January 2001

Boos for Taboo: Taking Entine To Task

By Stephen L Sniderman 

Jon Entine’s recent examination of race and sport, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It (Public Affairs Press, 2000), deserves serious consideration. After painstakingly scrutinizing the evidence from many fields, Entine has convinced himself that genes play a part in the amazing success of many athletes, especially those labeled black by our culture. He has obviously tried to look at the issue as comprehensively and dispassionately as possible. He's interviewed and consulted a wide variety of geneticists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, athletes, journalists, and others who study the relationship between sports and "populations." He's been conscientious about quoting many important people who disagree with his conclusions, including Harry Edwards, Richard Lapchick, and Stephen Jay Gould, and he seems to want to be fair in presenting the environmentalists' case. On the whole, he has done an admirable job of explaining why this subject, ubiquitous in locker rooms and barrooms, has rarely been discussed in a public forum and why scientists are often afraid to investigate the politically charged issues that the topic inevitably raises.

Unfortunately, despite an apparently genuine desire to do good by telling the truth as he sees it, Entine falls into a number of semantic and logical errors that undermine his argument at almost every level. The evidence presented in Taboo, far from establishing the validity of his case, actually raises more questions than it answers and, ironically, tends to undermine the very connection he attempts to establish, a genetic link between race and athletic accomplishment. Moreover, Entine’s analysis of the evidence is often marred by various rhetorical devices of the propagandist, including special pleading, contradiction, inconsistency, premise shifting, card stacking, non sequiturs, and question begging. As a result, I believe that the primary effect of Taboo will be to provide grist for the bigot's mill instead of leading to more harmonious racial relations, as Entine seems to hope.

Part of the problem is that he consistently overstates his case. In the final chapter, for example, he says that "blacks are starring in disproportionate numbers in almost all sports" (emphasis added). At best, this is indefensible hyperbole. At worst, it is racist cant. He might reasonably point out that various groups of people we label "black" (for specific historical reasons) have had enormous success in five or six major sports for the last few decades, but that claim is much less interesting, controversial, important, and marketable than what Entire asserts.

WHAT DOES 'BLACK' MEAN?

The most significant flaw in Entine’s argument, though, involves his use of black, a problematic word that he should have handled much more carefully. From the title to the final sentence, that term, unfortunately, means whatever suits Entine’s purpose. He ostensibly defines the term in his introduction: "Elite athletes who trace most or all of their ancestry to Africa are by and large better than the competition" (emphasis added). But that's certainly not the definition he uses to identify black athletes throughout the book. When he includes superstars with light brown skin (such as Muhammad Ali, Maury Wills, Joe Louis, and O.J. Simpson) in the category he labels black, he offers no evidence that they "trace most or all of their ancestry to Africa."

Instead, he most often seems to apply the "one-drop rule" to determine the race of an athlete: anyone with any trace of (sub-Saharan) African ancestry is black. This definition, according to sociologist F. James Davis in his 1991 book Who Is Black?, is "inextricably woven into the history of the United States. It incorporates beliefs once used to justify slavery and later used to buttress the castelike Jim Crow system of segregation." "Most Americans," Davis explains, "seem unaware that this definition of blacks is extremely unusual in other countries, perhaps even unique to the United States, and that Americans define no other minority group in a similar way" But Entine blithely applies it to those who were never touched by slavery. For example, when discussing the 1972 shattering of the 200-meter world record by Italian Pietro Mennea, Entine says that "many southern Europeans (including Mennea. . . ) who are disproportionately stand-outs in running, trace a significant percentage of their genes to Africa as a result of interbreeding." Why does Entine mention this "fact" except to imply that "many southern Europeans" are really black, at least according to the one-drop rule?

He also uses this rule to shove North Africans, who were never enslaved in the United States, into the same racial category. He says that "For all practical reality, men's world championship events might as well post a sign declaring, `Whites Need Not Apply,'" because "every men's world record at every commonly run track distance belongs to a runner of African descent," implying that no runner of "African descent" can be Caucasian (and conveniently omitting the indoor mile record, held by Eammon Coghlan, who is generally considered to be white). Yet the holders of the 1,500-meter, the mile, and the marathon records, according to his own list, are all Moroccans. Entine cavalierly ignores the fact that North Africans are classified as Caucasians by the very scientist (L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza) whose racial categories he cites. Entine himself even says at another point, North Africans "have substantial white ancestry, whether Arab or Berber is not certain." Throughout the book, Entine plays this linguistic game-he uses black and African interchangeably whenever he wants to show the dominance of "black" athletes.

