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The Poker Tournament

When I was a graduate student, I started playing online poker and I became a student of the game. I kept detailed logs of the tournaments I played in, key decisions, outcomes, etc. When I wasn't talking about astronomy or basketball, I was talking about poker. I did well online, but my learning really paid off when I was a postdoc at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA). In Honolulu, I found a vibrant underground poker scene, in which games of all levels, from \$1-\$2 to \$10-\$20, were spread in people's apartments, garages and trailer parks. The games were safe, because at any given moment there was at least 2-3 cops, firefighters or Marines at the table. The people running the games took a percentage of each pot to pay rent, as well as to valet park the players' cars, do food runs and comp drinks.

I did well in Hawaii's poker landscape, typically playing \$2-\$5 no-limit hold 'em. It paid for Marcus' diapers, date nights, and even helped with rent. All told, I won a decent sum over 1.5 years. Let's just say that there was good money to be made for those who know how to do math in their head. It all ended with the 2008 market crash, which took people's disposable incomes. I was applying for jobs that year anyway, so it was a good time to hang up the spurs, so to speak.

Poker is back in my life again as my sons have discovered a passion for the game. Owen loves the math, Marcus loves muscling his older brother (and father) out of pots with aggressive betting, Mom and Dad enjoy the family bonding. I've also found the game to be a wonderful analogy for many aspects of life, including teaching my sons about race and racism in America. What follows is an allegory with a no-so-hidden meaning.

In a country far away, it had long ago been decided that there would be a giant poker tournament, in which all of the nation's people, both blue and red, would compete. The game would be long, but well worth playing, for it would help determine who was better and most deserving of the nation's scarce resources. 

The game of poker was determined to be ideal, since it involved both luck and skill in nearly equal proportions. The luck allowed those who started with little to gain much, and those who had successfully done so loved to talk about how they were self-made women/men, and had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. 

The game also involved skill, so it was not just a roll of the dice. The best of the best, those who were truly Excellent, consistently accumulated chips and survived in larger proportions than those who were less meritorious. Thus, the players were proud of their meritocracy, while also pointing to their "mobility" and frequently cited the "National Dream," wherein anyone could win.

(Aside: It should be noted that “red” and “blue” were, at the time of this story, known to scientists to be artificial social constructs: red and blue people were not inherently different. But people liked the red/blue dichotomy and it persisted in the nation's society. As red players often liked to point out, "We’re all in this together.")

Over time, millions if not billions of hands were played. Sets were flopped, straights were rivered, bluffs succeeded and failed. Some players were knocked out, while others progressed in the tournament while accumulating chips. Those who played long enough to retire or pass away were allowed to pass their chips to their descendants, who continued playing in their stead. 

But not all were happy. The blue players were consistently stuck with short stacks, and were ten times more likely to get knocked out, even after adjusting for their minority fraction of the population. They consistently found themselves with stacks shorter than the red players. For example, all but one of the top-50 chip leaders were red. The red players shrugged their shoulders and offered explanations such as, "Well, maybe blue players play too loosely and call too much. If they'd only learn to play more carefully, they'd have as many chips as everyone else." 

In response to these common explanations, some of the blue players pointed out that when the game began their ancestors were given only one tenth starting chips as the red players. In the past, blue players were deemed less skilled and less worthy, a priori, by virtue of being blue. The blue players pointed out that those who made the rules of the game were all red. In the past, all close calls regarding the rules had outcomes that favored the red players. It was clear to blue players that their present-day condition was related to the historical decisions made by red rule makers, which preferentially benefited red players, then and now.

Some of the more liberal-minded red players acknowledged the there were problems in the past. The original rules were, indeed, unfair. But the present-day situation was very complicated and solutions were not obvious. If only something could be done. After expressing this regret, they promptly returned to their tables and began playing again, often forgetting the question and their answer.

Other red players were willing to recognize this past injustice, but they quickly pointed out to various modifications made to the rules since then that made the game fairer for all. For example, blue players were now allowed to eat in the same place as red players during breaks. They were very proud of these rule adjustments.

