Midnight Basketball and the 1994 Crime Bill Debates: Racial Codes and Symbolic Politics in Contemporary U.S. Culture

Douglas Hartmann, University of Minnesota
Darren Wheelock, University of Minnesota

This paper is a case study of the symbolic politics implicated in the legislative process that produced the omnibus $30 billion federal crime bill of 1994. It focuses on a small, previously obscure program that came to sudden prominence in the public and congressional debates surrounding the bill-namely, "midnight basketball." Based upon race-based critical theories and close readings of Congressional hearings and print media coverage, we argue that race-or, to be more precise, the images of young African American men associated with this policy initiative-was the key to midnight basketball's symbolic prominence. We then use content analysis and binary logistic regressions to specify how racially-coded references to midnight basketball exerted their impact on the political process. Our account focuses on how midnight basketball served both to heighten fears of crime and to transform images of criminals contained in the public discourse thus rendering liberal, prevention-oriented components of the legislation vulnerable. These findings and the emphasis discourse also allow us to go beyond standard racial coding theory which typically conceives such effects in one-directional, psychological terms. The paper concludes by drawing out the implications of this case study for the politics of social problems and public policy in contemporary American society, especially insofar as race and popular culture are concerned.

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Updated 05/20/2006