Quick Thoughts on Wilbon’s Mission Impossible: Bruh

Thankfully, any /number /of folks /have stepped forward to refute Michael Wilbon’s unfortunate column at the new TheUndefeated.com, “Mission Impossible: African Americans & Analytics.” (No. I’m not linking to it.) I’m not sure I have the time or energy to dig into everything that’s wrong with that column. So I’ll try to contain it to one sentence and a caveat. The column is reliant on worn-out, essentializng tropes about Black folk (at the barbershop, no less), about analytics, and oddly about the business of sports itself. (Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that these billion dollar franchises are going to refuse to use math and instead rely on some romanticized “eye test?” Or that they should? I mean…) The caveat here is that Wilbon’s take is in most crucial respects still the industry standard among columnists and broadcasters. Wilbon just happened to be focusing his lens on Black folk, so, let’s not put him out on curmudgeon island all by himself.

Let’s also note that people transform on this issue. I am a lifelong Mets fan. If you go back 4-5 seasons ago to any Mets broadcast on the SNY network with the award-winning (and mostly excellent) crew of Gary Thorn, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez, they basically just took turns screaming NNNNEEEERRRRDDDDSSS!!! into their mics. But they have actually softened over the years to where they include a number of rate/efficiency concepts directly into their broadcast. This should surprise no one. So much of the “anti-analytics” position is not a substantive critique so much as a dissociative rhetorical positioning strategy. It’s like a cowbell for the threatened and vulnerable. “We don’t wanna be like those guys, blogging from their mother’s basement.”

Having said all that, although I am disappointed with Wilbon’s take, I don’t feel a need to dog him out. The man is a pioneer who has long operated in the tradition of the late Ralph Wiley.  And hey, when you make your living with words, if you do it long enough, you too will swing and miss. I’m just miffed that his, “Good God, Lemon!” moment came on this topic at this time. It’s an important moment for analytics. Much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Many fans, even if not a full-on majority, now intuitively get that efficiency trumps volume, that pitchers don’t really “win” games, and that you must distinguish between context and performance. They may never talk about specific stats, but big whoop. But now, many of the latest techniques being imported from multivariate statistics are good at highlighting very subtle (but crucial) distinctions. It’s not easy to craft insights about subtleties though. This is an issue that the billion dollar businesses that make widest use of these techniques struggle with mightily. In other words, the new frontier for analytics is less about new techniques. It is about finding new stories and new storytellers; people skilled at taking the distilled observations these statistics provide and crafting stories out of them. Insights always reside in stories. So, this is a moment where analytics and storytelling approaches to crafting insight need each other.

In the words of Ye, “We sayin’ the same thing like a synonym.”

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Native American Mascots: It Ain’t About Who is Offended

Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer, just published a piece in The Nation on the Washington, D.C. NFL club’s mascot. You know the one. The piece is worth a read. It is both passionate and thoughtful, which for me hits a real sweet spot.

Native American mascots must go. I’m all in, but this May 19th article by John Cox, Scott Clement, and Theresa Vargas, about a Washington Post (WaPo) opinion poll of 504 Native Americans should engender some thoughtful reflection by those of us who oppose Native American mascots. The poll, problematic in its own right, lays bare core weaknesses in how mascot opponents have framed the issue. Though I agree with Keeler in broad brush strokes, I think her analysis also displays some of those weaknesses. The most damaging is that, like many mascot opponents, she falls into the “personal offense” trap. Although taking offense is not trivial, it obscures a fundamental problem with Native American mascots: White supremacy. Native American mascots enact White supremacist ideology, which is unjust on its face, regardless of who takes offense to it.

Keeler’s critique of the poll doesn’t amount to much and manages to obscure a far more important point.

To be clear right up front, I am not Native American. So I’m definitely not here to “Redsplain” (if that’s a thing) Native American mascots to somebody who is. I am here to take Keeler’s points seriously and offer counters where I disagree. (At one time, we used the term “discourse” to describe this practice of responding to public statements.)

An important point on which I wholeheartedly agree with Keeler is that Native mascots do psychological harm to Native American people. (Peer-reviewed research establishes the effects.) In fact, I wish Keeler had simply chosen this point as the basic rejoinder to the WaPo poll. On this basis alone, school boards, state athletic associations, the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, and other amateur and professional sports leagues ought to choose to retire them. Removing these mascots harms no one. Perpetuating them does. Within the limits of social science, this is a pretty inescapable conclusion. This is why the American Psychological Association called for their retirement in 2005.

Unfortunately, Keeler leads with a criticism of the poll itself that obscures this more fundamental point. I have no idea about her background in survey/polling methods, since she does not reveal it in the column, but I have taught undergraduate and graduate research courses in marketing at the University of South Carolina for 13 years. I’d state with some confidence that most of her objections to WaPo’s sampling methods are quite minor. They are not necessarily wrong, but they do not explain away the poll’s results. Additionally, I can’t see, based on her column and my own reading of the poll, anything to justify the claim that WaPo allowed a narrative to drive a specific set of results.

