Monday, June 11, 2012

Anniversary Provides Opportunity to Advocate for Racial Diversity in Athletics

Not to be forgotten among the 40th anniversary hype is the fact that Title IX has created more athletic opportunities for white women and girls than it has for women and girls of color.  According to this article in yesterday's New York Times, the high school athletic participation rate for white girls (51%, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Education) is significantly higher than the rate of participation by black girls  (40%), Asian/Pacific Islanders (34%) and Hispanics (32%).   The article makes the important point that we must include the topic of race as we discuss the Title IX "progress" narrative. This is a necessary step toward seeing these disparitNies addressed.

Beyond this key point, however, this article doesn't offer much in the way of solutions, or any real explanation of how Title IX operates on the ground in ways that exacerbate racial disparities.  In fact, the article leaves the impression that these disparities are a fault of the law itself.  I believe that it is crucial to talk about race in the Title IX context, but I worry that framing racial disparities as a problem of the law itself can mask responsibility for both the problems and solutions.  Title IX, after all, is agnostic to which sports high schools, colleges and universities choose to add in an effort to comply with the law.  Nor does Title IX require schools to address outside factors that present barriers to participation, whether those barriers be economic, access to talent and interest- building activities offered outside of the educational context, or cultural barriers that affect girls in general and/or girls of color in particular.  (For an example of this last point, scholars have begun to analyze the extent to which hair care and its conflict with athletic participation creates a potential obstacle for participation among some black girls.) 

Because Title IX leaves so much discretion up to athletic administrators on how to structure their programs, many of the issues that explain the racial disparity in athletics are outside the law's scope.  But what Title IX can do is expose racial disparities and provide the context for discussions that can serve as the catalyst for change.  For example, advocates should encourage athletic officials to accommodate interest levels that may vary by race when it comes to certain sports.  At the same time, schools should not limit their diversity efforts to just including sports that are already popular among girls of color.  They should, to use two examples in an admitted oversimplification, consider adding bowling AND examine why there are no black girls on the ice hockey team.  To that end (the "ice hockey" end) and on the issue of cultivating interest more generally, schools must address economic barriers to participation by seeking alternatives to "pay to play" initiatives and more generally resisting the "specialist" tendency in youth sports that makes it hard for students to take up a new sport that they haven't had expensive lessons in from the age of 5.  Coaches and administrators can also work on cultural sensitivity to hair and other considerations that are too often invisible to white people. 

Title IX's anniversary is the perfect catalyst to ignite (or re-ignite) advocacy on these issues.  But the more effective advocacy, I believe, will frame itself as effort to change the culture, not the law.