Emerge: Black America's News Magazine
Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk about Itby Jon Entine
Drawing on the latest scientific research, journalist Jon Entine makes an irrefutable case for black athletic superiority. We learn how scientists have used numerous, bogus "scientific" methods to prove that blacks were either more or less superior physically, and how racist scientists have often equated physical prowess with intellectual deficiency. Entine… See more details below
Drawing on the latest scientific research, journalist Jon Entine makes an irrefutable case for black athletic superiority. We learn how scientists have used numerous, bogus "scientific" methods to prove that blacks were either more or less superior physically, and how racist scientists have often equated physical prowess with intellectual deficiency. Entine recalls the long, hard road to integration, both on the field and in society. And he shows why it isn't just being black that mattersit makes a huge difference as to where in Africa your ancestors are from.
Emerge: Black America's News Magazine
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Read an Excerpt
BREAKING THE TABOO
ON RACE AND SPORTS
"I know that the American system is very sensitive to statements of black and white. But you cannot defy science. You cannot just say that day is night and night is day. These are facts. And I think it's to the advantage of the black athletes to be proud that God was on their side."
Biomechanist, former Israeli Olympic athlete
"What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make up than they are to the rest of humanity. And that's where the indignity comes in."
Professor of Sociology, University of California at Berkeley
Imagine an alien visitor chancing upon a basketball arena on a wintry night. It sees a curious sight: most of the faces of the extended tree trunks scampering around the court are black; the crowd, on the other hand, is almost all white. This alien would see much the same racial division at football games, boxing matches, and at track meets and running races around the world. Even in sports in which blacks are not a majoritybaseball, soccer, rugby, cricket, even bobsledding in some countriesblacks are represented in greater number than their share of the population.
Why is this so? Are blacks modern übermenschen, Friedrich Nietzsche's supermen in baggy shorts and Air Jordans? Are race and geneticssignificant components of the stunning and undeniable dominance of black athletes? Or is this notion nothing but white voodoo designed to banish blacks to the modern plantationthe track, the basketball court, and the football fieldwhile whites control the boardrooms?
To the degree that it is a purely scientific debate, the evidence of black superiority in athletics is persuasive and decisively confirmed on the playing field. Elite athletes who trace most or all of their ancestry to Africa are by and large better than the competition. The performance gap is widest when little expensive equipment or facilities are required, such as running, the only true intentional sport, and in widely played team sports such as basketball and football. Blacks not only outnumber their nonwhite competitors but, by and large, are the superstars.
This disparity, which we can expect to increase as socio-economic barriers continue to erode, results from a unique confluence of cultural and genetic forces. The favored and socially acceptable explanation for this phenomenona dearth of opportunities elsewhere, does not suffice to explain the dimensions of this monopoly. The decisive variable is in our genesthe inherent differences between populations shaped over many thousands of years of evolution. Physical and physiological differences, infinitesimal as they may appear to some, are crucial in competitions in which a fraction of a second separates the gold medalist from the also-ran.
When willing to speak openly, black and white athletes freely acknowledge what we intuitively suspect. "Blacksphysically in many casesare made better," says Carl Lewis, one of the best sprinters of all time, shrugging as if to say, "Does anyone really question that?" This is the same Carl Lewis who, by his own estimation, worked out eight hoursper week, that is, not per dayin the run up to winning four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. But such anecdotes alone cannot resolve this controversy. Lewis's belief that he is a breed apart can be seen as either an expression of black pride or a simplistic stereotype so powerful that even successful blacks have come to recite a racist party line.
Even raising the subject of black athletic superiority brings angry rebukes from some quarters. William Rhoden, a distinguished African American columnist with the New York Times, derides it as "foolishness," a white "obsession," and an "unabashed racial feeding frenzy." Lurking in the background, suggests Rhoden, are racial stereotypes of black mental and moral inferiority. In this garbled translation, black success in sports is not a compliment, but a proxy for racisma "genteel way to say nigger," in the cut-to-the-chase words of fellow Times columnist Bob Herbert.
Herbert and Rhoden make an important point. The world's historical romance with slavery and the persistent misuses of racial science have served permanent notice of what can happen when an intellectual interest in human differences hardens into an obsession based on class, ethnicity, or race. White fascination with black physicality has been part of a dark undercurrent since the first stirrings of colonialism. In the minds of many, the notion of physical differences is tethered to racist stereotypes of an "animalistic" black nature and the implication that blacks are somehow intellectually inferior.