Let me reiterate, the poll is problematic. And, I do not think we should interpret it’s results at face value. Sampling wasn’t the problem though.

So, let’s talk about problems with the poll and move on to what’s important.

From a methods standpoint, it’s a pretty orthodox poll; not problem-free, mind you, because no poll is. People far too often wish to invalidate poll results they don’t like by pointing out minor, insubstantial flaws. Every flaw is not fatal. For example, Keeler raises a legitimately interesting criticism of the sample’s high age relative to Native Americans nationally. The sample appears to skew older and more male. But even considering that, WaPo wouldn’t have to add many more young people to a 500 person sample (a reasonable size, so let’s not go there) to lower the median age. Adding a few more young people  would indeed lower the age, but seems very unlikely to substantially change the results.

With that out of the way, let’s get to what’s really wrong with the poll. The reported results are very much open to charges of “social desirability bias.” On matters that may be controversial, people often respond to survey/poll items in ways that are consistent with how they want others to perceive them. Just like in real life, we may lie or exaggerate so we don’t look bad. On polls, we may tell a pollster what we think s/he wants to hear. Or, we may respond in ways we think we are “supposed” to when that’s not how we really feel. Social desirability just happens. It’s not necessarily something the researcher creates with bad form. When researchers ask questions that tap into people’s experience of vulnerability social desirability is an obvious potential problem. People will always be highly motivated to guard against feeling vulnerable. As you might imagine, social desirability bias looms large in survey-based research on sensitive topics, like experience with racism (see linked abstract). Again, researchers don’t create the bias. Nor can they make its effects disappear entirely. They can, however, take steps to minimize its effects.

With that in mind, read the WaPo poll item that’s driving all the talk on this topic.

WaPo mascot poll

Now I’m not one to gossip, but I wouldn’t let one of my undergraduates send out this item (or any of the others) on such a sensitive topic worded this way. This poll doesn’t just fail to minimize social desirability bias, it practically begs for socially desirable responses. The Washington Post or their research agency basically called up 500 Native Americans and asked them, “Well, are you some kinda punk sissy or not? If you are, how badly have you personally been wounded by this cartoon figure?” I’m only being a wee bit tongue-in-cheek. That is NOT an unreasonable interpretation of the item, particularly from an older, male-heavy sample.

Academics probably worry about social desirability bias more than pollsters, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for pollsters. Ultimately, I feel comfortable saying the WaPo poll results are probably driven by desirability because they failed to do even the simplest things that would suggest any awareness of a (potential) problem. Frankly, to see near unanimity on ANY topic, much less a controversial one, really ought to have arched a lot of eyebrows at WaPo. Add to that, numerous statements from elected tribal councils and some other polling data. That kind of context suggests that the WaPo poll results don’t really deserve benefit of the doubt, not when the WaPo poll has zero–no–indirect items. That’s standard practice when social desirability may be a problem. Nope. Every question is about “you, personally.” Even WaPo admits to being surprised by the consistency of their results in Keeler’s column. Well, WaPo, I have an explanation for why your numbers look the way they do but doesn’t take them at face value. You can’t rule it out because you didn’t even try.

Even socially desirable responses can be meaningful. What do these mean? 

WaPo kinda sidesteps social desirability bias by adopting the language of anti-mascot activists to frame their questions. They are not wrong in this. It just doesn’t solve the problem. Nevertheless, this is where the anti-mascot crowd (mostly us liberals) need to own our contribution to this, and use it as an opportunity to grow and get better.

Liberals have helped frame the mascot issue around “personal offense,” largely, I think, as a way of avoiding any discussion of White supremacy. It is difficult to imagine a more disempowering way to frame the mascot issue than personal offense. It must be frustrating for someone doing their best to escape or manage the harm Native American mascots cause, however mild or severe, only to find that the language of those opposed to the practice almost completely mischaracterizes their dilemma. I can see why 90% of Native Americans polled flat out rejected “personal offense” language. And really, can you blame them? Time to move that to the dust bin.

Native American feelings are important, but not central. Injustice is.

The problem you (or anyone) should have with Native American mascots is the same problem you should have with me smacking you (or anyone) upside the head whenever I feel like it. It’s not complicated. My actions are ipso facto unjust. There is no moral or ethical principle that entitles me to take liberties with your person, or your extended self (which includes your stuff and your likeness). “Me and my friends don’t mean any harm. We’re just having a good time” does not entitle me to take such liberties. Any harm I cause you would be over and above that fundamental injustice, and it is the duty of clear-thinking people committed to justice to call on me to stop.

