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 Fewer than half of Latino and black students who enter college receive a degree within six years, compared to over 60 % of white and Asian students. This is a terrible social ill that needs to be fixed.

            As a social entrepreneur, I often like to approach problems like this not by asking what’s wrong with this system (there are an infinite number of answers to a question like that, many of which fall into the category known as ‘true but useless’) but rather by identifying an example of success, a case that illustrates what good looks like, and see which parts might be replicated.

This is sometimes called ‘bright spots theory’. 

So let’s ask ourselves the question: in what fields do African-Americans and Latinos thrive?

One example is athletics. A third of the athletes in the MLB are Latino, two-thirds of the athletes in the NFL are black and three-quarters of NBA players are black.

The obvious question: what can academic spaces learn from athletics about helping minorities thrive?

One interesting difference between academic spaces and athletics is how issues of diversity and disadvantage are handled.

There is a movement in Western higher education to de-center the white supremacist curriculum and to de-colonize the academy. The logic goes something like this: Colleges were part of the enterprise of colonialism and racism over the course of centuries. As a natural result of this, they developed a whole set of practices, from the material taught in the curriculum to the structure of the university to the general culture of the campus, that marginalizes black and Latino students. We must advance a discourse that highlights the oppressive nature of the system and, through safe spaces, trigger warnings, language about micro-aggressions, protect minority students from the inevitable pain and trauma that being in this system causes.

Much of the above might be true, but for the purposes of this column I want to center a very specific question: is this discourse the most effective approach for helping Latino and black students thrive in higher education (get better grades, graduate on time, etc)?

I’m not so sure.

What strikes me is how radically different that discourse is from the way issues of oppression and diversity are approached in athletics.

Watch this Nike commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick.

It basically highlights a whole set of people with striking disadvantages – people with no hands and legs, people from third world villages and urban ghettoes – who make it to the top of their field.

Virtually all of the people in the commercial are black or Latino or female.

Unfairness is at the center of the narrative. But the message is not to point out all the ways that “the system” (in this case, the sport) is structured against you. The message is to adopt an attitude that overcomes disadvantage through your own excellence.

The game is hard, your opponent is strong, you are disadvantaged – all of this is assumed.  

Away games are played in hostile territory, not safe spaces. Prepare for it.

The other team will try to trigger you. Be mentally strong.

Micro-aggressions? Laugh at them. And learn to channel your own macro-aggression into excellence.   

Work harder. Dig deeper.

Just about every coach that I’ve ever been around has preached some version of this message. From my own life experience and the data from professional sports, the people who appear to thrive in these contexts are African-American and Latino.

Of course there are a hundred differences between athletic spaces and academic ones, but there are some interesting similarities as well. One is how the history of both spaces is intertwined with racism. Sports like cricket and baseball were viewed as methods by which white people would ‘civilize the natives’. Leagues remained racially segregated for many many decades.

Advocates for minority athletes (coaches, parents, etc) could easily have said: let’s put our energy into calling out the racist nature of this whole enterprise. It’s interesting that that’s not the approach they took. Instead, the discourse focuses on dominating the field despite the racism of the system. 

It’s worth emphasizing that in the process of thriving, minority athletes changed entire sports. Basketball is a radically different (and far more exciting) game, from the style of play to fashion styles, now that black players dominate rather than white players. 

It would be interesting to at least consider how adopting the ‘turn-your-disadvantage-into-empowerment’ narrative that dominates athletics might fare in place of the ‘oppressive-systems-are-to-blame-demand-protection’ discourse.

To be clear: I believe that lots of systems, including educational ones, are oppressive, and that this puts black and Latino students especially at a disadvantage.

I think that should change.

The question I am raising is this: if you want to increase the academic success of blacks and Latinos, one way to think about it is to seek to replicate the secret sauce in the fields where blacks and Latinos thrive. Athletics is one of those fields. The secret sauce may well be the framing of diversity and disadvantage.

If you work on a campus, maybe it’s worth strolling over to the athletic department to learn more. 


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