And we should not forget that though black athletes may dominate sports, blacks in general do not: the ownership and high-level management of every major sports franchise and the various leagues are still in white hands to the virtual exclusion of African Americans. Whiteness has come to symbolize political power, wealth, economic advancement, rationality, and civilized culture, whereas blackness is equated with the natural, sensuality, hyper-sexuality, musicality, laziness, intellectual deficiency, cultural pathologyand athleticism. With some variation, these stereotypes hold true throughout much of the world. These deeply ingrained stereotypes help explain why the image of a raging Mike Tyson spitting out the torn piece of ear of his opponent stirred such personal reactions among both blacks and whites.
"People feel if you say blacks are better athletically, you're saying they're dumber," noted Frank Deford, the respected author and sports reporter. "But when Jack Nicklaus sinks a 30-foot putt, nobody thinks his IQ goes down." Even saying blacks and whites are merely different can echo of racism, as the Golden Bear learned. In 1994, Nicklaus was asked by a Canadian sports writer why there are so few blacks playing at the highest levels of golf. "They have different muscles that react in different ways," he said. It was an innocent enough statement, whether true or not, yet it provoked an immediate storm and inevitable back-pedaling. "God created all of us equally," said a chastened Nicklaus in response to charges that he was racist. "We are then influenced by our environment. That is all I have said." Thereafter, he refused to talk of the subject again.
Given all the controversy involved in addressing such a potentially divisive issue, it is worth asking why it even matters whether blacks are better athletes. It's a fair question and there isn't a short and simple answer. Taboo does its best to understand both the question and the skeptics. As a necessary consequence, the book is self-referential: it grapples with the issue of whether it should have been written at all, considering America's troubling racial history.
In 1989, Tom Brokaw and I sliced off a sliver of this controversy in the NBC News documentary Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction. "It was probably as complicated and controversial a story as I've ever gotten involved in, certainly up there with Watergate," Brokaw remembers. "There were times right before and after it aired that I worried if the storm would ever die down. Those were delicate moments."
Here we were, two prototypical "white men who couldn't jump," tackling a racial controversy that was certain to touch raw nerves. "Friends said `Don't do it,'" recalls Brokaw. "But I thought that it was important enough to address. Then as the broadcast got near, people came around very quietly and would say to me 'You're doing the right thing.' On the other hand, they didn't want to be associated with it."
Widely praisedthe Denver Post, for example, applauded NBC "for its bold venture, for the willingness to tackle a sensitive subject ... and for taking risks in the name of truth-seeking"the documentary divided journalists, frequently along racial lines. A white columnist at Newsday called it "a step forward in the dialogue on race and sports," while a black colleague at the same daily wrote that "NBC had scientists answer questions that none but a bigot would conjure up." "[Brokaw] utterly ignore[d] the facts in favor of the speculation of several scientists," charged Ralph Wiley in Emerge magazine. "His program played like a badly cast farce."
Some of the reaction was intensely personal. "Why are we constantly fighting this superiority battle, instead of asking why and how anyone in the human race develops the ability to excel?" wrote Sybil Smith, a former All-America swimmer at Boston University and then a swim coach at Harvard, in Sports Illustrated. She said she was driven to tears by the unpleasant memories the show stirred of her days as a young athlete. Smith had starred in a sport in which blacks have been notably unsuccessful and the subject of a controversy about whether they are physiologically incapable of competing at the elite level. Yet teammates used to explain away her swimming accomplishments by glibly saying, "You're so lucky that you don't have to work that hard."
After the program aired, a number of Brokaw's black friends, the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown in particular, called with kind words. "Even Brown was going through a tough time with it, though," says Brokaw. "But I knew him well enough, and we worked through it. But I had another friend who shall go nameless, who is a distinguished black American, had been an athlete, and excelled at the highest levels in other fields. He never ever raised the subject with me. He just quietly withdrew our friendship for about two years."
Black Athletes may have stirred controversy, but it also stimulated a dialogue about the underlying issue: the destructive categorization of people based simply on their ethnicity or the color of their skin. Human differences have never been easy to discuss. And over the past decade, racial suspicions appear to have grown wider, even in the world of sports, which has long operated under the illusion that it is an oasis of tolerance. In 1968, as a black power boycott of the Mexico City Olympics gathered steam, sociologist Harry Edwards, then at San Jose State University, noted, "The prevailing wisdom was that sports were the best thing that ever happened to black people in this country. The question was not how do we correct the problems in sports; the question was how do we make the rest of society like sport." Today, despite decades of progress and the remarkable accomplishments of black athletes, sport remains a haven for some of our most virulent stereotypes.
