The Political Nature of Baseball Jargon

Is it too much to ask to recognize Aaron Judge for his on-field accomplishments? (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Writing, particularly as a profession, is supremely difficult. It requires a mastery of the English language as individual words and the relationships among and between them all. It also requires continuous moral judgments about which truths should be included and what would be irresponsible to omit. The writer thus owes responsibility to one’s readership, one’s subjects, and to the English language as a whole. These responsibilities do not escape those whose subject is baseball, which involves the crafting of narratives, a practice that is frequently mindlessly undertaken by writers and announcers alike.

In 1945, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” in which he addresses the four largest writing follies: dying metaphors, poor operators, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. At the core of these issues is that they obfuscate the key to good writing: conveying an idea as plainly as possible. Any combination of these four follies results in “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Their repeated usage divorces them from their strict dictionary definitions and instead imbibes them with cultural significance, leaving readers the task of deriving meaning from overly complex, cliched writing.

Baseball thrives on this style of diction, imbibing jargon into every element and crafting stories based on old metaphors. A number of aspects of the game are described via phrases that work themselves into other areas of life, such as “batting 1.000,” “out of left field,” and “give me a ballpark number,” wherein they typically lose their original meaning. The language of baseball has become so specialized that it is difficult to read an article or watch a broadcast without having prior knowledge.

For example, rather than saying a runner is on second or third base, we now use the term “scoring position,” which, to somebody in the ‘know’ is a completely useless phrase–technically all runners/batters from home to third are in scoring position. The game certainly involves more complexities today than it did in its origin, particularly with the introduction and refinement of sabermetrics, and many terms are justified in their uniqueness. But the complexity of the jargon does not only seek to create a more refined understanding of the game, it attempts to narrow baseball’s exclusivity. Would-be or new fans are routinely mocked for using the wrong term or not understanding an obvious idiom.

As with any method of communication that describes human beings, baseball writing carries with it an immense burden. When writing about baseball–or anything, for that matter–it is assumed that a large portion of it is finding accurate words to describe the events taking place. In such a vast language as English, it should not be difficult to do so–there should be a word to describe everything. But language is not nearly so passive; it does not merely trail behind events, capturing still shots every now and then. Language can, and is, used to influence thoughts and events, to shape society in particular ways.

In the essay, Orwell lays out this connection between language and humanity and the problems it poses for the advancement of society:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

[…]

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.

There is no shortage of instances of which Orwell writes, particularly in this current era of “fake news.” And it is frequently those who are in a position to know better who commit these linguistic crimes, because their position allows them to do so. Indeed, one instance occurred during this year’s All-Star Game. In between the second and third pitches of Aaron Judge’s second at-bat, Joe Buck discussed the impressive nature of his character via these remarks: “He was raised well. His mom and dad, two educators. Adopted. A biracial background. Grew up in Linden, California, and a credit to his parents, Wayne and Patty.”

On the surface, this statement seems fairly mundane, not particularly noteworthy in either direction. But it’s all there in the language: “raised well,” “biracial,” “adopted.” It feeds into a longheld belief that black parents are incapable of giving their children good lives because of their own deficiencies compared to white parents. It’s the same as saying that Aaron Judge is “well-adjusted” because of his proximity to whiteness. In other circumstances, his blackness would hold him back, but luckily he’s not too black.

Buck probably did not think about the connotation of his words, merely parroting common descriptors of many successful black people. It is this thoughtlessness that should give us pause, though. With this one statement, we are reminded that baseball is not divorced from the rest of society, that discussing the sport bears the same responsibility as discussing politics. Language matters, and baseball is laden with common phrases that normalize racism.

Latino players are typically described as having “flair” or being “fiery,” which devolves into accusations of egotism, while white players are frequently described as “gritty” people who “play the game the right way” and provide leadership. In 2012, The Atlantic conducted a study that found announcer biases in favor of white players, wherein white players were 10 percent more likely to be praised for their effort and character than non-white players, who were far more likely to be called over-aggressive or impatient.

