Category Archives: Race

Day Six: Yes, You’re Racist; or Don’t Be an Asshole.

(image via KOLR, h/t Gawker, Mediaite)

(image via KOLR, h/t Gawker, Mediaite)

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you have to say “it’s not racist to…”, it is absolutely, positively racist. But in case some folks need reminding: yes, white pride is racist.

The question most racists love to ask is something along the lines of, “well, if blacks and Latinos and Asians can have their own associations, why can’t whites?” And the answer to that requires an understanding of the concept of racism, as it is experienced in American society.

Racism is an institution whereby one group in the majority asserts social, political and economic power over others. That power is wielded outwardly to oppress minorities through policies such as red-lining or various immigration acts that allowed for more European immigrants than ones from Africa or Asia or South America, but also through subconscious decisions born of xenophobic, racist pathologies. (And, it should be mentioned, it is because of the systemic nature of racism that whites can never experience racism in this country. They can certainly experience anti-white biases, but nothing systemic or institutional in the same manner that non-whites experience racism. Okay, glad I got that off my chest. Let’s continue.)

As Sendhil Mullainathan pointed out in the TimesThe Upshot this weekend, these pathologies have infected every inch of American society:

■ When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.

■ When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.

■ Several studies found that sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names. A regularly repeated study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.

■ White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.

■ Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.

■ Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.

You don’t have to be racist to have been influenced by a racist pathology – locking your doors while driving is not racist in and of itself, but purposely doing so while driving through Newark is racist because society has been trained to fear young black men. Again, it doesn’t mean that you are racist, it just means that society has taught you to subconsciously act on racist sterotypes. What those studies show is that racism affects the lives of people of color every day in some of the most benign ways, regardless of the intentions of whites.

The reason why black or Latino or Asian associations exists is precisely because ethnic communities feel the need to work together to better one another, to achieve a level of privilege that WASPs have enjoyed in this country for centuries.

So whiteness is the thing to aspire to. Not everyone does, of course, but many minorities have a conflicted longing for WASP whiteness or, more accurately, for the privileges of WASP whiteness. They probably don’t really like pale skin but they certainly like walking into a store without some security dude following them. Hating Your Goy and Eating One Too, as the great Philip Roth put it. So if everyone in America aspires to be WASPs, then what do WASPs aspire to? Does anyone know?

That quote is from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s phenomenal novel, Americanah (which I named my favorite novel of 2013), and it perfectly describes why minorities find the need to associate with one another and employ one another: we’re trying to get on your level. (If you also need to know why people of color need their own magazines and publications, there’s also this quote from Americanah.) We do these things because these aren’t privileges we’re afforded in society, at large; we have no representation in local, state or federal government and so we look to one another for help and opportunities.

White pride organizations are racist because there’s nothing left for white people to accomplish in this country – you have all of the privilege and security one could ever need. You’ve faced no oppression in your lifetime. (Yes, Irish, Italians and Jews have all been oppressed at various times in our history, but they’ve all now been accepted into the greater construction of “whiteness” [though, of course, anti-Semitism still exists in some pockets of society]. You’re not losing out on job opportunities in 2015 because your last name is Murphy, but you are if it’s Muhammad.) You’ve inherited wealth, sometimes for generations. You’ve even got advantages in online dating. None of this is necessarily your individual faults, but this is a level of privilege that no one else is afforded. We should all be given the same opportunities, and that’s not happening if white pride organizations – through which whites continue to assert their social, political and economic dominance by hiring and electing other whites or by segregating communities – continue to exist.

Listen, we get it. Being white is AWESOME; it doesn’t mean you’re inherently better, but it’s pretty clearly better to be white in America. I mean, you can’t dance and your rappers suck (and still benefit from the privileges of whiteness), but I understand why you love it. Thing is, you’ve already won, white people. You’ve achieved a level of privilege and security that everyone else aspires to. That everyone else is fighting for. Congratulations.

Just don’t be assholes about it.



Filed under 365 Days, Essays, Race

The view from Brown America.

Earlier this week a co-worker told me that I should be “glad” that the young man, whom we’ll refer to as “The Saudi Marathon Man,” was racially profiled by the Boston police and the federal authorities. He told me that racial profiles and stereotypes were borne of “statistics” – that if we were to “look at the numbers,” the odds were high that the perpetrator(s) of the attacks at the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon were “one of those types.”

