May 8, 2000

Relationship Between Race and Athletic Achievement

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams.

For sports fans, these numbers will not be surprising. Eighty-five percent of the players in the NBA are black, as are 70 percent of the players in the NFL, African-Americans all. Most sports fans take it for granted that black people dominate sports. But author Jon Entine wants to know why. Entine is a former television producer. While at NBC, he produced a documentary with Tom Brokaw entitled "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." That work plunged Entine into a controversial topic and 10 years later, he's still at it. His new book is called "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports-and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It."

Although many people disagree with Entine over his conclusions, few researchers challenge his data. Among the compelling facts, blacks hold every major world record in running, from the 100 meters to the marathon. Dozens of black people have run the 100 meters in under 10 seconds. That's something that so far no Asian or white has been able to do. This hour we're talking about race and sports. John Entine joins me from the NPR bureau in Los Angeles. Also with me is Grant Farred, professor of English at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Sports And Social Issues. He joins me from the studios at Williams College.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. JON ENTINE (Author, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports"): Glad to be here.

WILLIAMS: If you want to join the conversation, our number here is 1 (800) 989-8255, that's 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Jon Entine , let me begin with you and ask you to lay out for the listeners your thesis. Why do you conclude--what is the reason, I should ask, that you conclude that blacks are dominating American sports?

Mr. ENTINE : Well, I think first we've got to give a little context for the book itself, which is really not an argument or a polemic. It's a discussion of the history of how we debate controversial issues such as so-called racial differences. The whole history of discussing race, the science of race, has a very notorious, nefarious even, history and I think historically African-Americans have been on the short end of the stick in the way that science has been framed. It's been very racist. It's ranked people and I think that really needs to be exposed and we have to really understand, even in sports, for instance, the African-American scholar athlete tradition, which I think is left out of the equation many times. So a lot of the book is really out to really destroy stereotypes. And one of the biggest stereotypes is that African-Americans or blacks in general succeed in sports because of escaping the ghetto, let's say, which, I think, is very racist. The success of any athlete, any individual athlete, is 100 percent the fire in the belly, their guts, their instincts, their intelligence, their creativity. It has nothing to do with ancestry.

The argument of the book--or part of the argument of the book reflects very mainstream science, and that's human populations have evolved in different parts of the world primarily, have different body types and this is not a black-white issue, because East and West Africans are very, very different in body types as are East Asians, the rest of Asia, whites and so forth. So each area, the more it was insular, the more likely we're able to find certain diseases and certain body types and that's reflected on the athletic field.

WILLIAMS: Well, your contention, as I understand it, though, is in a sense genetic, right?

Mr. ENTINE : No, not at all. In fact, I make quite a point about saying this is biocultural. Nothing is genetic and I think geneticists don't talk in terms of nature and nurture. That's very much a lay concept. Every genetic adaptation--let's take lactose intolerance, which most blacks are likely to have--is an environmental adaptation for the populations in sub-Saharan Africa not having access to cows or goats. And ultimately it's encoded in the genes, but not all genetic reactions--not all genetic characteristics actually are triggered unless there's an environmental trigger. Only one out of 10 people who have the sickle cell, which is also prevalent among blacks, get the sickle cell disease. So there is no separation between nature and nurture. They're very intertwined and I think the presence--the domination of blacks in certain sports, particularly people of West African ancestry in sports that involve running and jumping, sprinting and jumping, is really an interplay of social conditions, cultural conditions and a very tiny bit of genetics, which is critical at the elite level, but not very critical for the rest of the population.

WILLIAMS: Well, it sounds like you're contradicting yourself a little bit. You're saying that genetics are a factor and I think, in reading the book, you talk about a distinctive skeletal system, metabolic structures that are peculiar to black athletes.

Mr. ENTINE : Well, actually, again, I make the distinction very clearly in the book between athletes of different populations. People of West African ancestry have a much different evolutionary history than people of East African ancestry. For instance, if you said to me, `Are people of West African ancestry'--and African-Americans are almost exclusively of primary West African ancestry--`Are they great middle distance runners or long distance runners or hammer throwers,' I would say, `No, they're among the world's worst distance runners and they're very mediocre hammer throwers.' Whites, Eurasian whites in particular dominate in field events like the hammer throw and the shotput because of more natural upper body strength. So the point I'm trying to make is--distinguished from the question you had originally put, genetics don't determine success, but there's an interplay of biology and culture and social factors which is what is very much reflected on the playing field and very much part of what mainstream science says about human differences.

WILLIAMS: How early in the conversation you said you thought it was a little bit racist to go with the sociological explanation that these people are trying to get out of the ghetto or whatever.

Mr. ENTINE : Sure.

WILLIAMS: But then how would you explain the fact that we're seeing such an increase in the number of Latino baseball players and much of them coming from absolute, you know, destitute poverty in the Dominican Republic and areas of Puerto Rico?

