Race, races, NFL: how demographics kill stereotypes

Since NFL is starting, I thought I’d post a series on what “aid experts” and the rest of us working about the world, trying to do good and work smarter,  can learn from American Football.

But first, some stories from Kenya to show the mentality whose solution the NFL illustrates.

Recently I’ve had a string of conversations with Kenyan friends. Invariably we talk about politics, tribalism, propaganda, and stereotyping. A friend snapped this photo, which attempts to positively stereotype 10 of the 39 ethnic groups in Kenya:

Privately, I’ve heard people share (and use) a very different set of negative tribal stereotypes:

“Kikuyus love money.”

“Luos are polygamous.” “Luos are whores.” (Obama’s Luo father had 3 wives)

“Kamba women are good in bed.”

And so it goes… (here are a dozen more I shudder to reprint!) The group least pigeon-holed by stereotypes are the Luhyas, which dominate the total population at 14 percent. (My theory on why to follow)

A stereotype

A stereotype exists because the statement applies to a plurality of people in the group. If it didn’t ring true at least half the time, people would abandon them. People cling to them as guides on how to approach strangers. It would be harder and riskier to approach every stranger with trust and openness, because some of them might take advantage of you. But it is in the clinging to stereotypes that people are often systematically deprived of opportunities they richly deserve.

Exceptional friends

Every time a stereotype about race or tribe comes up, somebody is bound to exhibit his or her intellectual prowess by citing a friend from the maligned group who is doesn’t fit. This is a fallacy, for in order for such a person to come into your mind as exceptional, you had to have at some point in the past considered this person exceptional, rather than typical of their group, class, or caste.

I believe stereotypes about Luhyas are rare in Kenya because they are too numerous – the average person has so many real relationships with Luhyas that there is no need for this “exceptionalism” thinking – nor would one’s anecdotes convince others. There are simply too many relationships with too diverse a sample of people for stereotypes to be on any value.

Rigid reference frames

I’ve met too many people from all walks of life who spend their time putting strangers in boxes and categories, rather than engage them in thoughtful conversation aimed at picking out the unique characteristics and talents of each new person. (Personal note: my stereotypes have much more to do with economic class than anything else, but they remain there. Rich people can be victims of stereotypes too!) More than anything else I’ve seen in Kenya – it is this universal tendency for people of all tribes to view other people through lenses that cannot easily be replaced by their own dynamic day-to-day experiences – that affects national politics.

Killing a stereotype

Two examples come to mind that illustrate my current theory on how society abandons a negative stereotype that causes millions of people to be the victims of descrimination. First, the rise of black (or African American) coaches in the NFL:

Orange line: coaches | Purple line: total NFL teams

Although 75% of players are black, no NFL head coach was instated until 1989. Since then the percentage has steadily risen to 22% (7 out of 32) today. That obvious change in slope at 2003 can be attributed to the Rooney Rule, which requires every team to at least interview one minority candidate before hiring a head coach. Oddly, conservatives say that simply giving minorities a voice is no different from “affirmative action” – when in fact the latter is a quota system for hiring, not for interviewing.

An excellent Sports Illustrated article quotes sociologist Janice Madden (no relation), who showed that prior to the Rooney Rule, black coaches vastly outperformed white coaches. Since then they’ve been no different from whites. This, for the same reason that Princeton ending limits on the number of Jews accepted has reduced test scores among Jewish Princeton graduates, illustrates that the playing field is finally level: You no longer need to be a hall of fame caliber coach in order to be considered for the job, if you are black. (Incidentally, the first 3 black NFL head coaches are all likely to enter the hall of fame.)

But this plot is not about affirmative action or the Rooney Rule. This is about demographics. I could show you the identical plot for black NFL assistant coaches, position coaches, and head office administrators, simply shifted earlier on the timeline. With or without the Rooney Rule, the number of black coaches would have risen (though not as quickly) because the number of blacks in the room making decisions and in the pool of candidates had already risen each year.

There was a time when blacks did not hold any coaching positions, period. After a generation of seeing black faces on the side lines and lecturing players while they broke down tape, the novelty, the exceptionalism, and the stereotypes vanished. Not because people “unlearned” them, but because those with them died off or retired. Thomas Kuhn argues that this is also the nature of Scientific Revolutions – superior evidence does not cause a shift, merely a demographic shift in the number of scientists holding their rigid, older views.

