Part of what makes professional basketball appealing, for kids who love to play as well as fans, is the idea that a person can come from humble beginnings and become a star. The players on the court, the narrative goes, are ones who rose to fame as a result of incredible dedication and extraordinary talent. Basketball, then, is a way out of poverty, a true equal opportunity sport that affirms what we think America is all about.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunched the numbers to find out if the equal opportunity story was true. Analyzing the economic background of NBA players, he found that growing up in a wealthy neighborhood (the top 40% of household incomes) is a “major, positive predictor” for success in professional basketball. Black players are also less likely than the general black male population to have been born to a young or single mother. So, class privilege is an advantage for pro ball players, just like it is elsewhere in our economy.
The richest Black men, then, are most likely to end up in the NBA, followed by those in the bottom 20% of neighborhoods by income. Middle class black men may, like many middle class white men, see college as a more secure route to a successful future. Research shows that poor black men often see sports as a more realistic route out of poverty than college (and they may not be wrong). This also helps explain why Jews dominated professional basketball in the first half of the 1900s.
LeBron James was right, then, when he said, “I’m LeBron James. From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.” The final phrase disrupts our mythology about professional basketball: that being poor isn’t an obstacle if one has talent and drive. But, as Stephens-Davidowitz reminds us, “[a]nyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.”
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Hip-hop music is frequently described as violent and anti-law enforcement, with the implication that its artists glorify criminality. A new content analysis subtitled “Hip-Hop Artists’ Perceptions of Criminal Justice“, by criminologists Kevin Steinmetz and Howard Henderson, challenge this conclusion.
After an analysis of a random sample of hip-hop songs released on platinum-selling albums between 2000 and 2010, Steinmetz and Henderson concluded that the main law enforcement-related themes in hip-hop are not pleasure and pride in aggressive and criminal acts, but the unfairness of the criminal justice system and the powerlessness felt by those targeted by it.
Lyrics about law enforcement, for example, frequently portrayed cops as predators exercising an illegitimate power. Imprisonment, likewise, was blamed for weakening familial and community relationships and described a modern method of oppression.
Their analysis refutes the idea that hip-hop performers are embracing negative stereotypes of African American men in order to sell albums. Instead, it suggests that the genre retains the politicized messages that it was born with.
Steinmetz and Henderson offer Tupac’s “Crooked Nigga Too” (2004) as an example of a rap that emphasizes how urban Black men are treated unfairly by police.
Yo, why I got beef with police?
Ain’t that a bitch that motherfuckers got a beef with me
They make it hard for me to sleep
I wake up at the slightest peep, and my sheets are three feet deep.
The authors explain:
Police action perceived as hostile and unfair engenders an equally hostile and indignant response from Tupac, indicating a tremendous amount of disrespect for the police.
Likewise, Jay-Z, in “Pray” (2007), raps about cops who keep drugs confiscated from a dealer, emphasizing a “power dynamic in which the dealer was unfairly taken advantage of but was unable to seek redress”:
The same BM [‘‘big mover’’—a drug dealer] is pulled over by the boys dressed blue
they had their guns drawn screaming, “just move or is there something else you suggest we can do?”
He made his way to the trunk
opened it like, “huh?”
A treasure chest was removed
cops said he’ll be back next monthwhat we call corrupt, he calls payin’ dues
Henderson offers Jay-Z’s “Minority Report” as a great overall example:
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Studying up on the literature on gun marketing for a recent interview with the New York Times, I found a 2004 article on the topic with some really interesting findings.
The study — by public health scholar Elizabeth Saylor and two colleagues — asked what tactics marketers use to sell guns in a single month of advertising. In contrast to what you might imagine, only a small minority of gun ads emphasized self-protection (3%) or a Western cowboy lifestyle (5%). Zero percent mentioned protecting one’s family. Only 15% of gun ads linked ownership to patriotism. The most common substantive theme was hunting, but even that was a theme in only 20% of ads.
So what are gun advertisers highlighting in their ads? Technical attributes. The majority of gun ads (91%) emphasize the things that make one gun different from the next. For example, they discuss the quality of the gun (61%), its accuracy (38%) and reliability (35%), and its innovative features (27%) and uniqueness (21%).
Why are gun manufacturers using this marketing strategy?
Here’s where the statistics get really interesting. At the time of the study, 44 million Americans owned firearms. Three-quarters of these owned more than one gun. In fact, 20% of gun owners are in possession of 55% of all guns (excluding law enforcement and military).
In other words, guns are not evenly distributed across the U.S. population, they are concentrated in the hands of a minority. Most people that don’t own a gun are never going to buy one, so the best strategy for gun manufacturers is to convince people that they need lots of guns. Differentiating the technical attributes of one from another is their way of telling the buyer that any given gun will do something different for them than the guns they already have, enticing the gun owner to own a range of guns instead of just one.
There is, however, an underlying class story here that is going unsaid.
Phil Robertson is under fire for making heterosexist comments and trivializing racism in the south in GQ. While I wholeheartedly and vociferously disagree with Robertson, I am also uncomfortable with how he is made to embody the “redneck.” He represents the rural, poor, white redneck from the south that is racist, sexist, and homophobic.
This isn’t just who he is; we’re getting a narrative told by the producers of Duck Dynasty and editors at GQ—extremely privileged people in key positions of power making decisions about what images are proliferated in the mainstream media. When we watch the show or read the interview, we are not viewing the everyday lives of Phil Robertson or the other characters. We are getting a carefully crafted representation of the rural, white, Southern, manly man, regardless of whether or not the man, Phil Robertson, is a bigot (which, it seems, he is).