Mr. ENTINE : Oh, I'm not saying that social and cultural factors don't play a role. I'm saying that reducing success to a social phenomenon really doesn't do justice to what the individual does in becoming a successful athlete. If you take, for instance, all of the Olympic sporting events, 90 percent or so the athletes come from rather middle class or even above circumstances. And, frankly, the argument that African-Americans succeed because they're escaping the ghetto is quite racist. Look at someone like Donovan Bailey, who's the reigning gold medalist in the 100 meters and Donovan had to give up his job on the Toronto Stock Exchange and put his Porsche in hock to pursue his dream and that was to become a 100-meter runner and an elite one. So we don't know--the characteristics that lead to great success are very individual. Sometimes it's economic deprivation and sometimes it's not. But you raise Latin America and baseball. No more than 40 percent of American baseball is now people of primarily West African ancestry because of the influx not of white Dominicans, although there are a handful, but particularly of West African Dominicans and Venezuelans and other Latin American people of West African ancestry. So here the pattern holds true as well.

WILLIAMS: Grant Farred, you're on the editorial board of the Journal of Sports and Social Issues, a sportswriter, professor of English at Williams College. And I wanted to ask you if you have a different theory for why African-Americans have been so successful in football, basketball, track and field.

Professor GRANT FARRED (Williams College): I think it's interesting to hear Jon Entine talk because, on the one hand, I think he wants to make several arguments. First he wants to argue in terms of what he calls, you know, biodiversity, and he also wants to make culturalist arguments, all of which seem to, at a certain level, make sense to me. But he makes his grand claim for science in this book and there's nothing in this book that is completely without or beyond question. There's a lot of stuff here that he hasn't answered and a lot of this stuff is anecdotal. It's speculative and that seems to me, in and of itself, problematic. But what's even more difficult, what's even more problematic than that is the following. If he's not sure, if there's so much speculation, if we can attribute so much of the success of African-Americans in sports to, you know, all these other factors--you know, the cultural reasons, the fact that black people especially have a history of using sport as, you know, a form of not only resistance but of demonstrating their accomplishments, their intellectual acumen, their equality in a society that's profoundly racist, colonialist and so on and so forth--if he's going to make all those arguments, and he's so unsure. What I want to know is, if all these things play an equal part, if genetics is not so important, why write this book, because it seems to me that, by raising this issue--I want to know what his investments are. Who does--hello?

WILLIAMS: Yes, go right ahead.

Prof. FARRED: Hi. Who does he think he's talking to? Who does he think he's talking for? I mean, which constituencies are empowered by raising these issues? I'm not saying he shouldn't raise these issues, but I am asking why they've been raised, why they've been raised at this particular moment? When white athletes were triumphant, when they ruled the roost, nobody complained.

WILLIAMS: Well, I'm not sure it's a complete. In Jon's defense--Jon's right here. We can let him speak for himself but, I mean, it doesn't seem to me that you need an excuse to write about a provocative thesis.

Prof. FARRED: Absolutely.

Mr. ENTINE : Yeah. Can I jump in here, since some of these questions were posed to me?

Prof. FARRED: Can I finish?

WILLIAMS: Hang on. Let Grant finish.

Prof. FARRED: I think you're right and maybe complaint's the right word, but I also think it betrays certain kind of anxieties in our society in other ways in which white people feel black athletes perform, why there are no longer any white athletes. But when white athletes predominated, nobody raised these questions. These issues were not brought to the table. These were not questions that were asked. There were no anxieties. And what seems to me to be forgotten in this debate is that black athletic accomplishment is both a very old and very new tradition. Large-scale, it's very, very new. We're talking the last 50 years--maybe Jackie Robinson, at best Papa Jack Johnson, right? Those are sort of early accomplishments. But for a very long time black people have performed excellently, you know, from the 19th century. Let's look at, for example, you know, Ranat Singhi(ph), who performed excellently for England. You know, he was sort of, you know, described in all kinds of Orientalist ways, the spin wizard, all kinds of, you know, pejorative descriptions, but it's taken black people a very, very long time to come to a position of predominance in sports and now these things are up for grabs. None of these anxieties were part of the public discourse earlier.

WILLIAMS: But, Grant, let me just say this. You're a black South African. You coach soccer at Williams. But certainly, I think in--you must be aware that in American history there was a discussion of this. There was an exclusion of blacks from the playing field and it was thought that blacks couldn't compete with whites. That was the popular way of thinking.

Prof. FARRED: Right. No, I think that's true. I think there's a very different tradition in black South Africa and here. And I think in black South Africa, I know the question was--there's a very strong tradition of resistance. People did not want to participate in sports that were so-called normal. Like they would not participate with white people, you know, on the playing field and go home and I think the point in, you know, America is that African-Americans have had to resist, they've had to overcome and now that they have--we've made those accomplishments, when sport has been "blackened" in so many ways, quote, unquote, you know, these questions are raised. I mean...