Old ideas die with those who cling to them.

-Thomas Kuhn (parapharsed)

So what this means for people like me who are more interested in the prediction of (rather than manipulation) a trend, is that we need to study the demographics of an attitude in order to understand the effects of behavioral changes that happened a generation earlier.

Presidential candidates

Minority (US) presidential candidates are following that same trend that NFL coaches show in the plot above, only we’re stuck back in 1989 and our plot only changes every 4 years. But what strikes me is who was talking about Obama and Clinton as “minority candidates” in the first place: conservatives and news media. These groups still use labels to simplify their thinking and their communication. They embody “rigid reference frame” thinking in my view, and really need a refresher course – which comes in the form of playing fantasy football (explained in my next post). Aid experts who actually went to school in order to be “experts” also badly need to play fantasy football to learn how to optimize predictions in a complex, stochastic environment much like the real work of international development…

But I digress. The lesson here is who was not talking about Obama or Clinton as “minority candidates”: young people.  Demographics is again at work. To think of a person running for office as a “black candidate” or “woman candidate” or “[label] candidate” is to fit the form of a person who has grown up using stereotypes and categorization techniques as a static reference frame. In the Facebook Era, where you can friend and unfriend people instantly, dynamic reference frames are part of life, part of my experience, and form a basic understanding of reality that transcends static stereotypes.

Don’t worry if you disagree, that’s just your static world reference frame speaking. No worries 🙂

In my conversations with Kenyans, I don’t talk about American friends, or Kenyan friends, or Kikuyu friends; I talk about friends – as in people – who are more like themselves than any group or category one can place them in. I can’t even fully identify as American, since I’ve lived 8 of my 34 years abroad. I still have stereotypes, but they are about class, and until someone can explain why we all share the same misconception about wealth and power in the world, I’ll cling to them, sadly.

Ref: Here’s that universal misconception about modern wealth and power explained:

We found there’s a huge agreement between people across the political spectrum in terms of what the distribution of wealth should be. And yet we all vastly underestimate how much wealth the richest people actually control.

Dan Ariely (paraphrased)

Stereotypes or “cultural sensitivity”: How do we deal with it in daily life?

Yesterday I argued with a developer friend for a solid hour on the street about working with other Kenyan developers. I complained that if I approach somebody with a task, a deadline, and a set of requirements, I expect them to be professional and evaluate the job and either give me a YES or a NO on whether they can do the work. “NO! is the most beautiful word!” I was shouting at him after a half hour of circular debate. “NO! comes from knowing your limitations, and focusing your work on your core competencies.”

I’d had a string of negative experiences with local developers (other than this guy) who say YES to everything and can’t seem to turn down any work, even if that work is beyond their capabilities, or contains impossible requirements.

I include “Impossible requirements” partly out of ignorance and partly as a test of competence. I gave this friend a task with 3 levels of goals to be aimed for, each harder than the next. I would accept and pay for any of the 3 results accordingly. Where he passed, others failed, usually aiming for the impossible and never even achieving the first, almost trivial goal. (My neuroscience research professors used this same technique on me in the lab, and I believe it extracts excellence from competent people.)

Back to stereotypes, my respected friend argued that I should recognize the culture of Kenya and work with people and their ingrained habits. Saying yes when one should say no is a way of life here. And if they cannot say no, then I should deal with it, he said. In fact, he explained I was being disrespectful by giving people a task they were sure to fail.

“I’m trying to help them be successful. Without learning about the power of ‘No’ I could never be successful,” I said.

I wonder if one man’s “cultural insensitivity” is another man’s “rigid thinking.” I’m not about to abandon my strongly held beliefs about the power of “No” and the benefits of frequent “failure.” When this ThingsYouForget came out, serveral people sent it to me, because it reminded them of me:

Killing stereotype-based thinking is a generational thing. It’s tied to your sense of self, and requires massive mental surgery to dismantle. It’s better to look at what we can do with young people to give them other kinds of thinking, and then follow demographic shifts in attitudes to detect when those old ideas have died.

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