Back in 2007, The New York Times published the preliminary results of a study by economists Joe Price and Justin Wolfers on racial bias in NBA referees. It suggested that white referees called more fouls against black players and vice versa.
Rather than accepting that this implicit bias existed in the NBA, as it does in society at large, David Stern, the NBA commissioner, condemned the research. Somewhat misguidedly, some NBA stars even came out and assured us all that the NBA wasn’t racist. After the initial uproar, the conflict slowly went away.
However, on Friday, the full study was finally published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a widely respected peer-review journal. This all but verifies the initial results.
As Henry Abbot of True Hoop points out, what Stern—and anyone else who was quick to denounce the original Times piece—didn’t realize is that most of us maintain some sort of implicit racial bias. It doesn’t appear when we make well thought-out decisions, but when we make quick, snap judgments. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell’s second bestseller, Blink, is based around.
The lesson Gladwell, Winfrey, Harvard researchers, and others took from this was about environment: We may have reached a point where a lot of explicit racism (the kinds of things we’d associate with hate speech, the klan, segregation, and the like) is largely behind us. But our brains are still bombarded with images of “bad” black people and “good” white ones, which affects our quick reactions to white and black faces.
For the study, Price and Wolfers analyzed over 600,000 calls from the 1991 to the 2004 NBA season. Price said:
It’s not that we found there are any referees who are really racially biased. It’s just that there’s this consistent pattern, that black referees tend to favor black players and that white referees tend to favor white players. And the other thing that we found is that highest level of racial bias occurs when you have all white referees or all black referees.
This isn’t a damning statistic for the NBA, regardless of what Stern thinks. It only verifies that NBA refs are human just like the rest of us. We’re all a little bit racist. Don’t believe me? Find out for yourself.