WILLIAMS: Well, let's give Jon a chance to get in here. Jon, you hear Grant saying what's your interest? You know, no one raised this question, as he put it, when whites were dominant, as to why whites were dominating sports, because, you know, we had segregation.

Mr. ENTINE : Actually, I think--I wonder if he read the book, because, in fact, that's not remotely true. The idea of measuring and evaluating and determining athletic performance has been with us since the turn of the century and all the original athletes, where they raised the question about were white athletes. For instance, Babe Ruth was largely studied in the '20s, purely to understand what made him different and what made him special. In the--beginning around 1928, the various Olympic science organizations began studying Olympic athletes, not to compare blacks and whites and Asians, but to see which body types do particularly well in which individual events. And it was only about 30 or 40 years later that they began looking at this information and trying to correlate it, not with, again, races, but with countries, and then they found an amazing situation. They found that the body types very much correlated with body types based on population and evolution. That began to appear in the '60s. So this isn't an obsession by any means and if you're an exercise physiologist, and your interest is studying human performance and athletics and you see that every--the top 200 100-meter times are all held by people of West African ancestry and no white, no Asian and no East African, interestingly, has ever broken 10 seconds in the 100-meters, you want to know why.

WILLIAMS: All right.

Mr. ENTINE : And there's a genetic explanation, a biological explanation for this.

WILLIAMS: Jon, we're going to have to take a short break right now. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams. When we return, we'll continue to talk about the dominance of black American athletes in so many sports. Is it a biological predisposition or a cultural phenomenon? And we'll begin taking your calls at (800) 989-8255. If you'd like to comment on the program, please do. Send us a letter or a card. The address is TALK OF THE NATION, 635 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC. The ZIP code 20001. The e-mail address, totn@npr.org.

At 21 minutes past the hour, it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WILLIAMS: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams. Today we're talking about the controversial notion that blacks make better athletes than whites. Is that racism or is that reality? My guests are Jon Entine , author of "Taboo," and Grant Farred, a sportswriter and English teacher who's also the soccer coach at Williams.

Let's get the views of a scientist now. Here's Henry Harpending, who's a geneticist and anthropologist at the University of Utah. Welcome the the program, Mr. Harpending.

Professor HENRY HARPENDING (University of Utah): Hi. Good afternoon.

WILLIAMS: In your experience, is there conclusive proof that blacks are genetically superior athletes to whites or Asians?

Prof. HARPENDING: Well, conclusive proof, no, but there's hardly ever conclusive proof about anything in science. I haven't seen anything to falsify that notion. It seems to be in accord with everything Entine presented in his book. But, no, no conclusive proof at all.

WILLIAMS: Well, what would amount or constitute conclusive proof here?

Prof. HARPENDING: Well, conclusive proof would be to find different frequencies of genes, DNA sequences in people of different colors and to show physiologically how these are related to athletic performance. I doubt that anyone's going to do that. It doesn't, you know, seem like a very interesting way to spend research money. But for all the--I think the evidence that Entine presents looks pretty solid and conclusive to me.

WILLIAMS: Well, you're saying it would have to be some sort of genetic code that would predispose African-Americans to superior athletic performance and that doesn't exist. At the same time you say you find the evidence pretty strong, so what is the evidence that you find so strong?

Prof. HARPENDING: Oh, the information on black accomplishment in athletics, the slight differences in anatomy and muscle physiology that Entine describes in his book, and I can't see anything in any of the arguments about environmental effects on these, so I don't see any good alternative hypothesis.

WILLIAMS: All right. Well, let me ask now, do all black people share similar physical traits or are there differences, for example, between West Africans, East Africans, Afro-Americans, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Panamanians, etc.?

Prof. HARPENDING: Well, of course. I mean, what black people share is black skin. But if you travel around Africa or anywhere else, people look different in different parts of the continent. I mean, our language trips us up. We talk about blacks as if this is a coherent group and we don't have any good reason to think it is. Certainly, if we look at a lot of DNA, there's a lot more diversity in Africa. People are more different from each other in Africa than they are in Europe. So the kinds of phenomena that Entine describes, that association with black skin, we don't know whether that's--you know, it's part of being black or it's a completely unrelated kind of trait.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's an interesting point then, because I guess at the base of what you're saying is an inability to define race. How would you define race, Professor?

Prof. HARPENDING: Well, my colleagues and I use the word race all the time, but we don't use it in any kind of technical sense. I suppose it's like asking you to define color. You know, how many colors are there? Well, it depends on how you want to split the spectrum up and I suppose you could find someone to argue about how many colors there are. But it isn't really a sensible question. I mean, there are taxonomic categories in biology: family order, gene and species. And race isn't part of that hierarchy. Humans vary. They're different in different parts of the globe. These differences have a history. It's interesting. It's an interesting history and so race is just shorthand for talking about human differences.

WILLIAMS: So it's hard then, I would imagine, to come to the conclusion that any one group is dominant in a sport or any endeavor, be it intellectual or athletic, because of the color of their skin?

