Last week, Slate magazine carried an interesting series of columns written by Paul Shirley, an American pro basketball player currently plying his trade in Spain (he has played parts of three seasons in the NBA).
Shirley’s most interesting observations were about race. He noted that, at present, 6 percent of NBA players are white Americans (75 percent are African-Americans and 19 percent are foreigners), and that “when the average white American male” watches an NBA game, “he would very much like to see another average white American male” on the court.
When he sees such a player, Shirley claims, the average white American fan is going to root for the average white American player, because “we like to see people who look like us succeed.” I have no idea if this is true, but I know it’s not true in my case, at least when it comes to “white” American basketball players.
Shirley relates how racial prejudice has dogged his basketball career every step of the way. Because he’s white, many players and coaches have always assumed he wasn’t very good, even though as someone who has reached the NBA, and now makes an excellent living in the world’s second-best professional league, he’s obviously better at basketball than 99.99 percent of the people who made this assumption.
All this is related to the deep tribalism reflected in the idea that, in Shirley’s words, “we like to see people who look like us succeed.” This impulse is at the heart of issues such as immigration. For more than a century, nativists have been in a panic about the prospect of America ceasing to be a “white” country.
What these people never notice is that the definition of who counts as “white” in America is always changing. During the nation’s first great immigration panic in the 1890s, “white” meant “Protestants of Northern European ethnicity.” The notion that “people who look like us” would someday also include the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks and so forth would have seemed bizarre.
Now, in our own time, the relative whiteness of Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans is shifting rapidly.
With any luck, in another generation or three, the descendants of Barack Obama will be “people who look like us,” too.