“Tell me that again the next time I’m at the airport,” I told him.

“You should be proud to be racially profiled. It’s the only thing that keeps us safe in this country.”

I then asked him if he had ever been the victim of racial profiling, and he – a white man – recounted a story in which he was the victim of “discrimination.” It was 1978, and he was lost, driving in a “bad neighborhood” in Jersey City with his future wife, when he was stopped by police who had mistook him for a drug-dealer. That’s it. No detention. No interrogation. He was pulled over and subsequently let go, and yet this story clearly still bothers him, even 35 years later.

I could understand his frustration, after all, this sort of thing has happened to me before, but the only thing I could think of responding with was, “Now imagine if that happened to you all the time.”

Since 9/11 we’ve all been trained in the practice of “If you see something, say something.” In other words: if you see something suspicious, alert the authorities. But what if you are consistently that something suspicious? What if it’s your friend, or your roommate, or your brother or sister? Are we supposed to be “proud” to live in a xenophobic nation which discriminates against its citizens based on skin color? Are we supposed to be “proud” of our public humiliation at baseball games and concerts and train stations?

Is this the tax millions of Americans are forced to pay for looking superficially different or believing in an alternate divine being?

In today’s society, white privilege it isn’t just about access and wealth and opportunity, it isn’t just about being able to do whatever the fuck it is you want to do, it’s about specific freedoms which white Americans are afforded that others are not: the freedom from persecution and the freedom from discrimination. In a nation in which the government – and the media – practices in the otherization of so-called “minority” races, white Americans are free to live without the fear of being considered a criminal because a suspect shares their skin-tone.

That our first instinct following an attack is to hope and pray that it wasn’t someone who looks like us – and that yours isn’t – says all you need to know about how we are each perceived within our own country.

The difference between White America and Brown America is that, in White America, you fear terrorism because you fear death; in Brown America, we fear terrorism because we fear being considered a terrorist. We fear being detained for hours/days/weeks/years without cause. We fear hate and vitriol toward our people and our religions. We fear attacks on our houses of worship. We fear being pushed onto subway tracks. We fear hellfire raining on our towns and villages in Pakistan and Yemen. We fear Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann, and Matt Drudge and the Ghost of Andrew Breitbart.

The difference between White America and Brown America is that we fear all of them, but we don’t fear you. We know that you don’t hate Muslims. We know that you don’t indiscriminately hate people with dark skin. We know that, when Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols or Ted Kaczynski or James Holmes or Adam Lanza murder innocent Americans, or when the Westboro Baptist Church burns the Qur’an, we shouldn’t view all whites, or all Christians, with suspicion. We know that Mississippi shouldn’t be “turned into a parking lot.” We know and understand that a few loud and crazy people are not indicative of an entire race or religion.

Whatever our faith, whatever our race, we all follow the same ethical code: do unto others… And, yet, somehow, throughout American history – slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, the Patriot Act – we’ve seen this Golden Rule be disregarded entirely when it could benefit the racial hegemony of white Americans.

The difference between White America and Brown America, then, is that, in White America, rules don’t apply.


Leave a comment

Filed under Essays, Race

Justin Upton and baseball’s subtle racial code.

I was in the Poconos with some friends last weekend when the AFC Championship Game came on. I don’t care much for football these days, but when I did care about it I always enjoyed watching the Patriots play (except if they were playing the Giants) because I found Bill Belichick’s meticulous gameplans fascinating. There are very few coaches I can recall who have gotten so much production out of other teams’ castaways. So it was surprising to me when I realized that literally all of my friends were rooting for the Baltimore Ravens. It’s an interesting cultural dichotomy – a team of relative underdogs have managed to become the most hated team in football. I had to ask: why is everyone rooting for the Ravens? One of my friends responded, “I feel like the Patriots are a white team.”

