The Situationist

Archive for October 12th, 2007

Yi Jianlian and Reverse Prejudice

Posted by Jason Chung on October 12, 2007

Yi Jianlian

Apparently, Chinese basketball star Yi Jianlian is no longer wary of Caucasian communities – at least those in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On August 29, 2007, the Milwaukee Bucks managed to sign their first-round draft pick in the 2007 National Basketball Association draft but only after their owner, Herb Kohl, reportedly personally assured the youngster of certain special privileges – such as playing more than 20 minutes per game in his rookie season (though this has been denied by Bucks officials). A gifted athlete, passer and finisher, Yi overcame doubts regarding his true age and convinced the Milwaukee Bucks to make him an early lottery pick. This decision by the Bucks proved to be highly problematic on draft night when Yi and his Chinese team refused to confirm that he would, in fact, sign with the team that had drafted him.

Problematic, but not surprising. Even prior to the draft, Yi and his entourage had made noises about wanting to choose where he landed (translation: NOT some place like Milwaukee). Yi even refused to work out for the Bucks organization. Prior to Kohl’s last-minute heroics, it appeared as if the sixth overall pick would remain steadfast in his refusal to play in Milwaukee. Interestingly, while Yi himself personally showed little resistance to the idea, his “advocates” on both sides of the Pacific quickly concocted numerous professional and business reasons for his supposed disapproval of the team. In China, Chen Haitao, owner of Yi’s former Chinese basketball club, focused on Yi’s basketball development, claiming that Milwaukee had “too many tall players like Yi” and that the 2008 Chinese basketball team for the Beijing Olympics could suffer “[if] Yi goes to a team where he can’t keep up his level of play.” In North America, rumors circulated that Yi’s agent, Dan Fegan, wanted him in a major media market to increase his marketing potential and visibility. Maximixing the bucks, Fegan understands, means not being one.

But ostensible professional and business concerns now seem to have been pretextual. Or, in any event, they were soon eclipsed by the fact that, according to a myriad of sources, Yi Jianlian’s handlers didn’t want him residing in region without a significant Asian community. This concern was readily accepted by the national sports media. Most media outlets dutifully parroted Fegan’s argument that a larger Asian community would serve Yi’s marketability and integration into the United States far better than a relatively homogeneous white population could.

Although sports commentators might have taken Fegan to task, instead, they embraced his logic and conclusion. They made much of the fact that Asian-Americans numbered only 27,500 in the metro Milwaukee area and that, among those, the Chinese-American population stood at a mere 1,200. In fact, some news outlets such as claimed that the city of Milwaukee’s image as a tolerant and foreigner-friendly city was at stake after the Bucks’ pick.

Thus, the message was clear – if Yi wanted to function as a businessman and as an accepted member of an American community, he would have to go to a place where Asians had already established institutional completeness and thus had economic and social clout at least somewhat independent of a Caucasian community which risked not fully accepting him due to race.

yi-jianlian-dunk.jpgThis argument made by Yi’s agents and unchallenged by most of the sports media may reveal a reverse prejudice that ought to be critically examined. At the very least, we should all be a little cautious about generalizing about one group’s expected reaction to a member of another identity group.

Let me be clear. I am not concerned with or referring to the highly politicized version of the term reverse prejudice (or its related cousin reverse discrimination) which is invoked by certain sectors of society to deny the necessity and logic behind programs such as affirmative action (which seeks to increase ethnically proportional representation in public life in order to rectify historically disadvantaged minority groups such as women and ethnic minorities). Rather, I am referring to prejudice in its broadest terms whereby “prejudice refers to a negative or hostile attitude toward another social group, usually racially defined.”

In the Yi case, a negative attitude toward whites is being expressed — that is, that whites as a group would not or could not accept Yi as fully as an Asian community would or could. But is that necessarily true? To begin with, there is little empirical evidence suggesting that ethnic communities would automatically support members of their own nationality or ethnic background in a sustained manner independent of their on-field success.

Since at least 1997, in a majority-white national population, African-American players comprise over two-thirds of the National Football League and NBA and a quick look at jersey sales in China reveals that Yao Ming, a genuine Chinese-born and bred NBA superstar, is only number six in overall sales – trailing five African-Americans. The assumption that ethnic communities will disproportionately support their own above all lacks conclusive empirical support.

Similarly, it is far from obvious that Asian players will be anything less than vaulted heroes among a team’s fans and followers – no matter the region. For example, Boston-area fans, Asian and non-Asian alike, have embraced Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima not due to their ethnicity but due to their exciting array of pitches and live arms. At least in the world of sports, racial biases are often dampened by primary desire to see athletic excellence. Racial-group associations, in other words, can be overshadowed by team associations. Uniforms often supplant other socially salient demarcations of group identity.