Prof. HARPENDING: No. The color of their skin can't--I can't imagine why the color of their skin would have anything to do with it. The question is whether--I mean, what people argue about, I think, is whether race is a package. You know, if you see someone with, you know, pasty white skin, can you predict other things about them and if you see someone with black skin, can you predict other things about them. And statistically you can, often. Why? Is the black skin part of the same package as metabolic differences? Nobody knows. There's not solid scientific knowledge about that in my opinion.

WILLIAMS: Well, do you think that the study--you know, there's been so much lately done on the Human Genome Project and they're just about now solved sort of the genetic code for Down's syndrome and other things. Will that offer us any help in this debate as people decode the human genome?

Prof. HARPENDING: Oh, absolutely not. So far the Human Genome Project is going to tell us about the genome of--I don't know how many, four people or something that have provided the DNA for that. And so it's not designed to tell us anything about human differences and it--so it won't except that it may identify interesting genes for us to look for diversity.

WILLIAMS: All right.

Prof. HARPENDING: There's starting to be literature on the genetics of skin color and it's very incomplete and to the extent that gene hunting will tell us what sorts of genes are involved in skin color, then we can go and look around the world. But that's in the future. Nobody's very interested in human differences. It's too early. They're just trying to get the human baseline.

WILLIAMS: All right. Professor Harpending, please stay with us while we take some questions. Let me say to all of you out there listening that if you want to join the conversation, we invite you to. The number here is 1 (800) 989-8255, that's 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Let's go to Sam in Des Moines, Iowa. Sam, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SAM (Caller): Hi.

WILLIAMS: Hi.

SAM: Thanks for having me on the show.

WILLIAMS: Sure.

SAM: Well, one question I guess I have is, if this is the case for athletics, what's the biological explanation for blacks also excelling so much in arts and entertainment and specifically, say, music and jazz and blues?

WILLIAMS: Well, let's ask Jon Entine . Jon?

Mr. ENTINE : To be honest, I didn't study that, so I haven't looked at any of the research on that and really have no idea what the answer to that would be.

WILLIAMS: But, Jon, it would suggest again that people who were oppressed and denied opportunity--this takes us back to the sociological explanation that you rejected earlier--are looking for outlets, though, aren't they?

Mr. ENTINE : Well, first of all, I didn't reject the sociological explanation. What I rejected is to say that blacks in general succeed because of their sociology, their social background. Blacks succeed, just like anyone else, because of myriad number of reasons. Sometimes it's personal drive. Sometimes it's social conditions. It can be a variety of things. But I think--you know, Henry makes some very good points here, that I think it's important to revisit. One is that skin color is not what we're talking about. As you know, in the book, I talk about the Lembda tribe, who is a tribe of sub-Saharan black Africans who actually have--they've done some genetic testing of them and have found out that they are of Sephardic Jewish lineage; in fact, their genes might be more similar to Jews than they would be to sub-Saharan Africans.

So black skin is not a marker and my book doesn't really use the term race because it is very much a social construct and reflects social history and social baggage. We have to be very careful when we talk about these things and a majority of what my book is is to try to understand how this issue has historically been treated, usually in a pretty thoughtless and sometimes in a very glib way. And as Henry suggested with the Human Genome Project unfolding before us, these questions are going to become more prominent as we begin to deal with different aspects of it, from areas of disease where we know the different populations are affected differently by different diseases.

Jews, for instance, who also interbred, get Tay-Sachs 100 times more likely than any other population group. These are things we're going to have to be confronting, understanding and debating in a healthy, constructive way rather than ceding this debate to races--black or white races, frankly.

WILLIAMS: Sam, did that answer your question?

SAM: Yeah, I guess more in a sense than not. He's obviously not--I think he seems to be mostly in agreement that it is as much social as cultural. I guess I go back to a question that you asked earlier is why would there be such a push to look at the biological factors if at the same time you can really say that so much of it is social and cultural.

WILLIAMS: All right. Thanks for your call, Sam.

In fact, Jon, one of the things that struck me is that you did have some things to say about the black body and among them--I'm reading here--it says, `Blacks with a West African ancestry generally have relatively less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs, proportionately more lean body and muscle mass, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps and bigger, more developed musculature in general, smaller chest cavities, a higher center of gravity, faster patellar tendon reflex, greater body density.' That sounds very much as if your talking genetics to me.

Mr. ENTINE : Oh, I am there. Absolutely. Well, I'm talking biology there...

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

Mr. ENTINE : ...because, again, those things could have a genetic basis, but whether they're determined by environmental conditions or the interaction of environment and genetics is really the real issue. But, yeah, those are findings not of my findings, those are ones that, you know, you can go into International Olympic Committee science literature and find that kind of information. You can go into genetics journals, science journals of any kind, of which I did. All these are mainstream research. In fact, a well-known USOC scientist J.T. Kearney was on a board of advisers of 10 leading geneticists, anthropologists, scientists.