I had never thought of it this way until now, but the Patriots are, sort of, a collective embodiment of the sportswriter’s wet dream: they’re smart, they make hustle plays, they have undersized players who play well beyond their physical skillset. The Patriots aren’t a white team in terms of complexion – like any other NFL team, they roster a large number, if not a majority of, black players – they’re a white team because of the narrative which surrounds them. Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker will never be confused for Adrian Peterson or Calvin Johnson, but Bill Belichick utilizes them in such a way that he’s optimized their production to the point where they aren’t just valuable players, but – in Welker’s case – legitimate stars. The way we talk about our modern athletes is through a sort of racial code of adjectives and terms. The Patriots are a white team because we define them as “smart” or “professional,” we say Tom Brady has “intangibles,” or we define Danny Woodhead as “gritty.” Meanwhile we define Adrian Peterson or Calvin Johnson as “freakishly athletic” or “talented.” These aren’t terms which are used solely in football, though, they’re pervasive throughout the entire sporting world.

During the week of August 11-17, 2011, Adam Felder and Seth Amitin coded every Major League Baseball broadcast (over 200 games) to document how broadcasters would describe players of different races and nationalities. What they had discovered was that:

[F]oreign-born players—the vast majority of whom are Latino—are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to receiving praise for intangibles. Latino players are almost 13 percent less likely to be praised for intangibles than their white counterparts. Announcers are nearly 14 percent more likely to praise a US/Canadian-born player for intangibles than they are their international counterparts.

While there is no difference between race or nationality when it comes to performance-based descriptions, effort-based and character-based descriptions make a big difference. Players born in the US or Canada are 10 percent more likely to be praised for their effort. White players are 10 percent more likely to be praised for their character.

Indeed, it is not so much that announcers are unwilling to praise non-white players, but the terminology they use in so doing falls into a set of pre-defined “code words.” For example, if a player is described as being a “guy next door,” or “regular guy” there is a greater than 80 percent chance that player is white. If a player is described as “impatient” or “over-aggressive,” there is a greater than 50 percent chance that player is not white. This echoes the findings of similar research in the field of print sports journalism.

We’ve created narratives around our athletes based on their skin color and/or nationality, which have changed our perceptions of them. We classify white players as “hard workers” and we appropriate them with intangible qualities, while non-white players are “gifted” or “naturally talented.” The truth is, though, that anybody who makes it to the highest level of their sport has worked their ass off to get there, and worked even harder to stay. Which is why it is, frankly, lazy when sportswriters define black and Latino ballplayers as “lazy” or some other unflattering description. Every player doesn’t sprint down to first base on every weakly hit groundball, and yet it seems as if it is consistently blacks and Latinos who are derided for their “lack of hustle.”

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Race, Sports

An obligatory post on “Django Unchained,” race, and the most important word in the history of the United States.

Note on spoilers: Anything about Django shouldn’t really be considered a “spoiler.” The basic conceit of the movie is fairly well known to the public, and I haven’t revealed anything here that you wouldn’t have heard about already. That being said, if you’d rather wait on reading anything concerning the movie until after having seen it (as I did), I can’t blame you.

Note on language: I’m not a black man. Anyone who knows me, I would hope, would know this. As such, I can understand how one would get offended by my use of the word central to this piece, but I believe it’s used responsibly, academically, and in good taste. If you still, somehow, disagree with my usage, then I’d be glad to discuss that with you privately, though there’s likely a greater chance that you need to grow up.

Right around this time in 2011, an Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, decided to censor parts of Mark Twain’s literary classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and replace the word “nigger,” which was used over two-hundred times within the text, with the (to their estimation) less offensive word, “slave.” The argument was that teachers were already preemptively making this substitution during in-class readings of the novel; the word “nigger,” in their minds led to uncomfortable classroom situations in which both the teachers and students were not prepared to use this pejorative, and as a result, the novel was being removed from many mandatory reading curricula throughout the country. Replacing “nigger” with “slave,” in their minds, would restore Huck Finn’s standing in early academia.

While this argument certainly has a modicum of merit (if that), it’s simply an avoidance of the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful conversations we must have in academic settings about literature and reality, about race, and about slavery. Michiko Kakutani, writing for the New York Times, said:

Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.

The problem is that every now and then an instance like this occurs, and, in certain pockets of American life, we begin to discuss these concepts and constructs in a meaningful way, but just as quickly as we entered the conversation, we exit, having established no new ground on the proper ways we can talk about our nation’s very real history of racism and slavery – the Huck Finn controversy is just one example. The idea that discussing race or slavery is uncomfortable is complete and utter bullshit – it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. But it’s also a discussion worth having within the right contexts.

