A Parable: Basketball and Affirmative Action

The game was a close one, being played with intensity between well-matched teams, likely to go into overtime. The winners would then be at the top of their college league, at least until another game. Five thousand seats screamed with passionate joy or dismay at every play. Players moved up and down the court, banging under the boards, tangling on the floor. The referees called foul, and were deluged with the crowd’s disapproval or acclaim, depending on whether the call went against the home team or the visitors.

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The woman next to me, obviously a real fan, followed every move on the court with exquisite knowledge of players, rules, and referees. Quickly realizing that I knew little, she turned to me during a time-out right after a particularly close play had been called a foul against one of our players. With rapid tongue and hands she explained, “This is really bad … sure that was a close play … it could have been called either way … but why do they call all of ‘em against our team! … Don’t the other guys do anything wrong! … Give us a break!” Then she screamed something like that in the direction of the floor. All around us the chorus was the same; a noisy demand that the calls were going unfairly to the advantage of the visiting team.

I learned a lot about basketball that evening, especially about the crowd’s response to foul calls. I learned that the crowd seemed to be looking primarily for fairness from the referees. With the exception of a few rabid fans, most accepted the fairness of a call when it was against an obvious foul even by a home team member. The great majority of calls were not easy ones to make, and could have gone for or against either team. The crowd knew that, and watched to see if the referees were going to balance those close calls between the two teams. If too many of those close calls went against the home team, the crowd would explode, clearly expecting that fairness demanded some of those calls go against the visitors. When the referees began to call fouls in a way which balanced the cumulative effect of all the calls, the crowd became quieter, accepting that fairness was prevailing. That seemed to be the key … as long as there was some fair balance given in those close judgment calls it was okay.

Long after the game was recorded in the standings of the league, I thought about how the crowd expectations for fairness might instruct me in thinking about fairness and Affirmative Action.

In a basketball game spectators watch the entire game, except for those few who come in late or leave early. The whole game lasts a couple of hours, and actual playing time in a regulation game is only forty-eight minutes. The spectators see it all unfold before their eyes; it is easy to make a judgment whether calls are being made fairly or unfairly, and the test for fairness seems to be that fouls are balanced between the two teams.

While it is relatively easy to see fairness develop in a short game, making a judgment about the fairness of Affirmative Action requires a view from a historical perspective. The game in this case is centuries long, and the people involved at any given point see only a short period of action. Few spectators have a historical perspective, and therefore make judgments from a very time-limited view.

A historical view sees certain groups of people affected in negative ways, not simply as individuals, but as members of a group:

–   Denied access to goods, services, resources, and power.

–   Psychologically diminished as members of the group.

–   Limited by enculturated and institutionalized prejudice.

–   Objects of both intentional and unintentional disempowerment.

Fairness demands action to affirmatively ensure that history becomes balanced, that the calls do not go for too long against any group. Because we see only that part of history in which we participate, some of us see Affirmative Action as simply preference of the moment; it’s like seeing only a few minutes of the basketball game.

Compare viewing a basketball game to that historical view of Affirmative Action. The regulation game lasts for forty-eight minutes and most spectators see the whole thing. The game of history in the United States is over three hundred years; dating it from the time when the institution of slavery was in place, the game is about three hundred and forty years old.

Affirmative Action as public policy is hardly thirty years old, and that span of time is less than one-tenth of the years of our national history. One of the goals of Affirmative Action is to create a climate of fairness in which some of the calls will balance the preference given to white, propertied males since even before the Constitution, and to make opportunities possible for groups which have been left out. The time so far given to that effort has been brief. Compared to watching the forty-eight minute basketball game, it is like being a spectator for less than four minutes. If during four minutes of a basketball game we saw a lot of calls being made in favor of one team over another, we would get upset at the unfairness of the system. It might take a whole quarter of the game before we were satisfied that calls were being fairly balanced. A full quarter of our national history would necessitate at least one hundred years of Affirmative Action, in order to redress the balance.

Most of us do not have that historical view of Affirmative Action; that vision can be corrected. We can expand that view. To do so it is necessary to understand history, to take a long view of what is happening before our eyes, to understand that Affirmative Action is a part of the balancing which is necessary to implement fairness.

Fairness in the basketball game is not simply to balance the calls between individual players; it is the intent to balance the calls between the teams on which the individuals play. Fairness adjusted between individual players would satisfy only a part of the quest for justice. It does nothing for the tough calls between teams.

So, when I hear people, usually white males, complain that Affirmative Action has outlived its usefulness, that all the adjustments that fairness requires have been made, I remember that basketball game. Then I look at the persistent history of discrimination against people simply because they have been members of groups (minorities, women, gays, the disabled), and I know that it may take a lot longer than a few minutes of history to balance things fairly.