Matsuzak and Okajima Join Sox Celebration - image by Tyler Kepner for NYTimes

A central tension in the fight against prejudice in all its forms is the fact that ethnic majorities and minorities tend to view the problem of racism and prejudice differently. A study conducted at Stanford University in 1992 by John H. Bunzel showed that whites believed prejudice to be universal, whereas ethnic minorities (in the Bunzel study, blacks) equated racism and prejudice with “oppression by a racial group in power.” Thus, whites defined prejudice as “the degrading of other people because of their color – in short, hostility against individuals and groups because of their background or membership in one race or another” while blacks believed that only whites could be guilty of prejudice.

To be sure, prejudice that justifies and reinforces existing disparities wealth, power, privilege, and the like is often more harmful than a subordinate group’s prejudice against a superordinate group. Still, though, neither type of prejudice is without its costs. The problem with the power-sensitive definition of prejudice is that it trivializes the effects of stereotyping and prejudice in the other direction, such as outgroup homogeneity bias and group attribution error.

Outgroup homogeneity bias occurs when an individual sees members of his own group as more varied than members of other groups. Consequently, out-group members are differentiated from in-group members who, in turn, are also viewed as more interchangeable with other out-group members since they are perceived to be quite similar in attitudes and preferences. “They all look alike,” “they all think alike,” “they’re all alike,” are three common presumptions about members of groups outside our own. Outgroup homogeneity is especially potent when combined with group attribution error, whereby the actions of one individual can be equated with the inherent disposition of an entire group.

A post by Asian-American poster Koreana Hoosier at as the Yi situation unfolded illustrates the dynamics of both outgroup homogeneity bias and group attribution error when he equates the actions of a “white douchebag . . . from Wisconsin” and “anatomy professor [from] Wisconsin” with the racial attitudes of the entire “northern Midwest.” Koreana_Hoosier goes so far to say that “I hope another Chai Vang incident starts up again, since those white punks in cheese land are acting up against Asians in that area.” He commits outgroup homogeneity bias and group attribution error when he equates his experiences with two white Wisconsinites as being representative of the Caucasian community of the northern Midwest and concludes by hoping for an escalation of ethnic tension between two ethnic groups. This is how frighteningly easy a dangerous stereotype of an entire race is formed and due to the self-fulfilling nature of stereotypes, it can influence not only the attitudes but important actions between members of differing racial groups. For example, white physicians may believe the stereotype that blacks are less likely to comply with treatment and subsequently give them less care which, in turn, causes resentment among blacks towards white physicians which leads them to more easily disregard their medical advice.

In the end, if there no reluctance to make generalizations about any segment of the population, the problems of ethnic differentiation may be exacerbated. As noted in a previously highlighted excerpt in the Situationist, perhaps even some guilt or negative social reaction is in order:

Guilt plays a vital role in the regulation of social behaviour. On one hand, the punitive feeling of guilt may keep you from repeating the same transgressive behavior in the future which psychologists call “withdrawal motivation.” Conversely, some researchers view the function of guilt in a societal context, in that; it keeps people’s behavior in line with the moral standards of their community. This view emphasizes a more positive emotional experience and is associated with “approach motivation.”

Work by David M. Amadio, Patricia G. Devine and Eddie Harmon-Jones indicates that both approaches to viewing guilt are intertwined. As noted in their article, “guilt is initially associated with withdrawal motivation, which then transforms into approach-motivated behavior when an opportunity for reparation presents itself.” Guilt, then, may play some role in alleviating societal racial prejudices by creating both internal conflict and conflict with external social norms. If the sort of reverse prejudice evident in the Yi story is not called out at appropriate times, the positive behavior and attitudinal modification is unlikely to occur.

Luckily, attitudes can be changed as a function of experience as well as guilt and perhaps Yi’s grudging but final acceptance of playing Milwaukee as well as his enthusiastic reception by the community, Caucasian and Asian alike, can open up new dialogues between the Caucasian and Asian-American communities in the “northern Midwest.”

Regrettably, majority-led racism and prejudice does still exist in Middle America and even today sports commentators in Omaha, Nebraska can mock entire communities on-air by adopting a stereotypical Asian accent (“Mirraukee”) and call Chinese people “Chinamen” with little to no repercussion (as the video below illustrates).

In the end, I hope that all forms of prejudice will be more vigilantly challenged — from the implicit attitudes that go unnoticed to the explicit attitudes that go unchallenged.

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Numerous previous Situationist posts, including the following, have looked at different types of stereotypes and their effects: Unlevel Playing Fields,” “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Black History is Now” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,” “Prejudice Against the Obese,” “Your Group Is Bad at Math,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “Dueling Stereotypes and the Law,” and “Don W-Ho? Situationist Contributor Jerry Kang has an interesting 1996 article on the problem of “negative action” against Asian Americans which can result from certain forms of affirmative action.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 13 Comments »

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