did steve levitt write this racist blog post?

A few days ago, Steve Levitt wrote a post on the Freakonomics blog that caught many people by surprise. On December 10, 2012, Levitt posted the following on Freakonomics:

In academia, it is seen as an honor when someone wants to reprint one of your published papers in an edited volume of collected papers. It is really an honor if someone wants to take the time to translate it into another language.

Roland Fryer and I feel so honored.

Back in 2004, Roland and I published a piece in the journal Education Next describing our research on racial test-score gaps. That paper was recently translated into ghetto English. The new version is here. It is a must-read (although very, very NSFW). Usually something gets lost in the translation, but I would say in this case it is an improvement.

If you click on the link, you see a version of their paper that uses profanity and street slang. Many readers will probably find the translation offensive, as do the commenters on the Freakonomics blog. It’s very disappointing to see such an accomplished scholar lower himself by using crass and racially charged language.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 14, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Posted in economics, fabio

16 Responses

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  1. The translated document comes from where you can put any amount of text in and it translates it back to you in (a very white version of) black/brown slang. The move was maybe a little tasteless, but it should be noted that the paper translated actually does a great job of isolating schooling effects from other demographic and sociocultural variables, to show that schools have a huge impact on the black/white score gap.


    Graham Peterson

    December 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm

  2. I’ve got no beef with the research, Graham. It’s the rank tastelessness of using a blog with a million readers to draw attention to a website that plays to our worst side. Levitt is (or should be) better than that.



    December 14, 2012 at 7:19 pm

  3. I don’t think he meant to play to our worst side. Black/brown humor is everywhere now, and is a very different thing than minstrel shows. I have a friend whose dad died, an old Panther and political prisoner. Fred Hampton Jr. spoke at the funeral. My friend is a charged activist – and he jokes about black stereotypes all the time. Dave Chapelle – also a strongly political black performer – made a fortune undermining the hate and derision of black stereotypes by turning them into humor.

    Once those stereotypes have been opened up for public discourse as such, white voices are going to chime in. As they should. Ultimately the goal is to negotiate black and brown identity openly.

    That’s the charitable reading.

    Another reading is that Levitt thinks black and brown slang is ridiculous, and was laughing *at* it rather than *with* it. Being that most people stereotype economists (strangely) as blue-blood republican national convention consultants, Levitt should have realized his chuckles would be interpreted with the second reading.


    Graham Peterson

    December 14, 2012 at 7:31 pm

  4. Levitt is an accomplished scholar? He churns out wacky “freakonomics” analyses and South-Park-esque social commentary. I stopped assuming any of his work was meant to be taken seriously after the abortion/crime farce.


    Sam R.

    December 14, 2012 at 7:33 pm

  5. Yes, that’s what he does. but I’ve read some really good academic articles by him. There’s “funny” Levitt who strives for publicity and the “real” Levitt who writes on crime. Sadly, they are often different.



    December 14, 2012 at 8:14 pm

  6. Fabio, I asked, and you delivered. Many thanks. My two cents: Straight up racist. Don’t know if Graham Peterson is just trolling, but, nope, for the 100 millionth time, it really doesn’t matter if you have a black friend, or a friend whose dad had a black friend and, nope, it doesn’t matter whether Levitt was laughing “at” or laughing “with.” Straight up racist. Yo, next time you’re felling edgy, like you want to “negotiate black and brown identity openly,” I’d suggest you ask first:



    December 14, 2012 at 8:16 pm

  7. Once again, the conversation over race takes a mature turn. Call it my fault for personalizing the discussion, but I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t attack the death of my friend’s father. Take care.


    Graham Peterson

    December 14, 2012 at 8:29 pm

  8. Graham, the issue that often gets lost is that people who are marginalized are often mocked or ridiculed for the way they speak. My parents were. A lot of minority people are. So it is hard very, very hard to use this sort of language for humor without shocking people or hurting people’s feelings. Professional comedians can do it because people know it’s a joke. But for a very elite academic – and Levitt is as elite as they come – to employ this language signals to the audience that he is getting a laugh at the expense of the way someone else, who is poor, speaks. It just feels wrong. I can’t guess what the intention was, but I do think it shows poor judgment and Levitt should focus on the research that he is known for. I don’t think Levitt is a bad person, but there was no need for that post to be read by millions of people.



    December 14, 2012 at 9:12 pm

  9. This is why economists need to learn about institutional logics. Comedians can get away with stuff that economists can’t get away with for very good reasons.



    December 14, 2012 at 10:22 pm

  10. did steve levitt write this racist blog post? it appeared on his blog, under his name and he hasn’t denied it (yet), so my powers of reason say, “yes.” unbelievable. what’s the spread on him claiming he was hacked, or, better yet, that it was an RAs fault? unbelievable.