The stars of Duck Dynasty eight years ago (left) and today (right):
This representation has traction with the American viewing audience. Duck Dynasty is the most popular show on A&E. Folks love their Duck Dynasty.
There are probably many reasons why the show is so popular. Might I suggest that one could be that the “redneck” as stereotyped culture-war icon is pleasurable because he simultaneously makes us feel superior, while saying what many of us kinda think but don’t dare say?
Jackson Katz talks about how suburban white boys love violent and misogynistic Gangsta Rap in particular (not all rap music is sexist and violent, but the most popular among white audiences tends to be this kind). Katz suggests that “slumming” in the music of urban, African American men allows white men to feel their privilege as white and as men. They can symbolically exercise and express sexism and a sense of masculine power when other forms of sexism are no longer tolerated. Meanwhile, everybody points to the rapper as the problem; no one questions the white kid with purchasing power.
Might some of the audience of Duck Dynasty be “slumming” with the bigot to feel their difference and superiority while also getting their own bigot on? The popularity of the show clearly has something to do with the characters’ religiosity and rural life, but I’m guessing it also has something to do with the “redneck” spectacle, allowing others to see their own “backwoods” attitudes reinforced (I’m talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia, not Christianity).
He is a representation of a particular masculinity that makes him compelling to some and abhorrent to others, which also makes him the perfect pawn in the culture wars. Meanwhile, we are all distracted from social structure and those who benefit from media representations of the rural, white, southern bigot.
Sociologists Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Michael Messnersuggest that pointing the finger at the racist and homophobic attitudes of rural, poor whites — or the sexist and homophobic beliefs of brown and black men, like in criticism of rap and hip hop — draws our attention away from structures of inequality that systematically serve the interests of wealthy, white, straight, and urban men who ultimately are the main benefactors. As long as we keep our concerns on the ideological bigotry expressed by one type of loser in the system, no one notices the corporate or government policies and practices that are the real problem.
While all eyes are on the poor, rural, white, Southern bigot, we fail to see the owners of media corporations sitting comfortably in their mansions making decisions about which hilarious down-trodden stereotype to trot out next. Sexist, homophobic, and racist ideology gets a voice, while those who really benefit laugh all the way to the bank.
Sociologists observe that cultures are centered around some people and not others such that members of some groups just seem like people and others are perceived as deviations from that presumed norm.
Names are part of how we divide the world into the normals and the deviants. Illustrating this, the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele are super creative in this 3 minute skit. They reverse the white-teacher-goes-into-the-inner-city trope and put a non-white teacher into a suburban school. As he calls roll, the skit center HIS reality instead of that of the white, middle class kids. He pronounces their names like stereotypically black names, confusing the heck out of the kids, and never considering the possibility that the names he’s familiar with isn’t how all names really are.
It’s not a safe skit — it potentially reinforces the conflation of non-white and urban and the stereotypes of inner city students and the names low-income black parents give their kids — but it does a great job of playing with what life might be like if we shifted the center of the world.
Kids growing up in dense, urban environments often turn to basketball as their sport of choice. This is partly because it fits, in a physical sense. All things being equal, a basketball court takes up a lot less room than a football or soccer field. For the economically disadvantaged, it’s also relatively cheap to play. If you have a court available, you only need a pair of shoes and a ball. For this reason, whatever population finds itself in this type of environment tends to take up basketball.
That’s why the sport was dominated by Jews in the first half of the 1900s. Just like many African-Americans today, at that time many immigrant Jewish families found themselves isolated in inner cities. Basketball seemed like a way out. “It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto,” explained retired ball player Dave Dabrow. Basketball scholarships were one of the few ways low income urban Jews could afford college.
Today we refer to stereotypes about Black men to explain why they dominate basketball, but this is an after-the-fact justification. At the time, very different characteristics — stereotypes associated with Jews — were used to explain why they dominated professional teams. Paul Gallico, sports editor of the NY Daily News in the 1930s, explained that “the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” All stereotypes about Jews. Moreover, he argued, Jews were rather short and so had “God-given better balance and speed.” Yep. There was a time when we thought being short was an advantage in the sport of basketball.
Never underestimate the power of institutions and how much things can change.
In this powerful spoken word, poet Clint Smith, who is also a teacher in Washington D.C., tells the stories of some of his students. It puts names and details to the struggles of young people trying to thrive in an urban environment that is all too often indifferent to their survival.
The partial U.S. map below shows the proportion of the population that was identified as enslaved in the 1860 census. County by county, it reveals where the economy was most dominated by slavery.
A new paper by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen has discovered that the proportion of enslaved residents in 1860 — 153 years ago — predicts race-related beliefs today. As the percent of the population in a county accounted for by the enslaved increases, there is a decreased likelihood that contemporary white residents will identify as a Democrat and support affirmative action, and an increased chance that they will express negative beliefs about black people.
Avidit and colleagues don’t stop there. They try to figure out why. They consider a range of possibilities, including contemporary demographics and the possibility of “racial threat” (the idea that high numbers of black people make whites uneasy), urban-rural differences, the destruction and disintegration caused by the Civil War, and more. Controlling for all these things, the authors conclude that the results are still partly explained by a simple phenomenon: parents teaching their children. The bias of Southern whites during slavery has been passed down intergenerationally.