Midnight basketball and the 1994 crime bill debates: The operation of a racial code

Darren Wheelock, Douglas Hartmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


This study examines the symbolic politics associated with the adoption of the omnibus $30 billion federal crime bill of 1994. Based upon critical race theory and close readings of Congressional hearings and print media coverage, we argue that race was the key to midnight basketball's prominence in the legislative debates and that its introduction ultimately reduced prevention-oriented provisions included in the final legislation. The central empirical contribution is a content analysis that specifies how racially coded references to midnight basketball exerted their impact on the political process through the discursive framing of the bill. We find that while midnight basketball directly increased attention to race in the debates, its real impact was more indirect, serving to heighten fears of crime and produce images of criminals that made prevention appear misguided. In contrast to bottom-up theoretical approaches, these discursive shifts worked at the level of elite decision makers, the legislators themselves. The article concludes by drawing out the implications of this case study for theories of how the politics of race operate in the contemporary American political arena, especially those concerning crime control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)315-342
Number of pages28
JournalSociological Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2007


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