Last month, on the eve of Georgetown University’s match-up with Ohio State University in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, we observed that many fans have questioned the ability of Georgetown players–who, since the 1980s, have almost all been African-American, and whose reputation has frequently centered on their “athleticism”–to “grasp” the “complex, precise” offense used by Princeton University’s men’s basketball team for so many years. That offense was brought to Hoyas by John Thompson III (“JT3”), son of the famed Georgetown coach John Thompson, whom Georgetown hired away from the Tigers.
We argued that the origin of these doubts can be found in the largely subconscious knowledge structures and implicit associations in our minds and reproduced and reinforced in our culture and its institutions. In other words, doubting the capacity of African-Americans to master a relatively complex and intellectually demanding playbook is not a sports phenomenon; it’s an American phenomenon expressing itself in the context of college basketball.
Yesterday, we came across a column by Dan Daly in The Washington Times that provides some support for our analysis. Daly praises John Thompson III in his column, and is particularly effusive of Thompson’s capacity to get regular, mainstream American folks to like Georgetown basketball players again. We have excerpted pieces of Thompson’s column below (between the asterisks):
* * *
This is a new experience, actually liking a Georgetown basketball team — liking the way it plays, the way it conducts itself on the court. You could appreciate the teams of John Thompson the Elder, their muscle and hustle, but they were hard to embrace. Indeed, they always gave the impression they didn’t want to be loved, wouldn’t know what to do with love, weren’t all that familiar with love.
It was a pose, a lot of it — a silly pose, really, this us-against-the-world, Hoya Paranoia nonsense. But it was the program’s persona nonetheless, and it served Georgetown quite well for quite some time, especially when it was going to three Final Fours in four years in the ’80s. Hoyas basketball in those days was the hoops equivalent of Shock and Awe; John Thompson would roll out his bound-for-the NBA centers — Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning — the way Hannibal rolled out his elephants . . . and then trample the opposition.
Before long, Georgetown became the favored team of America’s Young Gangstas, who made Hoyas gear their official uniform. Georgetown’s chip on its shoulder, its defiance, its physicality — all resonated in the angry, might-makes-right world of the inner city. No one could have anticipated such a consequence, of course, but it was the last thing the image-challenged program needed. The Georgetown Hoyas: [notorious Washington D.C. drug dealer] Rayful Edmond’s team. Talk about a good cause turned bad.
Happily, the current Hoyas are none of those things . . . .
It’s a new era on the Hilltop, all right. The name’s the same, but so much else has changed. One of these days, I’m firmly convinced, JT3 will recruit a white All-American; it just makes sense, given the nature of the Princeton offense.
And then the transformation will be complete.
* * *
There is a lot to react to there, but we’ll focus on just a few elements. Daly’s final point, it seems, is that as Georgetown basketball players play and act more “white,” and as they further distance themselves from the “gangsta” and “us-against-the-world” attitude commonly associated with urban-based, young African-American men, the more mainstream America will like them. Sadly enough, Daly is probably right, which would seem to say as much, if not more, about us and our race associations and attributions than it does about Georgetown University or Princeton University or basketball in general.
Indeed, this same point has been raised of the NBA’s recent efforts to “reign in” its players, approximately 81 percent of whom are African-American. Spearheaded by Commissioner David Stern, the NBA has recently mandated a dress code of all NBA players, collectively-bargained an age limit that prevents 18-year-old men–or, as Stern likes to call them, “kids“–from entering the NBA until enough “life experience” has passed in college; and, most recently, sought to prohibit NBA players from frequenting certain nightclubs. Most believe the NBA is motivated solely by economic considerations: forcing players to appeal more to mainstream America will improve the league’s popularity and generate more revenue for the league. But why does mainstream America want NBA players to look and act “more white”?
It seems the popularity of the sport of basketball or of particular teams or players depends on the extent to which they are associated with white or black stereotypes. The old Hoyas team comes off in Daly’s article as not quite human — angry, overpowering, unlovable, and unloving brutes (or perhaps elephants) in need of some civilizing discipline and leadership — the stuff of traditional conceptions of black men.
