April 1, 2000
Toronto, Ontario


Finding differences feeds stereotypes

By John Hoberman

One day next September, eight male sprinters will settle into their starting-blocks for the 100-metre final at the Sydney Olympic Games. All these athletes will be black men of West African lineage. An analogous situation will prevail in the distance races. A dear, and perhaps overwhelming, majority of the male medal-winners will be East and North Africans from Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria and Morocco.

The de facto racial segregation of these athletic contests will provokelittle comment from the TV announcers and print journalists who present them to their global audience. This imbalance of athletic power has, after all,become obvious to a sporting public that is more interested in world recordsthan the racial anthropology of such contests.

The gradual acquiescence of white societies to "black dominance" in certain high-profile sports conforms to a familiar historical pattern. It is well known that the racial division of labour in Western societies has accommodated disproportionate numbers of black athletes and entertainers for most of the past century. Yet for many whites, the steady ascendancy of the black athlete has required some uncomfortable adjustments, eroding the masculine self-confidence of white men whose fathers did not have to wrestle with the unsettling idea that "white men can't jump."

Public interest in the anatomy and physiology of racial athletic aptitude dates from the 1930s. The prime catalyst of this curiosity about the black athlete was the series of world records and Olympic medals achieved by the great sprinter Jesse Owens during the period l935-1936. Speculation aboutanatomical advantages inherent in the "Negro foot" led to a physical examination that concluded Owens' feet were, in fact, structurally "white." Yet most of a century later, I still hear (older) people invoke ideas about the deviant bones and tendons of "black" feet. Such anomalies supposedly underlie the African American's ability to sprint and jump better than white people can.

Such anecdotes confirm biological ideas about black athletic superiority have become deeply embedded in the racial folklore of Western societies. Nor is this folklore limited to white racial imaginations. Very large numbers of blacks as well as whites assume people of African origin enjoy "natural" advantages as athletes in the form of genetic superiority. But they may have very different reasons for doing so. For some black people, athletic superiority nurtures black pride, while some whites will interpret the same athleticism as evidence of lower status within a racial hierarchy. In sword, modern sport is a kind of racial theatre in which different audiences can find socially significant messages beyond the entertainment value of the athletic contest.

Racial athletic aptitude becomes controversial when journalists report "scientific" accounts of racial differences that seem relevant to athletic performance. In the U.S., popular magazines such as Life (1964), Sports Illustrated (1971), Time (1977) and Runner's World (1992) have published articles favouring the idea that genetic differences underlie black athletic superiority. This hypothesis seems plausible, given-the-overwhelming statistical evidence of black dominance in running events that produce quantifiable results. The problem is that so little credible scientific work on racial athletic aptitude has been done.

The latest contribution to this discussion is Jon Entine's book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why we're Afraid to Talk About It . Entine is a television producer who came to this subject by way of his NBC-TV documentary, Black Athletes -- Fact and Fiction, that was first broadcast in 1989. At the conclusion of this program, its moderator, the NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, solemnly announced that the program's panel discussions end staged experiments had, indeed, confirmed the biological superiority of the black athlete. In other words, a network documentary had resolved a poorly researched and highly complex scientific problem in about hour.

Taboo is Entine's more ambitious attempt to demonstrate that "the scientific evidence for black athletic superiority is overwhelming Yet only one of the book's 24 chapters deals with the scientific literature, such as it is, that bears on racial anatomy and physiology. This chapter expands on Amby Burfoot's famous article "White Men Can't Run" that appeared in Runner's World in 1992, and its standards for weighing and presenting evidence conform to this genre of popular science writing.

Such journalism about the science of race is inherently problematic, because it is written or broadcast by non-experts for audiences whose ideas have already been shaped by racial folklore. For example, one of the basic tenets of our racial tradition is that blacks and whites are racially opposite types. Generations of whites and blacks have absorbed this model of racial difference, thereby encouraging the search for racial differences in every nook and cranny of the human organism.

This tendency to find differences is not limited to laymen. Anyone who reads through the medical literature of the 20th century can watch ideas about alleged racial differences fal1 out of favour as better science facilitates more accurate research. The point is not that racial differences do not exist. It is rather that a tradition of racial thinking has primed us to see apparent differences that often turn out to be illusory or the result of factors other than race. Social class is a good example of a trait that is often confused with racial essence.

Given modern societies are already surfeited with exaggerated ideas about racial difference, what would be the likely result of publicizing scientific confirmation of black genetic superiority? Or, to phrase the question a bit differently, what's the point of a crusade to persuade the world that black dominance resides in the genes?

It is a sign of our politically correct times that the author of Taboo has presented his book as an antidote to the "virulent stereotypes" about black people that still linger in many heads. But precisely how establishing the reality of an athletically superior black physiology might serve this purpose is never made clear. Indeed, there is reason to believe such an announcement would have the opposite effect.

For example, in 1964 a University of Chicago physiologist published the following passage in the prestigious journal Science: "It seems improbable that when races differ in other physical characteristics, the human brain, the highest product of evolution, would show an identical distribution of capacities among the races." This assumption that mind and body are linked racial variables is an axiom of 19th-century racial anthropology that remains part of our racial folklore. Documenting organic racial differences in athletes is likely to strengthen rather than subvert it.

And there are other reasons to suspect that drawing blacks and whites into well-informed discussions of muscle fibres and enzyme levels would be spoor strategy for bringing about racial reconciliation. For one thing, analyzing people as if they are laboratory specimens tends to make them self-conscious. Or as one black state representative in Florida said recently is another context: "As an African American, I'm sick and tire to being studied."

Those who share this view will find it difficult to agree that the science of athletic aptitude belong on the modern agenda for racial healing. From another perspective athletic competitions are idea "laboratories" that make it possible to compare racial abilities in am objective manner. In the last analysis we confront a familiar dilemma. Scientific curiosity is a wonderful thing, but it pays to thing about the consequences.

John Hoberman is a professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His books includes Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (1997).