Unfortunately, the (American) cultural tendency to psychologize every blessed thing has caused many people to conflate matters of social justice with personal feelings. A consequence has been to obscure the fact that the White supremacist ideology that gave life to Native American mascots is fundamentally unjust. And as such, it is not subject to some “no harm, no foul” proviso. (If 90% are unwilling to admit to being personally offended then the mascots must be okay. Now, back to our war chants and chopping.)

As manifestations of White supremacy go, some undoubtedly have less capacity for harm than others, but they are all unjust. Some manifestations are ground into physical and social infrastructure. The injustices that stem from them are difficult to escape or undo. They are with us. Other manifestations are quite fleeting and ethereal. They are the unexpected smack upside the head. But sometimes these fleeting instances of White supremacy have opt-outs. People of goodwill can simply choose to opt out; to not smack someone else upside the head just because they wish to do so. If nothing else, the Native American mascot issue is an interesting look into who opts out and who doesn’t when given the chance.

 

 

 

PATHS TO RESPECTABILITY: CONSUMER CULTURE AND THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS (1 of several)

Welcome.

If you just happened upon this post because of some random google search thanks for stopping by. Welcome also if you came here at my invitation, as family, friend, or colleague. I am re-booting my very lightly-used blog as a repository for a project that I’ve been working on the past several years. Generally, this will be a place to for me to summarize and discuss that work and others that I find interesting.

I conduct consumer research generally, and I have a particular interest in understanding anti-racist resistance that occurs in the domain of consumption in some way or another. In other words, given that many people must navigate what sociologist Philomena Essed calls “everyday racism,” I try to understand how they do it. And, I try to answer the question what role does consumption play?

Paul Mullins excellent blog, Archeology and Material Culture, is an exemplar of what I’d like this blog to be–you know, if I had his talent and dedication. I am working on the dedication.

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To any visitors who have been gracious enough to grant an interview, or gracious enough to otherwise allow me to collect data about you and your experiences, a special welcome and a disclaimer. This is my personal blog, but I still follow standard research protocols. Nowhere will I ever use identifying information about you. I also use pseudonyms (and change other innocuous details) to help ensure your anonymity. You need not ever self-identify as a study participant.

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I have recently completed a manuscript that I am about to submit to the Journal of Consumer Research pending some i-dotting, t-crossing, and putting together a viable visual. I am going to summarize the findings of that research in a couple paragraphs in this post for interested readers. Then, in a series of subsequent posts I will go a little deeper into the study.

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Here’s a brief summary of the study and findings. Racial inequality in the United States persists despite areas of meaningful and sustained progress. Longstanding scholarship in the social sciences on the topic has traditionally focused on identifying its scale, scope, and effects, but scholars are now paying increased attention to anti-racist resistance. To date, they have focused primarily on challenges to systemic racism that seek to make life more equal. These challenges occur primarily in the formal political domain (e.g., elections, policy advocacy, protests, and insurrections). By contrast, far less scholarship explores the act of managing everyday racism, which seeks to make life more tolerable but not necessarily more equal. Managing everyday racism is enacted by individuals within the scope of routine social interactions, including consumption.

This study adds much needed theorizing to research on managing everyday racism by examining consumption’s role. The existing research on anti-racist resistance over-emphasizes the role of formal politics and undertheorizes resistance that is embedded in routine social interactions like consumption. This study responds to that problem by presenting a nuanced mapping of a historically prevalent consumption-focused ideology, strategy of action, and specific behaviors used to manage everyday racism.

To deliver on this theoretical goal I investigate Black anti-racist resistance in the USA, specifically Black people’s use of racial uplift ideology and its associated strategy of action, the politics of respectability. Racial uplift and respectability trace their historical origins to the concurrent emergence of a Black petit bourgeoisie and consumer culture during post-Civil War Reconstruction. Racial uplift and respectability emphasized the use of high-status consumption as a critical part of an anti-racist counternarrative to White supremacist discourse in the late 19th century. My analysis of archival data, fieldwork, and ethnographic interviews with a sample of middle-class Blacks theorizes consumption’s role in their efforts to manage everyday racism in the post-Civil Rights Era (since 1970).

In sum, I find that racial uplift ideology mobilizes micropolitical action in routine social interactions, funneling it into what Evelyn Higgenbotham (1993) first called “the politics of respectability.” I show that people think about respectability as either of two related but distinct versions, which I label normative and agnostic. Each version uses high-status consumption to manage everyday racism, but does so differently. Normative respectability emphasizes avoiding stigmatized persons, objects and behavior. Agnostic respectability, which emerged in the post-Civil Rights Era, uses consumption to de-stigmatize persons, objects and behaviors associated with blackness. Actors’ perceptions of how successfully each version of respectability manages everyday racism are contingent on how they implement the strategy in their specific locales. Because places vary systematically by historical and structural features, the perceived success or failure is not just about a person’s skill in implementing. It also depends of the specific features of place.

NEXT: The Persistence of Racial Inequality & Anti-Racist Resistance