Central to this entire argument is that six-letter word, which in its two syllables elicits so many different feelings and emotions: nigger. We like to believe we can have responsible discussions about race in this country, but we try to do so without working to understand this term’s significance in our nation’s history, without even using the term. Take for instance these two statements:

1) It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card. This stuff about getting rid of the work requirement for welfare is dishonest, everyone’s pointed out it’s dishonest, and you are playing that little ethnic card there. You can play games and giggle about it, but the fact is your side is playing that card. You start talking about work requirements, everyone knows what game you’re playing. It’s a race card…This thing about if your name is Romney, yeah you went to prep school and you brag about it. This guy’s got an African name, he has to live with it. Look who’s going further in their life. Who was born on third base? This absurdity, making fun of the birth certificate issue…Of course he’s playing the race card, why would he bring [the birth certificate] up?

2) That really bothered me. You notice he said anger twice. He’s really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man. This is part of the playbook against Obama, the ‘otherization,’ he’s not like us. I know it’s a heavy thing, I don’t say it lightly, but this is ‘niggerization.’ You are not one of us, you are like the scary black man who we’ve been trained to fear.

These are two comments made a little over one week apart, both arguing the same point: that Mitt Romney was running a racialized campaign. The first statement was made by Chris Matthews, a blowhard of a white man, who was making a valid point. The second statement – which, ostensibly, made the same points as the first – however, was made by Toure, a blowhard of a black man, author, professor, and co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle. The only real difference in the language of the two statements was Toure’s use of the word “niggerization,” which, hilariously, made his conservative, white co-host, S.E. Cupp, apoplectic, but also was found to be offensive (by someone, presumably) and required an on-air apology from him the next day.

The point of all of this is to ask the following: if a learned black man can’t, responsibly, use the term “nigger,” or its derivatives, in an academic context (which news and journalism most certainly are), how are we ever supposed to confront race, as an issue?

The most recent cultural moment leading to a racial discourse has been the release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, his second alternate history, revenge-fantasy in the last few years (the other being Inglourious Basterds). In it, the titular Django (played by Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, turned freelance bounty hunter, travels the antebellum south with his freer and mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife, Broomhilda (a.k.a. Hildy; Kerry Washington), from slavery. The story is, at its core, a love story. It’s a story about a man willing to do unspeakable things in order to save his wife from something even worse. The rest of the movie, was, really, just noise. The thing, though, is that the noise was so powerful, so moving, and, at times, so disturbing.

At different times in the movie we witness a slave – named, ironically, after D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers by his owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who (as it is pointed out later by Dr. Schultz) didn’t realize Dumas was a black man – being torn apart by dogs, mandingo fighting, whippings and hot-boxes. We witness the subhuman treatment of slaves, and at one point see Don Johnson’s Big Daddy character struggle with teaching his slave how to treat Django (a freed man) like less than a white man, but better than a slave. We witness a group of clansman which pre-date the KKK being reduced to a joke (in one of the funniest movie scenes in a good while) because they, literally, can’t see with their masks on. But we also hear the word “nigger,” by some counts, as many as 110 times.

Part of the controversy surrounding the use of the word has to do with who wrote the script and who was saying it. Tarantino has a history of using the word “nigger,” sometimes gratuitously in movies like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and True Romance. As such, there’s always been some backlash toward his use of the word. And in each case, including in Django, it’s generally said by white actors. It’s certainly a little disorienting to see well known actors like DiCaprio and Don Johnson to use the word over, and over again, but it’s far from the first time we’ve seen it. In Blood Diamond DiCaprio called Djimon Hansou’s character a kaffir, which is simply South Africa’s version of nigger. But even then, hearing him say that hateful word didn’t have the same effect as hearing him say “nigger” repeatedly, and that’s because nigger, as opposed to kaffir, is a racial epithet native to our country – it’s an American word, and it’s a huge part of our history.

The purpose of Django Unchained is to entertain, it’s a work of fiction stylized as a post-modern, spaghetti western movie, but it’s also one of the first massively popular movies to discuss the topics of race and slavery, and it does so in a manner that is oftentimes uncomfortable for its (largely) non-black audience. And for this, Tarantino has received plenty of criticism, from blacks and non-blacks, alike, the loudest of whom is Spike Lee. Dr. Henry Louis Gates sat down with Tarantino for The Root, and broached this subject:

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Spike Lee‘s on your ass all the time about using the word “nigger.” What would you say to black filmmakers who are offended by the use of the word “nigger” and/or offended by the depictions of the horrors of slavery in the film?