Other red players were less patient with the discussion, and took the complaints of blue players as personal insults. They pointed out that those rules were made long ago, before they even started playing, so how could they be blamed? Their ancestors had joined the game via late registration, and worked their way up to their current positions through smart, solid play. Blue players pointed out that these late registrants, though they started out behind owing to their late start, were given the same starting stack as the other red players and were even allowed to buy more chips. They also pointed to rules that only allowed red players to join late.

This only angered the red players who were proud of how far they and their ancestors had come. Still other red players held onto the old belief that red players were just inherently better at poker. It could not be helped that the culture of blue players was so self-defeating. It could not be helped that blue players had such bad strategies and made such risky moves. And just look at how all the rules decisions went: blue people were almost always guilty of breaking the rules, while red players rarely were. Blue players should stop complaining and learn to play better and follow the rules. Those who were complaining were free to leave the game, after all. "Then get out of our game," was a common response.

After strenuous protests by the blue players, and with the support of a relatively large contingent of red players, it was eventually recognized that the game was not fair. Something should be done. Rule adjustments were proposed and accepted. But the implementation of rules was always left to the local tournament directors (who, remember, were all red). The directors often ignored the rule changes, or applied them sporadically. When the rules didn't have the desired effect, they complained amongst themselves about how if the rules didn't work, they must be fundamentally wrong.

The directors also made subtle rule changes that resulted in red players playing at their own tables, and blue players at other tables. As a result, not long after, most red players knew nothing about the blue players except what made it to the game telecasts. When the cameras visited the blue tables, they tended to focus on the times when blue players broke the rules (remember that infamous incident when the blue player stole another player's chips?!), or when they fought with each other (so much blue-on-blue fighting!), or when they argued with the directors (they should focus on the game instead of complaining all the time!). Never mind that rule infractions were equal, by proportion, at both red and blue tables.

Eventually, a solution was proposed and the implementation was, at long last, left to the Head Director rather than the local tournament directors. The solution was that any time a blue player moved to a red table, they would be given additional chips and a seat to the left of the chip leaders (since, in poker parlance, chips "roll downhill," or clockwise) This greatly angered red players, but for a while they held their tongues and kept playing. After all, red players were better than blue players, so this shouldn't matter much.

Then, strange things started to happen: blue players started knocking out red players more regularly, the top-50 chip leaders added a few more blue players, and red players found themselves ever more in direct contact and competition with blue players. This made red players very uncomfortable, for they had seen the telecasts, with those loud, confrontational and frankly, scary blue players moving to their tables. 

During breaks, red players started complaining as their compatriots started getting knocked out of the tournament, thereby allowing blue players to move up. "This is so unfair! It's colorist! It's discriminatory against red players!" They started acting in contradictory ways, at one moment talking about how color-blind they were, and how color doesn't matter since, you know, the National Dream! The next moment they would complain bitterly about how one of their friends was knocked out by a red player who was obviously less qualified. When asked how they knew, they'd say, "You know, all those liberal diversity programs promoting unqualified minorities!" Was there evidence for this? "Of course, the evidence is hard to come by." But they knew it to be true. They felt it was becoming more and more difficult to be a red player with all this reverse discrimination. 

The blue players couldn't help but hear the underlying message: any red player who advances does so on their merit. Any blue player who succeeds does so just because of that liberal program that attempts to take action to affirm the equality of red and blue players. You know, that damn affirmative action. 

Eventually, the red players filed a petition with the tournament directors, and a ruling was made: It was not fair to discriminate based on color, ever. It was only fair to remove color from the equation. So blue players would no longer be given chip subsidies and seating preferences.

A little while later, all players remaining in the game were red. This affirmed the deeply, if privately held beliefs of the red players: Red is better than blue. The evidence was in the outcome of the game, clear as day and as indisputable as the weather.

With their meritocracy restored, the red players lived happily ever after.

