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Midnight Basketball: A Popular Distraction To Real Problems


In the late 1980s, the U.S. government was cutting back on many social programs, including those that served poor city residents. So when a sports program known as Midnight Basketball emerged, it was seen by conservatives and liberals as a cost effective way to get young men off the streets and into gyms during hours considered peak times for crime.

But was Midnight Basketball designed to build character and cultivate community? Or was it actually a tool for social control and policing?

Douglas Hartmann jumps into this debate in his new book Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports, and Neo-Liberal Social Policy. “I often see Midnight Basketball from a real racial kind of lens,” he tells us. “Midnight Basketball brought together some of the most positive and problematic images of black men and used that as a solution to what were seen as the problems of black communities at the time.”

Author Douglas Hartmann (photo courtesy of the author)

Douglas Hartmann (Credit: Douglas Hartmann)

In the course of his research, Hartmann became increasingly dismayed about the racialized aspects of the program. “Midnight Basketball was functioning as a racial code for politicians to talk about the perceived problems of black men – and perceived criminal justice solutions – without really talking overtly, explicitly, and directly – without naming that – in racial terms.” He finds Midnight Basketball did little to address the real problems these men faced – poverty, inferior schools and unemployment. Instead, black men themselves were seen as “the problem to be addressed.”

In order to get a more nuanced understanding of the program, and the lives of those it sought to help, Hartmann spent many hours in the gym, shooting hoops with those he wrote about, which he says was vital. “Without that, I wouldn’t have near the sense and understanding, not only of Midnight Basketball, but of these larger issues of race and public policy and injustice.”

Additional Resources:

Hartmann on Twitter

Douglas Hartmann’s book: Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports and Neo-Liberal Social Policy

The New York Times article: Basketball at Midnight: ‘Hope’ on a Summer Eve

Pacific Standard magazine article: Super-Predators and Midnight Basketball

LA Times article: Midnight Basketball Is Winner on Street : Crime: Players, coaches, police officers say the prevention programs have proved their worth. But some lawmakers aren’t convinced.

The Sociological Quarterly report: Midnight Basketball and the 1994 Crime Bill Debates: The Operation of a Racial Code by Darren Wheelock and Douglas Hartmann

Journal of Sport and Social Issues report: Rethinking Sports-Based Community Crime Prevention – A Preliminary Analysis of the Relationship Between Midnight Basketball and Urban Crime Rates by Douglas Hartmann and Brookes Depro

Photo Credit: United Way via Flickr

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