Saturday, May 05, 2007

Racism in the Ivy League

Prof. Justin Wolfers of Wharton studied basketball from 1991 through 2004 and claims that referees displayed a racial bias. James Taranto notes how Prof. Wolfers himself views race:

'Opposite Race'

Here's a little something that rankled us about that NBA study (link in PDF):

We find that--even conditioning on player and referee fixed effects (and specific game fixed effects)--that more personal fouls are awarded against players when they are officiated by an opposite-race officiating crew than when officiated by an own-race refereeing crew.

That's from the abstract. The phrase "opposite race" appears 31 times in the paper itself (including as a hyphenated antecedent adjective but excluding table headings). And it turns out these guys didn't invent the term. A Google search turns up nearly 50,000 pages, some of which are from other academic studies.

Are we alone in thinking it invidious to refer to blacks and whites as "opposite races"? True, the colors black and white are opposites (to be precise, each is either the absence or presence of all colors, depending on whether the reference is to pigmentation or light). But if you're "black" or "white" and you look in the mirror, what you see will be either a shade of brown or a sort of pinkish light beige.

It seems likely that the phrase "opposite race" is an analogy to "opposite sex." But men and women really are opposites, at least as far as sex goes. And whereas both sexes need each other to carry on the species, mankind has no need for either a white or a black race. China has 1.3 billion people, most of whom are neither "black" nor "white."

Here's what's really problematic about this analogy, though: Opposite sexes imply that certain social roles can be filled only by one sex or the other. Only a man can be a father, husband, brother or uncle; only a woman can be a mother, wife, sister or aunt.

Are there any roles that can be filled only by someone black or someone white? Not that we can think of, but there used to be. In America, it was once the case that only a black person could be a slave; and, by and large, only a white person could be a master. Sex roles are compatible with the equal dignity and humanity of both sexes; there is nothing inherently superior or inferior about a mother as opposed to a father, or an uncle as opposed to an aunt. Needless to say, the relationship between master and slave is in a different category altogether.

It's hard to see how the idea that blacks and whites are "opposite races" is anything other than a throwback to white supremacy. The use of this phrase in scholarly papers may tell us something unlovely about the racial attitudes that prevail in academia.

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