Quentin Tarantino: Well, you know if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going see some things that are going be ugly. That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.

Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.

No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.

As I said earlier, Django is a love story, but it’s this feeling of uneasiness for the viewer that steals the show. And the discourse post-Django is leading new a newly broached discussion of race. Rembert Browne, for Grantland, wrote about the movie:

Being uncomfortable. False ownership of terms. False ownership of cultures. Troubled histories. Finger-pointing. Segregation in an integrated world (or is it integration in a segregated world?). All of these things contributed to the myriad emotions I felt in that theater. But these were just my emotions. There were hundreds of people in that theater alone, and hundreds of thousands more have already viewed the movie. Everyone‘s seeing Django. That’s what makes it an important work, beyond the quality, because we’re all having to deal with it, together.

Within that same piece he shares one of my favorite moments in journalistic history. Jake Hamilton, a film critic, decided to ask Samuel L. Jackson (who plays perhaps the greatest, most horrific Uncle Tom in the history of cinema) about the controversy surrounding the film’s usage of the world “nigger.” (Skip to the 13:56 mark; transcript via Rembert.)

Hamilton: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of, uh, the N-word, in this movie.

Jackson: No? Nobody? None … the word would be?

Hamilton: [Whispered.] I don’t want to say it.

Jackson: Why not?

Hamilton: I don’t like to say it.

Jackson: Have you ever said it?

Hamilton: No, sir.

Jackson: Try it.

Hamilton: I don’t like to say it.


Hamilton: Really? Seriously?

Jackson: We’re not going to have this conversation unless you say it.


Jackson: Wanna move on to another question?

Hamilton: OK. Awesome.

Jackson: [Laughs.]

Hamilton: I don’t like — I don’t want to say it.

Jackson: Oh, come on.

Hamilton: Will you say it?

Jackson: No, fuck no. It’s not the same thing.

Hamilton: Why do you want me to —

Jackson: They’re gonna bleep it when you say it on the show. SAY IT.

Hamilton: I, I can’t say it. If I say it, this question won’t make air.

Jackson: OK, forget it.

Hamilton: I’ll skip it. Sorry, guys. It was a good question.

Jackson: No it wasn’t.

Hamilton: It was a great question.

Jackson: It wasn’t a great question if you can’t say the word.

That moment is so significant in so many ways. It shows that, as a society, we can’t have a constructive discussion about race unless we can grow the fuck up and talk about it like adults. What strikes me, though, is that in that same piece, Rembert uses the terms nigger, nigga, and fuck, and yet, somehow, it is only the latter which was not censored by his editors, or (possibly worse) his parent companies (ESPN and Disney). The central thesis to his piece was that 2013 was going to be the year we discuss race:

And in the world we live in today, where access to various modes of public expression is becoming increasingly accessible, the walls around “talking about race” are rapidly crumbling. Finally. And, just as a heads-up, if this makes you uncomfortable, if the idea of potentially offending someone is your greatest fear, or if you’re content to discuss it like a simpleton, then 2013 might not be your year. This, my friends, is the new apocalypse. Buckle up.

To me, there’s too much irony in Rembert castigating those who are content to discuss race like a simpleton, yet being content with having the word in question censored by the powers-that-be. (Note: I would like to point out that this isn’t so much a criticism of Rembert or his piece, I really enjoyed it, and most of his work, but, rather, of whoever made the decision to censor the word. If that happened to be Rembert, then this entire sidebar is made pointless.) It renders the entire thesis moot. Are some of us ready to have this discussion? Sure. But this all shows that, we, as a society, are clearly not ready to talk about this, and it’s a fucking shame that we can’t, because it’s about time we do.