Epilogue: The real world

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was established to set "standards for construction, and the underwriting and insurance of loans made by banks and other private lenders for home building. The goals of this organization are to improve housing standards and conditions, provide an adequate home financing system through insurance of mortgage loans, and to stabilize the mortgage market." (quote from Wikipedia)

This agency was federal, and the ultimate decision-making was ceded to state-level FHA offices, which interpreted and applied the laws according to local customs (reference). In the South, this resulted in the vast majority of FHA loans going to whites, at the exclusion of prospective Black homeowners (because of Jim Crow). In the North, loans were approved based on the location of the house to be purchased. This ushered in the era of "redlining," which "refers to the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate the area where banks would not invest." (cf also the effects of contract buying and blockbusting)

Historical redlining maps can be used to predict the present-day locations in which Black and brown people are concentrated in Northern cities. Even today, there exist very few minority homeowners in these areas (see also The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson).

During this same time period, there was an influx of European immigrants. Yes, they often were greeted with xenophobia and faced more hardships that white Americans---those who immigrated before them---didn't have to deal with. But one cannot ignore the fact that the Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship only "to immigrants who were free white persons of good character." This law remained on the books until it was superseded by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Note that Native people, who were here for 14,000 years before Europeans were not granted citizenship until 1924. (Now that's some shameful shit I didn't learn in high school).

2009 Pew Research Center report found that there existed a 20:1 wealth gap between Black and white people, and an 18:1 gap between white and Latina/o. Remember, wealth is assets minus debts. The median household wealth of white families in 2009 was \$113,000; in Black and Latina/o households it was \$5,600 and \$6,300, respectively (cf Understanding White Privilege, by Frances Kendall). Compare that to the average annual tuition for college, around \$30,000/year. The single largest asset for average Americans? The home they own.

Even when non-white people own homes, they don't get as much benefit from home ownership as white people do, thanks to segregation, and recessions hit them disproportionately harder:
2013 Brandeis University report noted that not only is home ownership lower among blacks than whites, but that black-owned homes tend not to appreciate in value as much as white-owned homes, which the Brandeis researchers attributed to “residential segregation artificially lower[ing] demand, placing a forced ceiling on home equity for African-Americans who own homes in non-white neighborhoods.” Blacks also tend to carry proportionately more mortgage debt, at higher rates, than whites. And, as a 2011 Pew Research Center report found, the housing crash was harder on blacks than whites (though both groups fared better than Hispanics).
Note, too, that Black people, in the main, were not granted access to the GI Bill, which has a similar discriminatory history as the FHA (Herbold 1994, see also this brief overview on Wikipedia, and references therein). The same goes for most New Deal programs. "No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job," was a common refrain during the Great Depression, during which Black children died of starvation in the Land of the Free. 

In the debate over affirmative action and the role of race and racism in our society, history not only matters. History is everything. The question is not why are there not more Black kids at your college or university---the question that started me on this journey of discovery. The question should be: why are white people so overrepresented? 

The answer is knowable, and the mechanisms that led us to where we are today are recorded in plain sight in our history books. And once one understands that history, it becomes extremely difficult to take a cogent stand against affirmative action. Sadly, most people are ignorant of the relevant history, and instead rely on emotional arguments that exist in a historical vacuum. And this ignorance is carrying the day, even among otherwise educated people.

Want to help? 
  • Stop talking about affirmative action as if it's a bad word, especially if you don't know what it is (hint: it is not and has never been about quotas). White people having ignorant debates about affirmative action hurts people of color, thereby contributing further to the racist underpinnings of our country. Also, remember that some relevant and valuable aspects of white privilege that feed into discussions of affirmative action are:
    • The assumption that an opinion is valid simply because a white person voices it. A more nuanced yet adult viewpoint is that you are not entitled to your opinion. Having your ill-informed, ahistorical opinion shot down by a knowledgeable person is not suppressing your freedom of speech, despite that opinion being voiced by numerous, otherwise educated white people I know.
    • The ability to make your personal family history relevant to a discussion rooted in hundreds of years of history. If you are white, your lived experience is often automatically considered more valid than the history of an entire people. But it's not just about you.
    • There are no consequences for you not knowing non-white history. Whereas we'd be shocked if a US college student didn't know about Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, there's no price to pay in not knowing anything about Jim Crow laws or the history of housing discrimination.

  • If you are ever tempted to tell a person of color or a white woman that they got their job just because they are ____ (insert irrelevant characteristic), close your mouth, count down from 10, and say something considerate and helpful instead. 


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