Non-white players are frequently treated as lesser players, typically through labeling them less polished or unable to grasp the complexities of baseball. Throughout his career, Willie Mays was described as possessing “childlike enthusiasm” for the game, dismissing the hard work and baseball intelligence he possessed. Non-white players are also typically described as being “natural athletes” who have “raw” talent; the implication here is that they are lazy, coasting on their natural ability rather than working hard and playing a smart game, like white players do. These words all point to the same thing, something that a number of ballplayers throughout the years have been all too eager to point out: white America views baseball as a solely white American game. If non-white players, particularly Latino ones, want to succeed in baseball, they had better learn to play according to white American standards.

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

There is a common assumption that baseball players should play hard, sacrifice for their teammates, and do so in a manner that “respects the game.” This final element in particular denotes the racism of standard baseball language. It points to the long-standing history of baseball, arguing that its tradition automatically commands respect. But baseball’s history is laden with racism, beginning with banning black players in the 1800s and Japanese players in the 1900s, and continuing to make it difficult for non-white people to play the game.

There are many beautiful, praiseworthy aspects of baseball, but its appeal to this tradition is not one of them. It is despicable to ask non-white players to respect the game’s racist roots and irresponsible to reduce the future of the game to its past. Respect is something that is earned, and professional baseball should be trying to earn the respect of everyone it has excluded, belittled, and villainized rather than forcing them to yet again yield to their oppressors.

The trouble with continuing to give credence to these phrases is twofold: it normalizes racism and supports the oft-used argument that “baseball is the only language that matters.” Concerning the first, Orwell writes, “a speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.” Tired idioms divorce the speaker from critical thought, instilling conformity and perpetuating the current political climate through pretending to be apolitical. It allows the longstanding tradition of racism to go unquestioned.

The second issue, as all issues of politics do, relates closely to the first. It posits that the only thing that matters is how players perform on the field, ignoring all other aspects connected to language and culture that impact on-field play, beginning with the fact that there is no one “correct” way to play baseball, aside from following the basic rules of throwing the ball and running the bases. It automatically labels Latino players as “wrong” and then shames their efforts to integrate and communicate with their teammates. It reinforces NESN broadcaster Jerry Remy’s opposition to on-field translators.

So many of the racist elements of baseball are beyond the scope of the simple writer or broadcaster, but there are some that live almost exclusively in the words of these people. And these phrases are no less political or damaging:

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.

Writing toward the end of World War II, Orwell speaks of a world that is in turmoil, whose resolution requires departure from traditional language and political ideas. But his assertion that “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” is no less valid today. Language has always been a tool used to disseminate political ideas, and in baseball, these phrases are used in the service of racism, to protect the sport against encroaching multiculturalism. It is essential to understand that language is not fully organic, and it can be molded to fit society’s best self, through addition and elimination, if those who wield it prove willing.

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Mary Craig is a PhD student in political philosophy and American constitutional politics. She is overly attached to Massachusetts and spends her time baking, watching hockey, and reading and writing about baseball history. Follow her on Twitter @marymcraig.

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39 Comments on "The Political Nature of Baseball Jargon"

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Danny
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Danny
I enjoyed this piece, and although I think much of what the author describes is true, I’m not sure I see the connection to Orwell’s famous essay. Orwell took a stand against the use of language in hiding or denying reality; as it is quoted here, “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable…” While I would agree that the application of stereotypes is indeed racist – a biracial Aaron Judge needing to be described as “well-raised,” when it would be merely assumed and unstated about a quiet white player – I don’t think anyone would disageee that Willie Mays… Read more »
Chris
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Chris

The thing that is plainly true is that non-white players can and do play the game as well as white players, and that their innovations are valuable and necessary additions to the game, not hazards to its traditions.

Harvey Siegel
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Harvey Siegel
Maybe, but that kind of judgment needs a warrant, and many who hold it aren’t willing to offer anything other than an appeal to tolerance. Imagine that we discover a new continent tomorrow, and the inhabitants turn out to be really good at baseball. They start coming over to play ball in the states, and they’re all obvious jerks. They don’t break laws, but they are giant douchebags by all standards of douchebaggery. It would be wrong to shut them out. Of course they’re welcome to come play if they have the talent. But fans would be justified in offering… Read more »
Harvey Siegel
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Harvey Siegel
Maybe, but that kind of judgment needs a warrant, and many who hold it aren’t willing to offer anything other than an appeal to tolerance. Imagine that we discover a new continent tomorrow, and the inhabitants turn out to be really good at baseball. They start coming over to play ball in the states, and they’re all obvious jerks. They don’t break laws, but they are giant douchebags by all standards of douchebaggery. It would be wrong to shut them out. Of course they’re welcome to come play if they have the talent. But fans would be justified in offering… Read more »
MrsObvious
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MrsObvious

