How Baseball Explains Modern Racism

America’s pastime reveals a larger lesson about conditioned behavior in an institutionally racist society.

David Sirota

Alexei Ramirez of the Chicago White Sox yells at 1st base umpire Bruce Dreckman after being called out in June 2010 in Chicago, Ill.

Despite recent odes to post-racial” sen­si­bil­i­ties, per­sis­tent racial wage and unem­ploy­ment gaps show that prej­u­dice is alive and well in Amer­i­ca. Nonethe­less, that tru­ism is often angri­ly denied or will­ful­ly ignored in our soci­ety, in part, because prej­u­dice is so much more dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize on a day-to-day basis. As opposed to the Jim Crow era of white hoods and lynch mobs, 21st cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can big­otry is now more often an unseen crime of the sub­tle and the reflex­ive – and the crime scene tends to be the shad­owy nuances of hir­ing deci­sions, per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions and plau­si­ble deniability.

Researchers found that home-plate umpires call disproportionately more strikes for pitchers in their same ethnic group.

Thank­ful­ly, though, we now have base­ball to help shine a light on the prob­lem so that every­one can see it for what it real­ly is.

Today, Major League Base­ball games using QuesTec’s com­put­er­ized pitch-mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem are the most sta­tis­ti­cal­ly quan­tifi­able work­places in Amer­i­ca. Match up QuesTec’s accu­mu­lat­ed data with demo­graph­ic infor­ma­tion about who is pitch­ing and who is call­ing balls and strikes, and you get the indis­putable proof of how eth­nic­i­ty does indeed play a part in dis­cre­tionary deci­sions of those in pow­er positions. 

This is exact­ly what South­ern Methodist University’s researchers did when they exam­ined more than 3.5 mil­lion pitch­es from 2004 to 2008. Their find­ings say as much about the endur­ing rela­tion­ship between sports and big­otry as they do about the synap­tic nature of racism in all of Amer­i­can society. 

First and fore­most, SMU found that home-plate umpires call dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly more strikes for pitch­ers in their same eth­nic group. Because most home-plate umpires are white, this has been a big form of racial priv­i­lege for white pitch­ers, who researchers show are, on aver­age, get­ting dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly more of the ben­e­fit of the doubt on close calls.

Sec­ond, SMU researchers found that minor­i­ty pitch­ers react­ed to umpire bias by play­ing it safe with the pitch­es they threw in a way that actu­al­ly harmed their per­for­mance and sta­tis­tics.” Basi­cal­ly, these hurlers adjust­ed to the white umpires’ arti­fi­cial­ly nar­row­er strike zone by throw­ing pitch­es down the heart of the plate, where they were eas­i­er for bat­ters to hit.

Final­ly, and per­haps most impor­tant­ly, the data sug­gest that racial bias is prob­a­bly oper­at­ing at a sub­con­scious lev­el, where the umpire doesn’t even rec­og­nize it.

To doc­u­ment this, SMU com­pared the per­cent­age of strikes called in QuesTec-equipped ball­parks ver­sus non-QuesTec parks. Researchers found that umpires’ racial bias­es dimin­ished when they knew they were being mon­i­tored by the computer. 

Same thing for high-pro­file moments. Dur­ing those impor­tant points in games when umpires knew fans were more care­ful­ly watch­ing the calls, the racial bias all but van­ished. Like­wise, the same-race pref­er­ence was less pro­nounced at high-atten­dance games, where umps knew there would be more crowd scrutiny.

Though gleaned from base­ball, these find­ings tran­scend ath­let­ics by pro­vid­ing a larg­er les­son about con­di­tioned behav­ior in an insti­tu­tion­al­ly racist society. 

Whether the work­place is a base­ball dia­mond, a fac­to­ry floor or an office, when author­i­ty fig­ures real­ize they are being scru­ti­nized, they are more cog­nizant of their own bias­es – and more like­ly to try to stop them before they undu­ly influ­ence their behav­ior. But in low­er-pro­file inter­ludes, when the work­place isn’t scru­ti­nized and deci­sions are hap­pen­ing on psy­cho­log­i­cal autopi­lot, pre-pro­grammed bias­es can take over.

Thus, the inher­ent prob­lem of today’s per­va­sive post-racial” fal­la­cy. By per­pet­u­at­ing the lie that racism doesn’t exist, pre­tend­ing that big­otry is not a work­place prob­lem any­more, and resist­ing gov­ern­men­tal efforts to halt such prej­u­dice, we cre­ate the envi­ron­ment for our ugly sub­con­scious to rule. In doing so, we con­se­quent­ly reduce the poten­tial for much-need­ed self-correction.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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