Taboo is out to do some damage to these prejudices. It was written in the optimistic belief that open debate beats backroom scuttlebutt. Although discussing racial differences is likely to provoke strong reactions, on balance and in proper context strong emotions are healthy. Issues of race left unexamined can do a lot of damagejust look at the polarized reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdicts, the Rodney King trials, and the 1994 mega-seller book The Bell Curve. It may not be easy to address some of the questions Taboo poses, but considering the path racial understanding has taken over the past quarter century, it is a risk worth taking.
There is another reason why this is the right time to look at this issue. At its core this book is about what it means to be human. Today, on the cusp of the twenty-first century, science is catching up to curiosity. We are unlocking the mystery of genes, the sequence of DNA on a chromosome that forms the molecular basis for heredity. Geneticists are rushing to complete a map of the three billion base pairs of the human genetic code, in effect reconstructing the path of human development. We may not yet be able to definitively deconstruct the relationship of nature to nurture, but we are refining our questions. The coming revolution of our understanding of human nature and behavior will be as profound as the discovery by Copernicus that the earth circles the sun.
For the first time in history science promises a glimpse of how the world's different populationspopularly called raceshave evolved. Think of genes as the frame of a house: they determine the shape and set limits, but much of the important stuff gets added over time. Complex phenomena such as intelligence, sociability, and creativity are difficult to dissect without resorting to huge generalizations. Success will always remain a mysterious brew. But we are certainly closer than ever to unraveling the enigmatic forces, biological and social, that shape great athletes, gifted musicians, or top scholars. Within the performance range in which most of us fall, the environment may be critical. But when we talk about people such as Einstein and Mozartor Mark McGwire, Jim Brown, and Pélegenes count a lot.
Yet the explanatory power of biology has its limits. The "why" of human differencesblack/white, male/female, Italian/Irish, between Slavic ethnic groups or one African tribe and anotheris likely to remain only crudely measurable. Racebased on ancestry and marked by skin color, ethnicity, and geographyis a fuzzy concept. This fuzziness is compounded by the historical reality that theories about race have been frequently superficial and almost always reflective of a social agenda, whether stated or unrecognized. In the not-too-distant past, conjecture and cultural prejudices costumed as science provided much malignant fuel for the fires of slavery, segregation, and the quiet but insidious racism that continues to haunt relations between blacks and whites. Though frequently exploited in the service of racism, science can now help demolish stereotypes.
In Taboo, the importance of the individual remains paramount. Winning athletic competitions does not make one superior in any moral sense. It does signify that you have hit on your lucky number playing the roulette wheel of genetics, cultural serendipity, and individual drive.
Simply stated, Taboo is written for those intrigued by one of the more remarkable phenomena of our timesthe monumental success of the black athlete in defiance of considerable odds. It plumbs the stories of street-smart playground hoopsters, from Jewish and Negro basketball stars of the thirties and fortiesto the later-day acrobatics of Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson. The model for the world's greatest athlete is no longer Babe Ruth waddling around the bases nor gimpy-kneed Joe Namath, but a sculptured black athlete: loping long distance runners from the highlands of Kenya; Muhammad Ali with his washboard stomach, lightning moves, and even quicker tongue; two-sport wonders Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders; speedsters Maury Wills, Lou Brock, and Rickey Henderson; soccer superstar Ronaldo; or Randy Moss, who makes catching a football in traffic look like a frolic in the park with a Frisbee.
Although the book focuses primarily on male athletes, it devotes an entire section to the history of women in sports. Female athleticism has its own set of celebratory images: Chamique Holdsclaw twisting through the paint on the way to the basket; the metronomic success of sprinter Marion Jones; and the growing exploits of tennis superstar siblings Venus and Serena Williams. And Taboo does not shy away from addressing a dark side of athletics, the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The sports world, women's sports in particular, still struggles with the legacy of the East European sports machines.
But Taboo is as much about the history of humankind as it is about hoop dreams and Olympic glory. While not embracing the deterministic role of genes, Taboo challenges the orthodoxy that all meaningful differences between populations are cultural, an issue so sensitive that many people have come to believe that self-censorship is a mark of tolerance given the racial suspicions that run through society like an underground river. Human biodiversity may be a danger zone, but pretending that there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one's breath. Stereotypes are like a mythical herd of elephants in the living room: everyone hopes that if we refuse to acknowledge their existence, maybe, just maybe, they will go away. Of course we know they won't. And they certainly can't be driven away by ignoring what is so obvious, even to a child.
This book uses sport as metaphor, the access point, if you will, to examine why blacks and whites have such a difficult time acknowledging our differencesthe first and most important step in bridging them. Athletic competition, which offers a definitiveness that eludes most other aspects of life, is a perfect laboratory for a serious exploration of such a subject. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than fanning distrust. After all, in the end, for all our differences, we are far, far more similar. That's Taboo's only real message.
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