I know a few people that stated they didn’t like the bat flip (remember Bautista in the playoffs a couple of years ago?) have been labeled a racist for saying it. What I can’t understand is the obsession some people have with the bat flip itself instead of the act that proceeded it, as if the bat flip and glare at the pitcher afterwards adds something special to the moment.

Michael Dunleavy
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Michael Dunleavy
I don’t disagree with the way subtle biases creep into language, and we should try to guard against it (without draining all the blood from the writing). I will take some issue with the Judge comment, if only because it is his humbleness that has been a defining characteristic, and there are a number of fans (myself included) who were unaware of his racial background until recently. Anyway, my point is that whenever I have seen a player, of any color or background, conduct himself the Judge has, I would say he’s been raised right. I say it all the… Read more »
WhatLeylandNooo
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WhatLeylandNooo

But the point is, why even mention his racial background at all? Why does it matter to anyone?

This

“He was raised well. His mom and dad, two educators. Adopted. A biracial background. Grew up in Linden, California, and a credit to his parents, Wayne and Patty.”

has a different connotation than this

“He was raised well. His mom and dad, two educators. Adopted. Grew up in Linden, California, and a credit to his parents, Wayne and Patty.”

f
Guest
f

You assume that there is such a single thing named “been raised right,” which can be located without any additional criteria, even though the only criteria Buck mentions in conjunction is “biracial parents.” You also assume that you yourself are able to identify that thing that is called “having been raised right” or “conduct” without any of your own biases and norms creeping in to identifying those states.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
The use of Orwell here is “in the ballpark” so to speak. I think the correct way to look at it is that language reflects culture and baseball is a microcosm of it. The two most interesting books I have read on race in America were not books about race in America. They were baseball books by David Halberstam: 1949 and 1964. The use of racial and ethnic nicknames was more prevalent years ago than it is now. Just off the top of my head, there was “Chief” Bender, The Italian Stallion (Johnny Musso), The Fighting Irish, etc. Professional wrestling… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.
But baseball’s history is laden with racism, beginning with banning black players in the 1800s and Japanese players in the 1900s, and continuing to make it difficult for non-white people to play the game. What is this Japanese player ban of which you speak? If you mean the Working Agreement that came out of the Murakami Affair, that was something that the NPB insisted upon. From what I have read, the MLB was very reluctant to agree to this – the Giants wanted to keep Murakami on their roster – and it is suggested that the MLB only agreed to… Read more »
Mrs. Obvious
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Mrs. Obvious
Sigh. Same tired arguments. While Buck has many faults, his statement there was not racist at all. This is part of the problem when you have people trying to write about in their careers what they were taught by the liberal universities. Buck was not making stereotype remarks, he was stating facts and giving a compliment. If Judge had more ‘whiteness’ in him and came from a poor neighborhood like Youngstown, Ohio, he may have stated the same thing. The reason you don’t hear this more often is because most white players that make it to the Major Leagues, are… Read more »
TC
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TC

You’re being deliberately obtuse. You have to look – as the article does – at who receives these ‘compliments’. How many black players have a ‘great smile’? Just a compliment?