You know, what's so interesting about the book is the support it's gotten from the African-American community. Most of the positive responses, the overwhelmingly positive responses have come from Emerge magazine, Africana.com, The Black World Today, so I think this is very mainstream in looking at this issue and putting it in a broader context.

WILLIAMS: But, you know, to go back to the caller's question...

Prof. FARRED: Can I ask a question?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, please. Go right ahead, Grant.

Prof. FARRED: I'd like to know--there's this big accent on West African accomplishment--people of West African descent. My question then is: If West African--people of West African ancestry, those in the US, are so successful and they have this particular body type, why isn't the Olympic 100 meter finals littered with people from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, the Cameroon, Sierra Leone, so on and so forth? If we are going to completely discount the argument about environmental conditions, then how do we explain the sort of different access to resources that folks have in the US, black folks in the US have, and black folks in the West Coast when the west coast of Africa don't.

Mr. ENTINE : But actually...

Prof. FARRED: It seems to me...

Mr. ENTINE : ..they are. I mean, the fact is that the 100 meters is dominated by people of West African ancestry. Four of the top-10 100-meter runners...

Prof. FARRED: But...

Mr. ENTINE : ...are all from West Africa, including Franky Fredricks...

Prof. FARRED: But why aren't the Nigerians...

Mr. ENTINE : They are.

Prof. FARRED: Why aren't the Nigerians in the start.

Mr. ENTINE : They are.

Prof. FARRED: Wouldn't it be...

Mr. ENTINE : Nigerians in Ivory Coast...

Prof. FARRED: How many...

Mr. ENTINE : Four of the top 10 100-meter sprinters of all-time are from West Africa not from African-Americans. And the number one 100-meter sprinter right now, Freddy(ph) Fredricks of Namibia, has spoke...

Prof. FARRED: That's hardly West African.

Mr. ENTINE : That is...

Prof. FARRED: That's southern African.

Mr. ENTINE : It is...

Prof. FARRED: It's a very different--it's a very different...

Mr. ENTINE : It's not genetically. See, this is the problem...

Prof. FARRED: And Fredr...

Mr. ENTINE : ...when you discuss this issue with people who don't...

Prof. FARRED: Fredri...

Mr. ENTINE : ...have an understanding of genetics and evolution.

Prof. FARRED: No. No.

Mr. ENTINE : That is the genetic--the genetics of a Namibian...

Prof. FARRED: Franky Fredricks is not black. Franky Fredricks...

Mr. ENTINE : The genetics of a Namibian is...

WILLIAMS: Hang on a second, Jon. Let Grant finish. Grant, go right ahead.

Prof. FARRED: Franky Fredricks went--attended the University of the Western Cape and in order to attend the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town have to be colored. So any understanding of black is problem with that, at least in a South African context and certainly in the African context. Franky Fredricks' blackness is compromised by all kinds of things. Franky Fredricks is like me, a person of mixed race. And it's problematic that--the scientist that we had on. I forget his last name. But Henry contends it's easier for some people to discount the consequence of race than it is for other people. Scientists may say it doesn't exist, but the ways in which black people experience the world is fundamentally informed by how we're read, understood and received as human beings. And we are received and understood and accepted very differently than white folks. We cannot write off races easily as folks such as Jon Entine .

WILLIAMS: All right.

Mr. ENTINE : I'm not writing off...

Prof. FARRED: That's the possibility for us.

WILLIAMS: Henry Harpending, who's at the University of Utah, you heard that. Before I get a response from you though let me say I'm Juan Williams and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Henry Harpending, please, how would you respond to what Grant had to say?

Prof. HARPENDING: Oh, well, we're talking about different worlds. I'm trying to talk about, you know, the world of science and biology and what we see when we look at people, look at DNA around the world and he's speaking about, you know, the experiences of human beings. And so we're not talking about the same things at all.

WILLIAMS: All right. Let's go here now to--let's go to Jeff in Nashua, New Hampshire. Jeff, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, Mr. Williams, thank you very much for a wonderful program. This is really a controversial issue and I'm just a lay person. And I think that the domination of black athletes in America--where does that come from? I think blacks are just superior athletes because of genetics. And it goes back to the physiology issue. Whether it's from West Africa? You know, I'm going to bring one issue up briefly and I'll let your panelists discuss it.

WILLIAMS: But, Jeff, before you do, let me ask you a question. What would say about then let's say intellectual capabilities? Would you say that, gee, blacks are not performing at the intellectual heights as whites because of genetics as well?

JEFF: I think intellectuality comes down to more of a cultural issue. And I think it goes a little deeper. I'm not saying that blacks aren't as smart as, you know, lighter-skinned people, but I just think on a physiologically basis blacks have a lot more traits that go toward, you know, athletics. I mean, lower body fat, like the gentleman was talking about, they have faster reactions and that sort of thing. I think intellectuality, intellectually speaking, probably culturally it would be more of an issue where a scholarly society that, you know, holds science higher than athletics, let's say, would, you know, groom the psyche better.