As far as we know, Daly’s column has elicited no significant reaction or outcry from the public. In our view, however, his analysis shares something in common with Don Imus’s scandalous description of the Rutger’s women’s basketball. When Imus described the women as a group of “nappy-headed hos” (see video below) he was reinforcing a longstanding and still robust cultural stereotype.
Perhaps Daly’s paragraphs are more palatable because he seems at times to treat the gangsta attitude or “pose” as as “silly” “nonsense.” Still, in the end, his point seems to be that a complex offense requires even more “whiteness” than JT3 has been able to create with his mostly black players.
Thus both are accepting and promoting damaging negative racial stereotypes — one through a failed joke the other through a serious argument or factual claim. The point of the comparison is not to suggest that we should heap our collective scorn on Dan Daly the way that many have on Don Imus for “revealing his true (racist) disposition.” Our point is to suggest the possibility that the same sort of problematic stereotyping that has given rise to the censuring, and now the firing, of Imus are often taken very much in stride — as obvious, common-sensical, even funny truisms. For a variety of reasons, our collective ire tends to be activated by some manifestations of such stereotypes but not other. To glimpse one of those reasons, it is illuminating to take a closer look at the Imus debacle.
The thrust of Don Imus’s ten-minute apology on Monday (see video below) was that he and his comments should be judged within their “context.” “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person, but I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know it was not said with malice.” In his exchange with Al Sharpton, Imus stated,
“I think what makes a difference, a crucial difference is: What was my intent? Am I some rabid, racist, vicious person whose on a rampage screaming and got on the radio and turned on the microphone and said ‘here’s what think these women are’? That’s not what I did.”
Elsewhere he’s insisted: “I am not a racist. . . . What I did was make a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context.” In short, consider my situation, and don’t judge my disposition.
Many Americans aren’t buying it. Today-show personality Al Roker had this to say on his blog on Wednesday:
Don and his wife have done a lot of good things. Raising money for charity, including a ranch for children suffereing from cancer and blood disorders. Yet, Don Imus needs to be fired for what he said. . . . The “I’m a good person who said a bad thing” apology doesn’t cut it.”
Roker’s point seems to be that the words speak for themselves, and they provide all the evidence we need that Imus is, his good acts notwithstanding, a racist. Mary Ellen Schoonmaker writes today that “Imus is a bully and a bigot, no matter how many good causes he’s involved in.” Similarly, when Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked why Imus would make such offensive remarks, the answer was treated as obvious: “The simple answer would be — all together now — racism.” “I can accept that Imus doesn’t believe he is racist, but ‘nappy-headed hos’ had to come from somewhere.”
That “somewhere,” many assume, must be his true, racist core — in his disposition. For instance, Elmer Smith, in one short op-ed, calls Imus’s remarks evidence of his “raw racism,” “quintessential racism,” and “stone-cold racis[m].” With those dispositionist presumptions, Imus’s apologies and contrition are viewed as disingenuous — a calculated, if transparent, attempt to cover up or deny the revealed truth of the matter — and his two-week suspension was seen as too weak a punishment.
We want to suggest that Imus’s despicable phrase came not so much from “somewhere” in the heart of Imus, but from everywhere: from our history, our culture, our practices, and our explicit and implicit ways of making sense of our world. As has been summarized elsewhere on this blog, racial stereotypes are all around us and within us.
Such racial and gender stereotypes are neither new nor rare. They are robust and ubiquitous. They can be detected quietly swirling about in the minds of pretty much anyone who is raised in this culture. Such stereotypes and associations are likely influencing everything from what sports we like (or not) and what teams we love (or despise) to what we expect from certain players or teams and how we construe the behavior of those individuals or groups. More important, those stereotypes are probably influencing many of the interactions and attributions that occur in our society well beyond those on the basketball court. (Those are topics to which many of The Situationist contributors, including Professors Banaji, Kang, Krieger & Nosek, devote the bulk of their scholarly energy.)