Mrs Obvious
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Mrs Obvious
Ah, insults ensue. Typical. Here are a couple I have heard in the past: Josh Harrison – “Scrappy, plays the game the right way.” (You know why? Because scrappy and “plays the game the right way” means he hustles and he seems to always be paying attention to things he can take advantage of. It does not mean that he is white.) By the way, Josh Harrison is black and has been given this compliment multiple times by multiple announcers on Pittsburgh broadcasts. Example #2 – Almost ANY pitcher who played predominantly at a position other than pitcher at a… Read more »
Chris
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Chris
You named one “scrappy” black player. Name another. I could give you a list of 50 active white players that I’ve heard called “scrappy” in the past 5 years, and it wouldn’t be difficult at all. A discrepancy means that there is a trend in the data, in this case that one stereotype is held up more often for one group than for another. It doesn’t mean that instances to the contrary of the trend never exist. As far as the study is concerned, the author gave you a link to it, and you could have vetted and critiqued it… Read more »
Thomas Paine
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Thomas Paine
I think this is an interested article, but only as it applies to the jargon piece. I recall learning the game and having to ask lots and lots of questions to understand even the most basic phrases and sayings, but at the same time, now that I am familiar with the “baseball language” (not to be confused with Remy’s) I like that I can communicate with my fellow fan in a more meaningful way. I think all specialties, whether it be other sports or jobs in industry, all have their own jargon– the important question is how to balance using… Read more »
Kyle
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Kyle
Whoa where to begin. Preliminarily, get over yourself. All professions are difficult. Whether it be “mastering the English language” or being constantly faced with these painstaking gripping moral dilemmas as to what should be included in your writng, every profession has it own set of challenges. A farmer has to labor outside, a lawyer has read dense legal language, a teacher has to have the patience to deal with students. Writing may not be simple, but take it easy with the grandstanding language and effusive praise of your own profession. It is off putting. We all do hard things. Second,… Read more »
Kevin
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Kevin

Political philosophy student trots out a version of tired critical theory, finds racism. Film at 11.

weezy228
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weezy228

Thoughtful article, I appreciate the perspective.

I also wonder how many of these commenters, who tend to skew male and white, would respond differently to the article if the author’s name wasn’t ‘Mary’. There has been research to support bias in the response to articles written by men and women.

The above point is only marginally connected to the article itself, but it is alarming to see the couple patronizing comments to this article.

Kyle
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Kyle

Please note the instance(s) of sexism in my comment. If/when you can’t find any, feel free to respond substantively. Or, as I suspect you might, argue that a thorough responsive to a poorly thought out and frankly illogical article is because of sexism.

baseball fan
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baseball fan

It’s a pointless endeavor. When in doubt, blame the opposing party of sexism/racism/bigotry instead of addressing their arguments. That’s what political commentary from the left has become, unfortunately. The author made some pretty bold, albeit flawed and unoriginal, arguments in this article, which begs for discussion. However, the commentors that agree with her will just accuse you of sexism if you disagree with her.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
Weezy228, So, instead of addressing the arguments against her piece, you immediately ascribe sexism to the critical comments. In effect, what you are saying is that any criticism of a woman is, by nature, sexist. I’m sorry; I’m hardly a conservative but I have to agree with Kevin and some of the others. I suspect that, in contrast to what you say, the comments would be EXACTLY the same if the author was male. The problems with the article relate to the substance, not to the gender of the author. You can argue about the validity of her arguments, but… Read more »
Brian
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Brian

You are the first writer ever in the history of sportswriting to ever address this topic.

John Fox
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John Fox

I think it is hilarious that the author is constantly citing George Orwell to buttress her case when Orwell was a ferocious foe of political correctness, he after all coined the term “groupthink” which is exactly what political correctness is.

Kevin
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Kevin
It’s astounding how so many of these activist types, possessing an academic focus of no worth to any employer, get lost in such compact cul de sacs of thought. While appealing to Orwell over here to synthesize her case, she’s on Twitter claiming that racism and sexism can only be eliminated by destroying capitalism. Never mind how boring that tattered line of thought is – surely the irony of championing Orwell and socialism simultaneously is not lost on her? The cognitive dissonance in today’s wave of postmodern activists is almost unfathomably deep, but it takes a special level of perversion… Read more »
Kevin
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Kevin

And yes, Orwell was a democratic socialist of his time, but today’s brand do not emulate any of the traits that Orwell possessed in castigating the far Left.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Having thought about this article some more, my sense is that whenever the author encountered any of the subjects brought forth here a great deal of effort was put into finding the worst possible interpretation. I will say this now: if you want to be disappointed in humanity, it is not difficult to get your wish but it is a terrible way to live. There is nothing there but suffering. For what it is worth, here are my interpretations: Joe Buck is, in my opinion, a terrible announcer. He pays little attention to what is going on, tossing out comments… Read more »
Danny
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Danny

I gave my critique of this piece, but it was nice when we were focusing on that instead of criticising the author’s profession or Twitter feed. As some of you seem to think think that a doctoral student engages in character assassination by reflexively finding racism everywhere, you’d be well served to ponder what reflexively refusing to see racism produces, and the kind of ad hominem attacks it engenders.