WILLIAMS: All right. Jeff, let me ask you to make your point quickly because we're running out of time and I want to get an answer to your question. What's your question?

JEFF: OK. This is very controversial. I don't mean to step on any toes here. But in America there was slavery back in 1700s, 1800s and they did have sort of breeding programs for blacks, you know, for the slaves and would that have--would that, you know, Darwin-ingly speaking...

WILLIAMS: Make a difference.

JEFF: Wouldn't that, you know, create more physically structured people?

WILLIAMS: All right. Well, Jeff, let me stop right there and say thanks for your call because we're gonna have to take a short break right now.

Let me say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams. I want to say thanks to Henry Harpending of the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City.

Still with me are guests John Entine and Grant Farred. When we return, we'll continue talking about the role of race in sports and athletics. And we'll take more of your calls at (800) 989-8255. If you'd like to join the discussion online, you can. Click on our Web site at www.npr.org and then click down to `Your Turn' and scroll down to TALK OF THE NATION.

(Soundbite of music)

WILLIAMS: At 40 minutes past the hour, it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

WILLIAMS: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams. Tune in at this time tomorrow for a look at personality tests. What do they measure and how well do they work? Also, how are they being used in the hiring process? Fair or unfair, hiring tests that are based on personality.

Today we're looking at how we address the topic of race when we talk about athletics. My guests are Jon Entine , author of "Taboo"; and Grant Farred of the Journal of Sports and Social Issues. He's also the soccer coach at Williams College.

If you want to join the conversation, our number's (800) 989-8255, that's (800) 989-TALK.

Jon Entine , let me ask you about the question from the last caller. He referred to slave breeding and could this have an impact on producing stronger, more athletic people?

Mr. ENTINE : I think that's a pretty far-fetched idea from what I know of the science. I actually thought that might be true when I started my research and there are some well-known Afro-centrist scholars who actually embraced that theory. But in looking at the research, it looks like one--if someone's brought over from part of the Middle Passage from Africa in slavery, they were surviving because of all different reasons. Very few have anything to do with athletic skills, more like retaining salt, ability to be disease resistant and so forth, which might not at all correlate with athletic ability. And, plus, it implies that there was some kind of cogent breeding program by white slave owners. In fact, most slaves lived in one- and two-slave plantations and whites were not sophisticated enough. They were much too racist and, frankly, stupid to do something like that.

WILLIAMS: I think these kind of myths, though, are perpetuated by movies like "Mandingo" and all the kind of romantic images.

Grant Farred, let me ask: How would you respond to the caller?

Prof. FARRED: I think this is exactly the kinds of conversation that "Taboo" makes possible. And I'm not saying Jon Entine is responsible for it. But I do think he gains--you know, he does enable this conversation in a certain kind of way, but that's in some ways not his problem. I think he just taps into an American unconscious or not so unconscious about black intellectual feebleness about. And Jon Entine is, in some ways, disingenuous. He doesn't want to answer the question about the link between the way in which black athletes are perceived and black folks in Hollywood, or that kind of establishment, are looked at. And I think there is a real understanding...

WILLIAMS: Grant, slow down a second.

Prof. FARRED: I'm sorry.

WILLIAMS: Explain to me what you mean by the way that black are perceived in Hollywood. What do you mean?

Prof. FARRED: I mean, that black people--you know, we're only capable--the only way out of a ghetto is either we make it on the baseball diamond or we go into the culture industry. You know, Cornel West has argued that American culture is nothing but the African-Americanization of this--of the US. And I think now we may be right in the ways that which African-Americans dominate the popular arts is problematic. But I think it's rather not problematic, it does represent a certain kind of series of questions we should be asking. But I think there's a real link between the sort of Sambo figure and, you know, the Jackie Robinson figure, the sports person who is willing to, you know, take advantage of those opportunities and, you know, sort of like the Michael Jordan, the output social trajectory. I think those links are problematically established, but what I do think it denigrates is black intellectual capacities that we don't know we're making these choices, is that the black body takes precedence over the black mind. You know, the old black...

WILLIAMS: Well, in a part, you're saying that because opportunities are limited in those other spheres--am I right?

Prof. FARRED: I am saying that, but I'm also saying that we cannot look at athletics without looking at the other kinds of questions--the other economic opportunities available to blacks. That's exactly what I'm saying. I'm saying that...

WILLIAMS: OK.

Prof. FARRED: ...the question about culture shows us the ways in which stereotypes work--is that blacks perform well in the athletic arena, therefore, they perform well in the cultural arena. And I think this kind of racial and racist unconsciousness or not so unconsciousness is prevalent in American society. And what the guy from New Hampshire, which is just up the road from where I am and--by the way, I'm only the Williams JV coach, which is a much lowlier position. You know, we don't want Mike Russo(ph) getting upset here.

But, you know, these folks--I mean, the question from New Hampshire is exactly the kinds of stereotypes that most white folks carry around about black people and that seems...

Mr. ENTINE : Can I just suggest...

