Lessons of NBA bias study range far beyond basketball


The Kickoff


The reaction to a New York Times article that suggested NBA referees - white and black - occasionally succumb to subconscious racial biases when whistling fouls proves again that most of the media are unprepared to lead an informed, honest discussion of race.

The study, conducted by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student, has been dismissed and ridiculed by the black sports media elite. The methods, conclusions and relevance of the study have all been trashed.


Because too many of us believe that the spoken word is the "smoking gun" when it comes to discrimination. Let Don Imus call someone nappy-headed, and that's a case of hatred we can all sink our laptops into. Let young black men randomly shoot each other in the street, and that's not a sign of hatred - it's the natural byproduct of poverty, according to the experts.

In my view, discrimination is in deed and not in words, and much of American discrimination today is unintended and unconscious. That was the point of the study The New York Times quoted.

White refs, not out of malice, were quicker to blow the whistle on black players than white players. Black refs, not out of malice, were quicker to blow the whistle on white players than black players, but not to the same degree that white refs did the reverse.

Bottom line: The study insinuates that white refs are a little more controlled by their racial biases than black refs.

The study did not call anyone or any group evil. The study simply added to previous studies that prove we all have racial biases, and we unconsciously let them control some of the decisions we make.

Remarkably honest Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told The Times this: "We're all human. We all have our own prejudice. That's the point of doing the statistical analysis. It bears it out in this application, as in a thousand others."

I can't understand why everyone is taking a dump on the study. The study should contribute to healthy dialogue on the issue of race. The study points out what we should all recognize: The best way to combat discrimination is to understand that we're all capable of discriminating.

It should also raise questions about why white refs are more prone to surrender to their biases than black refs. There are a number of factors at work here, but I'll only mention one, the one I've been harping on the past month.

Black NBA players have aligned themselves in terms of appearance and attitude with hip-hop/prison culture. Everyone pretty much acknowledges that the NBA's predominantly white-in-arena fan base has a problem with the league's hip-hop/prison image. But we're supposed to think the predominantly 40-year-old white refs aren't turned off by the same things making the fans uncomfortable?

No, this is a study worthy of debate and consideration. We should talk about it without demonizing white or black referees. We should talk about how it relates to the things that transpire in our schools and workplaces.

With all the negative, pervasive images being thrown at us by pop culture, it's even tougher today to avoid giving in to stereotypes.

Over the past month, I've received literally thousands of e-mails and letters from people thanking me "for having the courage" to say what I did about the Imus situation. A lot of the writers have identified themselves as white, and they claim they could never say what I wrote without being accused of being racist.

That may be true. But it might also be a product of remaining silent or feigning ignorance when they see obvious discrimination affecting black people. To be honest, I found many of the letters patronizing. The celebration of principles you don't practice is the worst form of hypocrisy.

That's my problem with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They're like most of America - they fight for values they fail to demonstrate. No doubt, Jesse and Al need their comeuppances. It would be easier to remove them from power if the majority community sporadically policed its discrimination without the threat of loud-mouthed opportunists.

It would also help if well-intentioned members of the media offered some depth and perspective to their analysis of America's complex, black-white racial dilemma.

Jason Whitlock writes for The Kansas City Star.

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