Write on, Mary. Never mind that the comments prove some points.

f
Guest
f

Thank you for your thoughtful take, really enjoyed seeing this presented rigorously (ie in a language of pseudo academic neutrality), which I think is probably the best way to reach a community of thoughtful baseball nerds. On a related note, I am again surprised by the dumbfounded and generally overwhelmed comment section, because I forget that baseball as an institution, down to its fanbase, should absolutely be called out– and wow is everyone here reluctant to touch this.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

f,

In other words, how DARE people disagree with the author? How DARE people be so blind as to have a different opinion?

Jesus, I hate it that this is making me side with conservatives. I don’t even know if I disagree with the article. But I do know I hate the smug, self-satisfied liberal attitude that looks down on everyone with a dissenting opinion.

f
Guest
f

Also legit only white fucking men in this comment section, so on the one hand who gives a shit what they think about race, but on the other hand, horrifying

W
Guest
W
I have to admit to having a very dim view of articles like this – the “see the bad in everyone and everything” sort of claptrap that’s so in vogue lately…so I had to laugh when, after reading this “everything is political” stuff, I went back to looking for some actual BASEBALL content on fangraphs…and ran into “Red Sox Prospect Jay Groome on His Learning Curve”. That article begins with “Groome was “arguably the most talented prospect in the 2016 draft.”” — and, then they went….”THERE” – and called Groome a “raw talent”. I almost felt the need to email… Read more »
Your Name Here
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Your Name Here

Total Leftist nonsense, and utterly racist to boot. HT staff, you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Your Name Here
Guest
Your Name Here

If you keep publishing Leftist nonsense like this, you will lose readers. You should be covering baseball, not providing a platform for SJW’s to spew BS racist invective.

MrsObvious
Guest
MrsObvious

Wow, after looking the author up on Twitter, this really is a hit piece that fits in her with narrative. She is a feminist and hardcore liberal. Talking about the injustice of Kaepernick and such. This site is going downhill fast, how can you allow writers that are so unashamed of their prejudice to spew it all over Twitter one click away? Shame on you, Hardball Times.

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

MrsObvious,

I think you are showing your prejudice too. Are you saying they should not publish anything from a feminist and hardcore liberal? Only from conservatives?

Your comment just shows how ridiculous both the left and the right can be. Free speech for me but not for thee.

A Former Progressive
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A Former Progressive
I don’t know what’s funnier, that all of THT’s diversity hires immediately go full-blown SJW, or that the Marxist pushing this stuff on us is trying to use George Orwell to lend authority to her Soviet right-think dogma. By the way, the author is outright lying to you. Black parents might not be outright “incapable of giving their children good lives because of their own deficiencies compared to white parents,” but it’s true that 72% of black kids are raised in single-parent homes. The Marxists will argue that two-parent families don’t matter, because this threatens their dogma on several levels.… Read more »
A Leftist
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A Leftist
Unfortunately, this critical theory garbage does real damage to the left. It’s extremely easy to present a narrative that provides nebulous conceptual links between people’s language and structures of oppression. It’s much harder to rigorously argue that this narrative is supported by evidence and has nontrivial predictive utility. The postmodernists have simply decided that they can, by fiat, exempt themselves from that requirement. The irony is that, much like in evolutionary psychology (a highly-fraught field that postmodernists love to berate, though for the wrong reasons), all that they’re left with is a useless collection of dubious just-so stories. Unlike evo… Read more »
Fredchuckdave
Guest

I liked this article, it just took six paragraphs to get past the unnecessary preamble.

Jimbo
Guest
Jimbo
I do not believe that Buck’s quote about Judge, “feeds into a longheld belief that black parents are incapable of giving their children good lives because of their own deficiencies compared to white parents.” I think Buck’s statement feeds into, “In 2013, 72 percent of all births to black women…occurred outside of marriage…”. And this correlation, if not causation, “Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to grow up in a single-parent household, experience ‘unstable’ living arrangements, live in poverty, and have socio-emotional problems. As these children reach adolescence, they are more likely to have low educational attainment, engage… Read more »
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