August 15, 2000

Genetics of athletics: The controversy over race

by Scott Winokur

Jon Entine, a Jewish American, and Alondra Oubre, an African American, have little in common physically, but they're on the same page, mentally — and it's causing problems for both.

They've had the temerity to publicly identify themselves with an unpopular, politically incorrect theory some hail as courageous, but many call racist.

Both say blacks are, in fact, biologically different. Entine claims Asians are, too. And whites of all ancestries.

They are believers in biological determinism, arguing that while people are virtually the same genetically, the smallest biochemical dissimilarities translate into significant differences.

They say truly unbiased people should be able to acknowledge these differences, which may illuminate a range of perplexing phenomena, without fear of being labeled bigots.

Nevertheless, Entine, the Southern California author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid To Talk About It," has been widely vilified since his controversial book was published in January. He has been called an ill-informed popularizer of essentially racist pseudoscientific notions. An exploitative hack. An idiot.

This is wrong and unfair, however much one may question the validity of "Taboo's" argument, which includes statements such as: "(T)he unassailable truth is that the genetic pool of potential champions is a lot wider and deeper in Africa than anywhere else."

Acting in good faith and using his considerable skills as a journalist, Entine has dared to offer up an explosive set of ideas. And because he has, a lynch mob of intellectuals — white and black alike — is out to get him.

That disturbs me. There should be no such thing as thought crime in a free society, and yet a day doesn't pass in this nation's schools, offices and newsrooms when people who go against the grain aren't ostracized by some moral majority. I'm not talking about out-front bigots here; I'm talking about decent people who harbor contrarian notions.

Entine told me, "I'm a white liberal Jew — I've been called the 'left-wing Rush Limbaugh.' "

"What I'm saying," he explained, referring to his book, "is that the success of any athlete comes from hard work, but I want to acknowledge the evolutionary advantages of blacks...

"People think there's a zero-sum issue here, which is scientifically ignorant as well as empirically ignorant. Intellectualism and athleticism are very positively linked in every culture but the United States. Here we have the 'dumb jock' syndrome.

"Science does not support the notion that blacks are less intelligent," Entine emphasized.

At the same time, he said, science does support the notion that people of West African origin are best at short-distance running, people of Eastern African origin best at long-distance running, whites have superior upper body strength, Chinese have the most flexible bodies, etc.

"For the average person, there's no perceptible difference. The differences are among the elite," Entine said.

Alondra Oubre, a San Franciscan by birth, was raised in the East Bay and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and UC-Berkeley. She's a medical and biological anthropologist.

"There's enough empirical data so that we'd be foolish to ignore the fact that there are some traits of muscular ability, motor ability, movement skills and things of this sort. We'd do well to bring it out in the open," Oubre said.

"That's my position. It hasn't made me popular in the African American community, but my motive is doing science. The book is an extremely important work."

While Entine claims the support of many other black intellectuals, some have sharply condemned his work.

"It doesn't make sense," said Percy Hintzen, chair of the African American Studies Department at UC-Berkeley. "African American dominance in sports is a combination of opportunity and access."

Is Entine's book — which is particularly strong on its history of racism in sports — itself racist?

"The word racism is problematic," Hintzen said. "There is an institutionalized and culturalized form of racial understanding. People can hold beliefs without thinking of themselves as racist and without believing other people are inferior, despite the fact that they have these 'characteristics.' "

Harry Edwards, the African American UC-Berkeley sociologist and 49ers consultant who recently took over as director of the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department, is far less gentle in his judgment of Entine.

Speaking to a geneticists' group last month in Tarzana, he said: "John Entine had absolutely no business writing this book. He has absolutely no training that would give him the background."

Edwards added: "There has never been a single study linking a genetic trait, racial or otherwise, with athletic performance."

I asked Entine if he regretted anything about his controversial book. Tears came to his eyes; they seemed genuine.

"I learned about the insensitivity I have naturally as a white man," he said. "I don't think the book is sensitive to the nature of being a minority and being put into a box — to what it means, everyday, to be black in America. You can be a brain surgeon or basketball player, and people treat you the same way."

The problem, Entine's critics say, is that he has merely placed blacks in a bigger box.

copyright 2000