Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Interracial Workplace Cooperation: Evidence from the NBA

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Interracial Workplace Cooperation: Evidence from the NBA

Article excerpt


Recent research shows that when individuals are forced to make quick decisions, they often exhibit same-race preferences, even if they are unwilling to admit to biased racial attitudes. For example, Price and Wolfers (2010) show that National Basketball Association (NBA) referees are more likely to call fouls against players of a different race than players of their own race, and Parsons et al. (2011) find that umpires are more likely to call strikes for pitchers of their own race. Similarly, Antonovics and Knight (2009) find that police are less likely to search the vehicle of someone of their own race, and Donohue and Levitt (2001) find that an increase in the number of police of a certain race is associated with an increase in arrests of people of the other race.

This same-race bias could play an important role in collaboration among colleagues in a workplace. For example, managers might be more likely to give favorable assignments to same-race employees. Alternatively, colleagues may depend disproportionately on same-race colleagues for advice or help. Collectively, such decisions may reduce the workplace productivity and satisfaction of employees of a minority race. These decisions may play a role in explaining the extent of workplace segregation (Hellerstein and Neumark 2008). Furthermore, this bias would undermine the argument that productivity is higher in groups that are ethnically diverse (Page 2007).

In this paper, we examine the effects of group heterogeneity on teamwork by studying specific and measurable actions within teams. In traditional firm-level data, it is often difficult to obtain measures of cooperation. As a result, we use play-by-play data from the NBA. These data allow us to determine for each basket, who passed the ball and which other players were on the court at the time. We develop a simple model which allows the optimal pass to depend on the particular combination of teammates on the floor. We then test whether the pattern of observed assists demonstrates evidence of same-race bias.

We find no evidence that, conditional on the set of teammates on the court, players are more likely to pass to a teammate of their same race. Our baseline empirical strategy controls non-parametrically for the joint distribution of shot quality for all teammates on the floor. In other words, we account for differences in ability across teammates. Furthermore, the shooting opportunities for one teammate are allowed to depend arbitrarily on the set of other teammates on the floor. Robustness checks, in which we reduce the flexibility of our empirical specification to increase statistical precision, yield the same substantive results. Our evidence suggests that cross-race cooperation may not be a problem in workplaces where employees have common goals and extensive experience working with each other.


There is considerable research, empirical and theoretical, indicating that diversity can lead to improved economic outcomes (Alesina and La Ferrera 2005; Alesina, Spolaore, and Wacziarg 2000; Hong and Page 2004). These gains from diversity depend on the various groups being willing to cooperate. This may explain why other studies have found that increased racial diversity is associated with lower group performance (Kurtulus, forthcoming; Timmerman 2000). In this paper, we expand the literature on the effects of group heterogeneity on outcomes by studying specific and measurable actions within teams.

Our analysis of cooperation is one form of own-race bias that has been documented in other types of interaction including referee-player (Parsons et al. 2011; Price and Wolfers 2010), employer-employee (Stoll, Raphael, and Holzer 2004), and officer-offender (Antonovics and Knight 2009; Donohue and Levitt 2001). What distinguishes cooperation in our study from these other settings is that players are working together toward a common objective, while these other settings involve a more adversarial relationship. …

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