Every time this discussion arises I end up feeling like Michael Bluth in Arrested Development: the mere fact that you call it the “N-word” tells me that you aren’t ready to discuss it and its meaning, and the broader concepts of race and slavery in the context of America’s sociocultural history. Django Unchained is obviously a work of fiction – historical fiction if you’d like to call it that – but it’s also broaching a larger discussion of slavery, and also, in a wider context, of race in this country – the two issues which we seem to refuse to acknowledge as a society. Censoring the word “nigger” – in literature or art or academics – is nothing more than a denial of history and a refusal to acknowledge our troubling past. We can’t act as if centuries of slavery and racism did not (and, for the latter, still do) exist on this continent. Sugarcoating this topic does nothing but breed further ignorance. The fact is, discussing race should be uncomfortable, otherwise we’re depriving ourselves of the proper national conversation necessary for a topic as painful as race in American history, even for little white kids reading Twain. Especially for little white kids reading Twain. The word “nigger” is arguably the single most important word in the lexicological history of the American English dictionary. If we’re not able to confront this simple term – as painful as that may be – in a movie, then we clearly aren’t ready to tackle race as a society.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays, Race

Nate Silver, Obama for America, and the nexus between baseball and politics: why the white vote is the new RBI.

These past few weeks have been far too familiar.

Over the past decade-plus baseball has gone through what has been, essentially, a religious war. On one side lies a group of statistical analysts who – through math and pure inductive reasoning – are looking to change the way we evaluate our players and teams and what it takes to win; on the other side is a group of baseball conservatives, who believe in superficial analysis of a player, but who, mostly, fear change.

The statistical revolution in baseball has been all the more polarizing because of who it was proposing these theories. This new breed of baseball analysis wasn’t something brought on by the traditional baseball establishment, but, rather, by outsiders – by fans simply searching for answers. What is now commonly referred to as sabermetrics is really a set of ideas and theories brought about through analyzing statistics quantitatively and finding their deeper meanings. What started with Bill James and his Baseball Abstracts has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry which has revolutionized a multi-billion dollar industry. This statistical revolution has spawned an entire analytically-based ecosystem on the Internet, in collectives such as Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory, Fangraphs and countless others, and has led to an influx of baseball outsiders into the establishment – people such as James, Voros McCracken, Keith Law, Mike Fast or Kevin Goldstein. Quantitative analysis has not only led to an evolution in how we evaluate players, it has also lead to new systems for projecting players and future performance. Dan Szymborski, Tom Tango and Nate Silver (along with many others) have each created algorithmic projection models which – fairly accurately – predict how individual players or teams will fare in a given season, as well as in future seasons.

In the early days, the baseball establishment wasn’t having any of this. Pundits like Joe Morgan – a man who was at one time paid to analyze the sport of baseball – essentially wrote them off, and even antagonized the sabermetric community. Grumpy, old baseball writers around the country poked fun at the “nerds in their mother’s basements.” (The feeling was mutual – sabermetrically inclined bloggers around the country constantly poked fun at the out of touch establishment of writers and analysts; the apex of this was the brilliant blog Fire Joe Morgan, created by a group of comedy writers working on [then] The Office and [now] Parks and Recreation.) The thing is, the baseball establishment didn’t actually have issues with what the sabermetric community was saying or doing, it was that – now that people could do their jobs better than them – they feared irrelevance, and so they instigated a widespread practice in denial.

Most of this was made famous by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, and of course, now, the movie based on the book, starring Brad Pitt. At the turn of the 21st-century, Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s teams had been consistently successful – winning between 91 and 103 games every year for a five-year period, spanning 2000-2004, during the regular season – despite their limited payrolls when compared to the financial powers in the American League, most notably the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Beane and his front office, the most noteworthy of whom was Paul DePodesta, favored quantitative analysis as an evaluator of talent – a philosophy instilled in Beane by his predecessor, Sandy Alderson. What Beane and DePodesta and the rest of the Oakland front office did was search for undervalued assets by exploiting market inefficiencies – they sought after a more efficient allocation of resources. What Beane and his staff had recognized was that – at that time – On-Base Percentage (OBP) was undervalued on the current baseball market. What they had determined was that if they had compiled an offense whose core focus was getting on base, scoring runs was a mere inevitability. This strategy worked for the Athletics, and with great success. The problem for the A’s, however, was that – as Beane was famously quoted as saying – his “shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Oakland, for as well as they did in the regular season, could never seem to shatter that small-market glass ceiling.

