Monday, March 22, 2010

Mid Majors and White Privilege (Part VI in a Never Ending Series)

And with that stone-cold shot, Prince Ali takes down the overall number one seed in the NCAA tourney. Yet my beloved Panthers still get little love (outside of Iowa, where the bandwagon is getting pretty full). And it strikes me that the plight of the mid-major school is a good analogy for white privilege.

White privilege is the concept that because of the US racial hierarchy, all white people have some form of privilege (a lot more enters into it, like class and gender, but still, all white people experience it to some degree). Mostly it comes through "invisible" practices, such as being able to choose any home you want to buy instead of being steered toward certain locations. Or having your mistakes more easily forgiven. But here's how it applies to tourney basketball...

The Big East is one of the most privileged conferences in college basketball. And much like white people in America, much of that privilege is unearned. It's not that the Big East doesn't have hard working teams or any good teams, because they do, it's simply that their teams are often given more credit than they deserve. And much like white privilege, this is (usually) not an explicit process. For example, this year, half of the teams from the Big East got into the tournament (an unusually high number for any conference), which has proved to be a mistake, as the Big East so far is struggling to keep a .500 record in the tourney, with many of their top teams having already taken a quick exit. I'd be willing to bet none of the selection committee put them in simply because they're from the Big East. But the Big East schools do play near the major media outlets and have far more games on television than a mid-major like UNI, which is on TV once a year, if that. As such, when a Big East team has a bad game, the media folks that rank them will see it and put it in context. Maybe their star was sick, maybe the refs missed some calls, maybe they were just unlucky, etc. But when UNI loses, they only see the box score, and say "well, they must not be for real."

Similarly, when the Big East does poorly, like they're doing this year, it's dismissed as a one time aberration. Sports media say the Big East is having a down year, and you know next year they'll get an inflated number of tourney bids. In the same way, failures of whites are generally chalked up to personal flaws or extenuating circumstances, not a reflection of the incapability of the entire race. However, when the Missouri Valley Conference has a bad showing in the tourney, it's instead offered up as proof they don't belong, and the next year they will get only the automatic qualifier in, much the same way the failures of minorities are often attributed to the entire racial category.

And this same process happens with whites in many fields. Take employment, for example. We know from Devah Pager's outstanding audit studies that a white person with a criminal record is more likely to be offered a job than an equally qualified black applicant without a criminal record. And again, much like in the tourney selection process, I bet very few employers are explicitly being racist. Rather, they themselves are probably white, so when they see a white person with flaws, they can understand and rationalize them. But when they see a black person, who has already been stereotyped as a criminal, any perceived problem is assumed to define the person. Just like a team like UNI -- which is already assumed to be unable to compete with the major conference teams -- when they lose, it's not because they had an off night or the officiating was bad, it's seen as the inevitable conclusion for such a team.

And when teams like this do win, they're almost always seen as the exception that proves the rule. With all the talk of UNI's "luck" no one seems to notice the stellar defense they played or solid game-planning. And when (if?) they lose to a major team at some point in the tourney, it won't be an upset, but rather proof they can't really hang with the big teams, despite the fact they just dominated the consensus number one team.

Finally, it's also a good example of why we need programs like affirmative action, or as the NYTimes put it, more UNIs and less Minnesotas (another under-qualified major conference team given a tourney position). Many in college basketball argue that the winners of mid-major conference tournaments shouldn't get an automatic bid, as it takes away a spot from a more qualified team, just like opponents of Affirmative Action claim it takes jobs away from qualified whites. But this again is a great example of how that's not the case -- rather than taking spots from qualified whites (or major conference teams), it gives a chance to qualified teams who otherwise would not have gotten their shot. And more often than not, those who benefit from finally getting an equal chance usually prove their worth, whether it be through being a productive employee, award-winning scholar, or taking down the consensus number one seed in the NCAA tournament.

You see? Everything can be explained with sociology...Go Panthers!

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