15 years ago; now many in the African American community and women’s rights organizations are following in their footsteps. While many rappers are standing behind their freedom of speech and expression, many activists and a few music industry heavyweights would like to see misogynistic and racist lyrics gone from the music industry completely. Unfortunately, there still exists a great deal of resistance by the music makers and the general listening public to call for or stand behind any movement to help end sexism.

All that has happened in recent weeks reminds me of an interview several years ago in Essence magazine describing sexism as Black America’s dirty little secret (Essence, July 2003). Sexism is alive and well in the Black community; however, it is so well ingrained that many either don’t know it when they see it, don’t want to acknowledge it, are consciously or unconsciously upholding it, or are benefiting from it. In her book Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot, Pearl Cleage states, “I am writing to expose and explore the point where racism and sexism meet. I am writing to help myself understand the full effects of being Black and female in a culture that is both racist and sexist. I am writing to try and communicate that to my sisters first and then to any brothers of goodwill and honest intent who will take the time to listen” (Cleage 1993, 7). The question remaining then is: how do we get those brothers of goodwill and honest intent, and even the ones who don’t fit into either of those categories, to listen? Cleage suggests using our racial history and racial knowledge as tools to help Black men understand sexism. Because most adult male minorities know how racism works and what it looks like, we should be able to transfer that knowledge to explain and understand sexism and their role in it.

Sadly this has yet to happen and while other “isms” become less and less politically correct, sexism seems to remain steadfast. It is my hope that something good will come from the Imus situation, the reevaluation of hip-hop, and dialogue about race and gender that has been created. It is also my hope that those scholars, activists, and artists who study race or gender will not do so exclusively and will understand the importance of eliminating racism and sexism. Like Pearl Cleage, I am writing to those who will take the time to listen.