Joined: Jun 09 2006
Topic: How Stereotypes Explain Everything And Nothing Posted: Apr 08 2014 at 5:58pm
How Stereotypes Explain Everything And Nothing At All
A few days ago, Division I basketball in the 2012-2013 season. The
numbers were striking. Of the 5,380 men's players in the top tier of
college basketball, only 15 were Asian-American. Asian-American ballers
weren't just underrepresented. They were practically invisible.
asking that question, I posited a number of easy explanations for why
this might be so, and explained why none of them was sufficient to
explain why this might be.
But a few people defaulted back to them, anyway. Asian-Americans are too short. They're just too busy studying and excelling at school to be concerned with basketball.
many sons of Jewish immigrants are playing basketball?" one commenter
asked, presumably because Jews are another group often held up as
overachieving models of assimilation.
I want to answer that
question by telling a funny story that reveals a lot about stereotypes
and how once they become fixed and widely accepted, it becomes difficult
not to use them as explanations for everything.
So let's rewind a bit.
back in the early part of the 20th century, leaders at the big Ivy
League schools were deeply concerned that people they considered
undesirables were crushing the Ivy's entrance exams, becoming a bigger
and bigger presence in the student body. According to Jerome Karabel,
the author of The Chosen, Harvard's president Lawrence Lowell
knew that a straight-ahead quota wouldn't be popular among his faculty.
So he came up with a workaround by instituting a whole new admissions
process for potential students — :
agreed to limit the size of the entering class and to institute
recommendation letters and personal interviews. Yale and Princeton
followed suit; and soon came the whole panoply familiar to this day:
lengthy applications, personal essays, descriptions of extracurricular
activities. This cumbersome and expensive process served two central
functions. It allowed the universities to select for an attribute the
disfavored class was thought to lack — i.e., "character" — and it
shrouded the admissions process in impenetrable layers of subjectivity
and opacity, thus rendering it effectively impervious to criticism.
was vague and squishy enough that it could mean just about anything
those administrators wanted it to mean. And what they wanted it to mean
was Not Jewish. The leaders at the Big Three were aghast at the numbers
at New York's Columbia University, which by 1920 was almost 40 percent
Jewish. The number of Jewish students in the next incoming classes at
those schools fell dramatically. Their plan to fix "the Jewish problem"
But there was one unforeseen wrinkle: the new
admissions policies crushed the Ivies' ability to recruit and retain top
basketball talent. After the Yale Bulldogs finished dead last in the
Ivy League after the 1922 season — and were trounced by a Jewish
community team — some angry alumni demanded that the University stop
discriminating against Jewish applicants to their schools. One star
Jewish player, Sam Pite, left the Yale team because he felt he had been
mistreated by his bigoted coach. He eventually came back after a
coaching change, and the Bulldogs won the conference title the next
That's right. In the decades before World War II,
basketball was dominated by Jews. (Or, if you prefer, the sons of Jewish
immigrants.) There were amateur leagues in Jewish communities all
over, and especially in big cities like New York and Philadelphia, where
many young Jewish boys saw hoops as their way out of poverty.
The City College of New York basketball team in 1932.
New York Daily News Archive/New York Daily News via Getty Images
, Jon Entine laid out the backdrop:
is a city game," notes Sonny Hill, a local icon who has run a
high-school summer league for more than 35 years. "If you trace
basketball back to the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, that's when the Jewish
people were very dominant in the inner city. And they dominated
Not even New York could challenge the City of
Brotherly Love in basketball talent. From 1918 onward, the South
Philadelphia Hebrew Association team, or SPHAs (pronounced "Spas"),
barnstormed across the East and Midwest, playing in a variety of semipro
leagues that were precursors to the NBA. [...]
boy was playing basketball," said the late Harry Litwack, who starred
for the SPHAs in the 1930s before going on to coach Temple for 21 years.
"Every phone pole had a peach basket on it. And every one of those
Jewish kids dreamed of playing for the SPHAs."
absolutely a way out of the ghetto," added Dave Dabrow, also deceased, a
guard with the original SPHAs. "It was where the young Jewish boy would
never have been able to go to college if it wasn't for the amount of
basketball playing and for the scholarship." Sound familiar?
writes that the main reasons Jews dominated hoops were sociological —
owing to the makeup of inner-cities and the lack of economic
opportunities therein. But that didn't stop observers like from positing some other more, uh, colorful theories about why that might be.
"[Basketball] appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background," he wrote, according to Arieh Sclar, the author of A Sport At Which Jews Excel.
Gallico added that it sat well with the "temperament of the Jews"
because it "places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy
trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart alecness."
Gallico, the existing widely-held (and cartoonishly anti-Semitic)
stereotypes about Jews also conveniently explained why the sport was
dominated by them. And it wasn't just Gallico. Coaches back then also
tended to view Jewish players — who were perceived as shorter — as
better suited for the game, because the game's rules at that time
actually disadvantaged taller players. After changes in the rules and
changes in the ways Jewish communities were organized, basketball's
demographics rapidly began to shift.
People tend to think that stereotypes are honest reflections of
what they see in the world. But instead, they often shape how we see the
world, how we metabolize the data in front of us.It's confirmation
bias: if people see a lot of Jews playing and dominating basketball, and
the common stereotype is that Jews are crafty schemers, in the popular
imagination, the sport becomes about crafty scheming. And if someone
were writing back then about why so few blacks were among the game's
biggest names, they'd probably fall back on hoary stereotypes about
black players lacking the necessary intelligence or craftiness or work
It says something that when people explain why there are
so few Asian-Americans in college basketball today, they summon the
very tropes that once were used to explain why there were so many Jewish players.
Jews are so crafty and short; of course they'd succeed at basketball!
Asians are so intelligent and short; why would they be playing
Stereotypes rest on observations that appear to be superficially true: a lot of top basketball players are black.
But over time, stereotypes transform from observations of patterns into
rules, and eventually into self-reflexive explanations for those rules.
Stereotypes become self-reinforcing. A lot of top basketball players are black because black folks are innately better at basketball.
Eventually, they actually blind us to the complex mix of sociological,
economic and historic circumstances that undergird those patterns.
why a question like that — "Why are there so few Asian-Americans in
Division I basketball?" — is worth asking. It's the type of question
that exposes where our stereotypes have disguised themselves as
explanations, and lets us search for the real explanations, in all their
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