WILLIAMS: Hang on just a second. I think we need to get other people involved in the conversation.

Mr. ENTINE : Sure.

WILLIAMS: So let me go to Sara(ph), in Boston. Sara, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SARA (Caller): Hello.

WILLIAMS: Hi.

SARA: Yes. I have been listening to your discussion and I have always been kind of very disappointed about the way Americans--I mean, particular white Americans look at black intellectualism. I would like to make a point here that in Africa athletics is not the universal way, that parents encourage their children to be successful. We go through the academics.

During the colonial days when the white man said we that don't have enough psychology to really think as much, or do intellectually well, we proved them right after independence when the leaders universalized education. There are a lot of African and students who come to this country. They score very high in the SAT. They do very well, but they do just as well as Orientals do. But for some reason we are always suppressed about intellectual with what we can do. And also athletics is not one way of people living successfully.

In Africa, it doesn't really pay us much, not even a fraction of the amount that people really can generate through athletics. So the emphasis is really on education, and if people were to take their time and really live like Ghana, for example, where I'm from, right from the time of independence back in 1957, we were going to school free of choice wherever we wanted to go. In America we hear about it. Board of Education--by the Board of Education we can go to public school. We can go to any schools. We had the choice. And a lot of them come to this country, get a scholarship because they score so high in SATs and I always wonder why these fact don't come out.

WILLIAMS: All right.

SARA: The American universities have the statistics to support thus evidence, but for some reason they suppress it and they only say, `Oh, Orientals do very well. Blacks are more athletic.' I think they really have to start to look deeply into this kind of activities rather than sitting back and stereotype by the poor image and their poor information, the stunted information that they get through the papers and the TV and the press.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much for your call, Sara.

Prof. FARRED: May I take that question, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

Prof. FARRED: May I take that question?

WILLIAMS: Go right ahead.

Prof. FARRED: I--you know, I'd like to be able to agree with that woman from Ghana. You know, it's 1957. We're talking about ...(unintelligible.) And I think she's right, there's a very long tradition of black folks going to school and that's the way out of--you know, not only out of the ghetto but it's also a way to overcome oppression, and there's a deep sense of morality about that education. It's not only a way to be in the world, it's a way to commit yourself to community and the very notion of nature--of nation I should say. And I think, you know, Jon Entine makes some interesting points about that; however, I think increasingly, as we see Africa's economic, not only decline, but sometimes devastation, you know, incredibly high rates of unemployment--and I speak especially about South Africa here--it's not--you know, Nelson Mandela may be the most iconic figure in South Africa, but most kids in the black ...(unintelligible) you know, we're starting to have white ghettos now, too, and Asian ghettos I suppose--Asian ghettos have been there much longer, of course.

Folks--you know, these kids--I mean, this is all over the place--they want to be, you know, like the cricket hero Paul Adams, or the footballer Benny McCarthy. You know, that is increasingly the way for these kids. It's a way out of the ghetto. I'm not saying that it's normative, or people undervalue education, but in a society where the educational structures are in a profound state of disrepair, often education and the arts offer the only way out of the...

WILLIAMS: But I think, you know, she was making a key point that we shouldn't lose sight of. She said that people coming, immigrating from Africa to the US, in terms of academic performance are outstanding and yet we hear about Asian immigrants and their academic performance. We don't hear about African immigrants.

Prof. FARRED: I'm happy...

WILLIAMS: Instead, we hear about African athletes.

Prof. FARRED: I'm happy to concede that point. I'm a--you know, I'm a product of that exchange system.

WILLIAMS: All right.

Mr. ENTINE : Can I weigh in real quickly on this?

WILLIAMS: Sure, Jon.

Mr. ENTINE : I think the very important point the woman made, which is is that we in the United States, because of the history of racism and slavery, have a very pejorative inverse relationship between physical abilities and mental abilities. There's this racist assumption that if somehow you're physically gifted, black or white, that you're therefore intellectually inferior.

When I was in Kenya it was very interesting because the scholar athlete tradition, which used to be the African-American scholar athlete tradition in the United States as well, really embraced the idea that if you're physically gifted in some way, that you might also be intellectually superior. And I think it's one of the I think great attributes of African-American sports history is to recognize that the true great African-American athletes of the 19th century all were scholars at Yale and Penn and the University of Chicago.

WILLIAMS: Let me go here to Jim in St. Louis, Missouri. Jim, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM (Caller): Hello.

WILLIAMS: Hi, Jim.

JIM: Hi. The history--and I hope you haven't said this. I missed the first part of your program. But the history of boxing champions in America directly parallels the occupancy of our slums. In the late 1800s, it was Irish and then Jewish, Italian and ultimately, of course, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and so forth. And related to what the gentleman just said, probably there's never been a smarter person in the ring than the late Archie Moore, who was black. So I hope that offers something to you.

WILLIAMS: All right. Well, thanks for your call, Jim.

How would you respond to that, Jon?

