Why It's Never About Race

Something just doesn't add up when we talk about race.

Posted Apr 18, 2011

Of course racism still exists, but race didn't factor into this particular decision in any way, shape, or form.

Last month, Brigham Young University suspended from its nationally ranked men's basketball team starting forward Brandon Davies (left). That a major college team would have cause to discipline one of its own was hardly shocking. But the nature of Davies' honor code violation was: reportedly, he was dismissed for having consensual sex with his girlfriend.

Sports talk radio was abuzz with discussion of the Davies case. On one side of the issue, some argued that BYU should be lauded for standing on principle and enforcing its own rules in an athletic landscape in which looking the other way is often the only way. On the other hand, some criticized such a harsh penalty for behavior that is commonplace among a college population.

It was an interesting debate that I found myself listening to during my morning commute one day. But the radio discourse turned ugly when one of the callers suggested that the university's actions had been influenced by race. You see, Brandon Davies is African-American, and fewer than 1% of his fellow BYU students are Black.

Callers to the talk radio show were, in a word, pissed. The suggestion that race had anything to do with Davies' punishment was met with outrage and even anger by listeners. The students knew what the honor code was when they enrolled at BYU, they argued. The school was simply enforcing its rules by the book.

Sure, sometimes race biases the judgments people make, but it had absolutely nothing to do with this case–this decision was based on objective criteria.

Caller after caller to the show recounted the ostensibly legitimate, race-neutral factors that justified BYU's decision. Some even suggested that the mere insinuation that race played any role in the university's decision was what was truly offensive here.

And so it goes with discussion of race in contemporary America. An allegation that race played a role in an event, followed by immediate and angry denials, ending with the ultimate conclusion that while racial bias still exists, it didn't play any role in the incident at hand.

But the funny thing is, while you often hear lip service paid in these debates to the notion that racial bias does emerge "in some instances," it's hard to get anyone to tell you what those cases actually are. It often seems as if the "in some cases" people cite refers only to incidents in far removed times or locales–never to the here or to the now. Racism always seems like the problem that other people have in other neighborhoods in other eras.

I know these individuals personally and they're all good people with strong values. Trust me, race had nothing to do with this.

Let's take a closer look at the BYU case. This week, a sociologist formerly at the university wrote an article on the sports website deadspin.com detailing the history of race, athletics, and honor code violations at the school. According to his analysis, 80% of athletes suspended from BYU since 1993 have been minority students. And the story details numerous instances in which White athletes with major violations were given a second chance, whereas Black (and other non-Mormon) students with minor offenses were not.

Sure, there are two sides to every story and I imagine officials at BYU would offer specific rejoinders to the allegations made in this report. For that matter, this wasn't a peer-reviewed academic paper and I haven't examined the data myself. But at the very least, the article suggests that it was not utterly ridiculous or baseless to suggest that race played a role in the Davies matter. There's a reasonable debate to be had here, even if many Americans don't want to hear it.

Instead, we continue to insist on taking a dispositional, personality-based view of racial bias. Only "racists" exhibit bias, we think. Therefore, to admit that race could have played a role in a given decision is to paint the decision-maker in the broad brushstrokes of hopeless bigotry. And we're hesitant to do that since most of the decision-makers in question don't look to us like out-and-out bigots. Instead, we assume there must be a reasonable race-neutral explanation:

• Most employers aren't racists, so racial disparity in a company's hiring tendencies must result from other factors, like there simply not being enough strong applications from qualified minority candidates.

• Few attorneys or judges are bigots, so what look to be racial differences in say, how they evaluate potential jurors must result from other, race-neutral considerations in their jury selection calculations.

• The arresting officer used to run diversity training sessions for his colleagues, so race couldn't have played a role in his decision to arrest the Black professor who was legally inside his own home–the professor must have been a disorderly jerk who warranted arrest.

• Race has nothing to do with it; we just don't believe that the dark-skinned president with the funny name was born in this country (or that many of his supporters are "real Americans," for that matter).

The ready availability of race-neutral explanations for any given decision allows us to stick to the party line that "this one isn't about race." But the aggregated data tell different stories. Résumés with Black-sounding names get 50% fewer call-backs than résumés with White-sounding names. The same juror background is seen more positively by a prosecutor when the juror is White than when the juror is Black. And so on.

How dare you suggest that race had anything to do with it. I don't have a racist bone in my body. In fact, some of my best friends are Black.

Do I think BYU administrators are closeted bigots out to get Black student-athletes? Not at all. But that's not the question–that's not the only way that racial bias works.

What I think is that the data indicate that university officials are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to honor code violators who are White. Much like a police officer or prosecutor might give a second chance to a kid "from a good family," while deciding to throw the book at the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. These aren't racial disparities born out of hatred or animus, but at the end of the day, they're still problematic disparities based on race.

Most of us are willing to admit that racial bias still exists. Few of us, however, see any particular decision or outcome as having been shaped by race. When you take a step back and think about these two notions, something just doesn't add up.


Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.