In other work, one of us has explored why our reactions to comments like those Imus made are so vehement, while our reactions to slightly less blatant manifestations of racial stereotypes (such as those by Daly) are often quite anemic. There seems to be a threshold or “line” which, once crossed, elicits a response that is vastly different in kind than our response to those behaviors that fall just on the other side of that line. When we identify a “racist” — an individual reveals himself or herself to be explicitly racist — we excoriate that person, despite the fact that many common attributions reflect the same sort of cognitive presumptions or biases, although less blatantly.
Or is it “because of”? Don Imus insists, “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person.” Few could deny that Imus has many times behaved as if he were “a good person.” And few among us would say anything else about himself or herself. And yet the stereotypes that we purport to abhor when articulated explicitly reside within most of us unexamined and unchallenged, sometimes wielding influence on our cognitions and behavior. We are, in a way, all carriers of the same virus that was manifested in Don Imus’s remarks. Are we bad people, therefore? And, if not, why are we so eager to find that, just because “‘nappy-headed hos’ had to come from somewhere,” that somewhere must have been Imus’s racist core? (To be sure, few of us can imagine ever uttering those words in the way that Imus did, but Imus’s job is to put into words, often extreme and offensive words, feelings and inklings that many in his wide audience already have.)
In her recent post on the moral obligation to be intelligent, Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji observed that,
“[f]rom study after study pointing to the bounds on our ability to be who we’d like to be, in a thousand different ways, the pillar of 20th century social psychology was erected to show that good people can be bad . . . and just as bad as bad people!”
We suspect that one way to avoid that moral obligation is by fixating on “the bad people” and assuring ourselves that we are not them. Put differently, by looking for and finding occasional dispositional “racists,” we may be able to avoid taking seriously the possibility that racism is in the situation and thus within ourselves.
“Here’s what I’ve learned,” Imus said in his long Monday apology: “You can’t make fun of everybody, because some people don’t deserve it.”
Imus seems to understand what he did as wrong in this case largely because he is feeling the brunt of the same weapon that he’s been wielding. He is conceding that the Rutgers women don’t deserve to be branded with his dispositionist label and that he, the purveyor of those hurtful remarks, doesn’t deserve to branded with a dispositionist label. Imus is feeling the sting of his own venom. The sword he lives by, has stuck him in the foot (which, of course, happens to be firmly ensconced in his mouth).
Interestingly, the Rutgers Women’s basketball team press conference held earlier this week had much in common with Imus’s apology: Don’t judge us by that label. We are good people. In fact, among us are “valedictorians, musical prodigies, future doctors and, yes, even Girl Scouts.”
What Imus doesn’t seem to realize is that his entire shock-jock career has been built on satisfying that craving to dispositionalize and further marginalize the vulnerable (be they members of groups that are chronically oppressed or powerful individuals who are embroiled in scandal). He trades in dispositionalizing cultural stereotypes. And just as it makes some of us laugh along as Imus has made fun virtually everybody, it brings most of us a strange sort of satisfaction to identify the racist in our midst.
But we should be troubled by both dispositionalizing tendencies. To focus our unmitigated anger on Imus is to miss the situation — not so much the situation that Imus himself would point us toward, but the situation that we ourselves are all inhaling and exhaling.
If Imus really wants to learn the lessons of this whole event, he needs to begin by understanding that his own unexamined judgment regarding who “deserves” to be laughed at or punished is likely to be terribly wrong — and that the truth is not measured by the extent to which large audiences laugh along or protest. He needs to understand that the damage is done regardless of his own perceived “intent.”
If he feels unfairly judged for having unfairly judged, he should understand that he is simply the brunt of practice that is far larger than those two events. If he believes that his comments were wrong and hurtful, as he now insists they were, then he must also understand that whether or not there was “malice,” he has a moral obligation to recognize that “good people can be bad . . . and just as bad as bad people.”
And so do we.