While we had discovered that, in baseball, the playoffs were largely a crapshoot, we learned that the real winning formula, or at least the model for sustained success, was a sort of hybrid of financial largess and an analytically inclined front office. When Billy Beane turned down the Red Sox’ offer to become their general manager after the 2002 season, the Red Sox, instead, hired a young Yale graduate who used to work in public relations named Theo Epstein. Epstein, like Beane, was analytically inclined and, unlike Beane, was given a nearly unlimited budget with which he could field a team. The idea, of course, was that if Beane could field a 103 win team with his limited payroll, how successful could those same philosophies be if supplemented with a budget the size of Boston’s? In short: very. Boston went on to break an 86 year drought by winning the World Series in 2004, and then again in 2007. Epstein’s teams, really, became the paradigm for the 21st-century baseball franchise – an emphasis on not just analytics but also on scouting and player development. The money was really just an insurance policy – if Beane invested money in a player and failed, so too would his team; Epstein’s budget simply gave him the opportunity to take risk, a luxury which Beane was not afforded.

We’re now at a point in the revolution where most – if not all – front offices employ some form of quantitative analysis within their organization. Even the most statistically disinclined front offices like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati use at least some form of analysis. Consequently, we’ve seen a greater emphasis on the non-traditional statistics – OBP, OPS, OPS+, FIP, ERA+, WAR and various defensive metrics – and less on the traditional ones such as RBI, pitcher wins, or saves. Statistics such as the RBI or saves – which provide little to no value in evaluating a player’s talent level because of their nature as being opportunity-driven – have now, except to the most old-school guys like Ron Washington or Dusty Baker, close to no relevance within the baseball community. If you’re building your team with players you have evaluated as run producers because of lofty RBI totals, or as successful pitchers because of wins or saves totals, you will better than likely find yourself losing a lot of games. It’s a lesson which far too many change-averse teams have learned over the last decade.

This vicious cycle seems to have repeated itself over these past few weeks. Not in baseball, though – in politics. What happened was that the establishment of political punditry – talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter and George Will and Dick Morris (are you sensing a theme here?) – blinded themselves with a veil of ignorance when a new generation of psephologists (those who study and scientifically analyze elections) had told them that they were all wrong.

Chief among these new analysts was the New York Times’ Nate Silver – who, really, constitutes the nexus of sabermetrics and modern psephology. Silver famously, or perhaps infamously if you’re a part of the establishment, runs the FiveThirtyEight blog for the Times, and his algorithmic projection system had been the focus of conservative scorn in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election. Silver’s FiveThirtyEight projection had President Obama’s chances at reelection as high 92.2 percent in the final 24 hours of the election cycle, which, in turn, led to conservative blowhards decrying liberal bias on his part. They believed that, because national polling had shown that the popular vote would be fairly close, the election was a toss-up. What they refused to acknowledge, however, was that elections were not won on popular vote, but, rather, electorally, on a state-by-state basis. The greatest tricked the devil ever pulled was convincing the world America was a democracy. This election was – for better or worse – a 7 to 12 state election; it was going to be won within those battleground states, nowhere else. Silver’s model – which is really an aggregator of polls, while also including other outside factors such as historical and economic data – had shown that President Obama was consistently favored in the most important of those battleground states – Florida, Ohio and Virginia (or FlOhVa as Chuck Todd, for some reason, loved to call them) – which would mean that if Silver’s model was incorrect and Romney would go on to win those states (which he didn’t) he wouldn’t be wrong, but, rather, the polls were wrong. An algorithm can only be as accurate as the data which is entered into it. If Silver’s model was incorrect – which Republicans had mislead themselves into believing – it would mean that the entire system was incorrect: CBS, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen, everybody.

They weren’t.

You can only get the feeling, though, that these pundits weren’t just in denial, but that they were scared – scared not only that their candidate would lose (and lose badly) but that their punditry no longer served any purpose. Why would networks pay these pundits tens, if not hundreds, of thousands – if not millions – of dollars to analyze and predict the outcomes of elections when (and I say this with the utmost love for him) a nerd in Brooklyn with Microsoft Excel renders them irrelevant?

Silver’s psephological model, though, only shows one half of the electoral story. While he studies elections in order to project their outcomes, others study elections in order to properly strategize for political campaigns. When President Obama thanked the “best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics” it wasn’t really an emotionally driven statement of hyperbole. Such as these things can be quantified, the Obama campaign, Obama for America (OFA), may have run the single, most groundbreaking and effective campaign in the history of presidential politics.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays, Politics, Race, Sports