    December 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm

  11. Professor Rojas,

    But your reaction assumes his intentions were mocking and malevolent, and you’ve even explained why — he’s a white economist at an elite school often times associated with conservative economics — which leads you to infer his intentions.

    I agree it was poor judgment on his part precisely for that reason — that no matter his intentions it was likely to be read poorly.

    But a good deal of racial jokes these days are just that – jokes – meant to accomplish precisely the *opposite* ends that minstrel was. Minstrel was meant to reinforce social boundaries. Many racial jokes these days are meant to poke holes in precisely those social boundaries. My boy cracking jokes about throwing dice at his father’s traditional West African funeral on the south side of Chicago, around a bunch of black power activists would be evidence of that, I think.

    My beef here is with knee-jerk outrage about any racial humor, because a lot of that humor is meant to make fun of *racism* and *racists* rather than make fun of *races* as used to be the case.

    I don’t misunderstand anyone’s reading of Levitt’s behavior. I just think it’s worth giving the guy a reasonable doubt, before calling him a racist publicly.


    Graham Peterson

    December 15, 2012 at 12:03 am

  12. It’s also worth noting that nobody gets outraged about the diminutive moniker, “white boy,” or screams when black and brown people make fun of white accents, or builds entire websites about light-skinned latin girls getting called “white bitch,” etc.

    If the only tools we have to encourage social mobility are AJS articles, diversity committees, and town hall meetings — it’s never going to happen. I think poking fun at race itself undermines its power as an enforcer of categories, and is one of the most effective tools for getting people to see through the social construction.


    Graham Peterson

    December 15, 2012 at 12:09 am

  13. Graham, I am at a loss as to how a white man reiterating negative stereotypes about black people is supposed to poke holes in racial boundaries. Also, no one “screams when black and brown people make fun of white accents” because “white accents” are not generally devalued in wider society. Have you ever heard of someone getting passed up for a job for having a “white accent?” It’s not the same thing; you know that. There is giving someone the benefit of the doubt and then there is being an apologist for racism.



    December 15, 2012 at 2:26 am

  14. Are black and brown patwahs devalued? For fifty years or more they’ve been mimicked and incorporated by white youth. Upper middle class women routinely cop black and brown slang to express feminine solidarity, calling each other “sista,” etc. (possibly one of the most annoying expressions of upper middle class victim politics I’ve ever encountered)

    Frankly Levitt probably is a touch racist, or classist — Dubner opens Freakonomics with a quote of Levitt turning to him after a homeless guy asked him for money, saying “he’s probably worth more than me.” Which is, ha ha, technically true considering Levitt’s net wealth at the time was probably negative and the homeless guy presumably had some change in his pocket. But not an incredibly funny joke.

    I used the occasion of the article to whip up a conversation about racial humor – not to apologize for racism.

    While we’re at it, we ought to discuss how black and brown identities of marginalism and deviance, , in an effort to establish ethical and spiritual solidarity actually ossify, and serve as pop cultural fodder for young white males and middle aged white females to feel badass.

    I’m not naive about race. I think it’s something we should talk more about. Having a bunch of white college professors walking around terrified to say *anything* about race serves neither blacks, browns, whites, or anyone else. Levitt made a mistake. I think that’s the fourth time I’ve acknowledged it. I was trying to turn the occasion for a broader conversation.


    Graham Peterson

    December 15, 2012 at 2:59 am

  15. @TR: Don’t know if Graham Peterson is just trolling…

    Think we do know that now! Sorry to see this post hijacked. Maybe when Graham tires we could resume?

    This is developing into a very interesting affair. Sociologically interesting even. The post in question has been up for five days and…crickets, more or less. Where do they make these get-out-of-jail-free cards?



    December 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm

  16. I think one reason why this strikes a nerve among sociologists is Levitt’s position as a privileged prof at an elite university in a city with a large black population combined his stature of a public intellectual with a popular blog (as social science blogs go). I’m not sure its really appropriate for someone who may occasionally teach black students to post jokes about “ghetto English” on his blog. I get a fair amount of ESL students whose parents immigrated from Latin American in my classes. I couldn’t imagine making crude jokes about Latino stereotypes on some very public and relatively popular blog; this would seem really really inappropriate because of the position of authority I have in the classroom. I’m white and from a lower-income semi-rural background but I couldn’t imagine making jokes about “poor white trash” on my blog.
    Maybe I am naive about the faculty-student relationship……

    BTW….the notion that there is such a thing as a “black accent” or a “white accent” lacks external validity…..


    Silly Wabbit

    December 15, 2012 at 10:31 pm

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