Mr. ENTINE : Well, there's no question. You know, one of the chapters of my book is about Jewish domination of basketball in the 1930s when blacks were excluded from the sport and more than 50 percent of the top teams were dominated by Jews, clearly because they were ghetto dwellers. You know, you saw Jewish a presence in boxing as well--Max Baer, for instance. So there's no question. When social and economic barriers play a role, it excludes certain people. There aren't many white Alabamians playing in the National Hockey League right now because of social barriers. But...

WILLIAMS: No, but he's saying something more than that. He's saying that people who are in slum conditions often find a way out, a ladder of upward mobility...

Mr. ENTINE : Oh, that's true...

WILLIAMS: ...through sports and they're willing to...

Mr. ENTINE : ...but not always. I mean, today more than 50 percent of the top basketball players have--probably much more than 70 percent don't come from poor ghettos. I mean, the idea that Kobe Bryant, who's, you know, a very well-educated middle-class kid who grew up right near where I grew up, or Donovan Bailey or Michael Jordan for that matter, escaped the ghetto is--really denied the fact that these are hard-working, dedicated young athletes. Ancestry is not an issue. they just worked hard to get where they are independent of their background. I'm not sure that--you know, for most sports, look at the Olympics. Escaping the ghetto is not the issue there. It's really the dedication of the individual athlete and we can't lose sight on the individual here.

WILLIAMS: Hang on a second, Jon.

Prof. FARRED: But the individual...

WILLIAMS: I need to say--hang on, Grant. I need to say I'm Juan Williams and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Jon, you're confusing me, though. The caller was talking about the fact that if you look at who, you know, risk getting their head battered about in the boxing ring, it tends to be people who find themselves in adverse economic circumstance or segregated and forced into that ghetto, be it the Irish, the Jews, the blacks, the Mexican-Americans, whatever. And then you're talking about: Well, there are some middle-class exceptions to this rule, but it doesn't contradict that fact.

Mr. ENTINE : Well, again, you're talking about one sport. I was generalizing about all sports. I think boxing, of almost any other sport, is one driven to some degree by physical violence and I don't think everyone takes to that. I mean, perhaps the ghetto situation, whether it's Latino, or Jewish, or Irish, or whatever, at a certain time, does drive people to that. But, again, the thing that I'm talking about in my book is the broad patterns that we see. And over the past 30 years, as social opportunities have increased in sports, as economic factors have leveled the playing field more and more, the more a sport depends on natural abilities, the more segregated the playing field is. And we see it in white domination...

Prof. FARRED: But the...

Mr. ENTINE : ...of things like the hammer throw, where 46 of the 50 hammer throws of all-time are white. Whites dominate certain sports. Asians dominate diving because of their natural flexibility. These are really a product of evolution and this is fairly clear in the science world.

WILLIAMS: Well, let me go here...

Prof. FARRED: Can I just disagree with that, please?

WILLIAMS: Sure, go right ahead.

Prof. FARRED: It's offensive to say that someone like Muhammad Ali was driven by violence. I mean, this shows no respect for--you know, arguably one of the most profound intellectuals of, you know, the 20th century, a man who understood not only where he came from but he understood the science of, you know, boxing. He understood what he needed to do and he understood what he did not need to do. Ali was a superb boxer, not because of the punches he threw, but it was the punches he refused to take. Because of his defensive strategy, he beat George Foreman in Zaire not because he was weak--he was stronger than Foreman, but because he was smarter than Foreman. Not because he had a predilection for violence, but because he knew how to turn Foreman's violence against him, you know.

WILLIAMS: Let me take a quick call from Bob, in Manitou, Michigan. Bob, you got to be quick because we're running out of time.

BOB (Caller): OK. Just a (technical difficulties). I think it's a silly book, a silly topic. I just wonder if Thomas Jefferson's offspring he had with his lady friend--his black lady friend, does that mean they grew up with low body fat and they were well interested in botany and democracy and astronomy?

WILLIAMS: Jon Entine .

Mr. ENTINE : That's the kind of racist gibberish I think that we put to rest in a book because people don't understand population genetics. The main reason this book is...

WILLIAMS: Jon, let me ask you to...

Mr. ENTINE : Let me just say, the main reason...

WILLIAMS: Jon. No. No. Hang on a second, Jon. But this guy also wanted to know about Tiger Woods. How would you explain Tiger Woods in golf?

Mr. ENTINE : Again, you know, people look at antidotes and try to make generalizations about them. Population genetics looks at average distribution. We know that diseases are distributed by population. We also know that body types are. It says nothing about the individual. Any individual can achieve regardless of the overall situation.

WILLIAMS: All right. That's all the time...

Mr. ENTINE : But we know that population affects things.

WILLIAMS: That's all the time we have for today. I'd like to thank all of you who called, especially my guests. Jon Entine , author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports-and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It;" and Grant Farred, a sports writer and professor of English at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass. We also spoke with--oops, I'm sorry.

In Washington, I'm Juan Williams, NPR News.

2000 National Public Radio