He compounds this error by making no distinction between populations with mixed and unmixed ancestry. He points out that "athletes who rely on the ability to sprint and jump trace their ancestry to West Africa," ignoring the salient fact that few of those athletes were actually born in a West African country. Except for Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, the world class sprinters that Entine lists in the book hail from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and the West Indies; none of the world-record holders would claim an African nation as his birthplace. Entine never seems to notice this pattern (or hopes we won't notice), so he never confronts key questions, questions that would occur immediately to anyone not blinded by racialist language: If blacks have a genetic advantage in sprints, why don't unmixed Africans dominate sprints the way Kenyans dominate long-distance running? Where is the vaunted "genetic advantage" if the racially pure black athletes fare no better than racially pure white ones? Why can't homegrown West Africans jump higher and run faster than people with mixed ancestry? Why aren't all the superstars in football, basketball, running, horizontal jumping, and heavyweight boxing unmixed blacks? If the answers to these questions lead us to sociological, political, and historical factors, why are those not sufficient to explain the success of African Americans and other "mulattoes"? Why introduce a "genetic racial advantage" when it doesn't explain all the facts and reinforces fascist agendas?

REINTERPRETING THE EVIDENCE

Ironically, if we accept Entine’s evidence (which is pretty sketchy), we cannot come to his conclusions. For example, he cites a study that compared the "slow-twitch" and "fast-twitch" muscles of French-Canadian (presumably unmixed Caucasians) and West African students (presumably unmixed blacks) and concluded: "The African subjects, by a ratio of approximately two to one, had more of the larger fast-twitch fibers. . . . The researchers concluded that the force generating capacity of type-II muscle fibers at high velocity, the speed and tempo of movements, and the capacity of an individual to adapt to exercise training are all genetically influenced."

Another study found that only 3 percent of Zulu tribal members had a gene "that blocks the body from producing aactinin-3, which provides the explosive power in fast-twitch muscles," whereas "20 percent of people of Caucasian and Asian background" have this gene. A third study (from 1957!) found that Ugandan babies "stood earlier and were more dexterous" than their white counterparts: "`The motor development was greatly in advance of that of the European infants of the same age.'" Finally, a fourth study concluded that black African (Entine’s text coyly says black) males "can experience an explosive rise in exercise capacity" with "only a modest amount of training," "while even with far more effort whites don't improve nearly as much."

Notice that in all four cases the studies deal with people who were actually born in Africa and who (presumably) have no admixture of Caucasian genes, not "blacks with West African ancestry" or African Americans. Yet unmixed blacks (who, according to Entine’s own logic, should be the fastest runners in the world ) apparently fare no better in world competition than unmixed whites, at least by Entine’s standards. Ironically, he admits that "there have been a small handful of non-West African 200- and 400-meter runners over the years," but he never mentions how many native West Africans have been competitive in these events. (Actually, there are several who rank near the top of the sprint world.)

The most successful sprinters, as Entine points out again and again, belong to that ubiquitous group, blacks with West African ancestry (i.e., blacks in the Diaspora), but, as we all know, a large percentage of this group of people might have recent European ancestry as well, especially if they had ancestors who were slaves. As Entine himself points out, "DNA analysis of some ten populations of African descent from across the United States and in Jamaica found that blacks had a European genetic ancestry ranging from 6.8 to 22.5 percent." According to Davis, "At least three-fourths of all people defined as American blacks have some white ancestry, and some estimates run well above 90 percent. The blacks with no white lineage are mainly in the more isolated, rural areas of the Deep South, notably in South Carolina" (Who Is Black?).

Yet Entine does not attempt to estimate the percentage of whiteness in the genealogy of so-called black athletes. In fact, he seems to forget when he discusses elite runners that some of their ancestors could very well have come from Europe as well as Africa. If Entine is truly interested in tracking the truth to its lair, shouldn't he have attempted to ascertain exactly what admixture of African and European genes is possessed by our top athletes?

If it turns out that some or all of the world-record holders in the sprints are descendants of European slaveholders as well as African slaves, as the above percentages suggest, then Entine’s claim for "the scientific evidence for black athletic superiority" can be overturned by a simple linguistic trick. After all, a person with African and European genes is black only by the emotionally charged, scientifically spurious, 'and logically ridiculous racial categories established for clear political purposes in the United States. (See Michael Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States for a full discussion of this process.) Since pure-black Africans currently hold no more world records in the sprints than pure-white Europeans, we could just as easily say that it is the "white" genes in all those non-African "mulatto" record holders that gives them a genetic advantage. What scientific principle would allow us to choose between these two "theories"? Aren't both equally "logical" and equally (im)plausible? And isn't it just as reasonable to say that an African American (or African Canadian or African Caribbean) has European ancestry as it is to suggest that southern Europeans have African roots?

A LINGUISTIC QUAGMIRE

Entine is not the first to slide headlong into this particular linguistic quagmire; nor, unfortunately, will he be the last. We in the United States are trained to see anyone with any African ancestry as black, so it is easy to slip into careless language even when we are talking about "scientific evidence." But Entine should know better. He seems to be aware of the dangers of using socially constructed racial categories as the basis for scientific investigation. He even quotes Harry Edwards' eloquent warning: "When you say this is a black group' you're already in trouble. One drop of black blood makes you black. . . . [H]ow black does one have to be to make any sense of these things they are testing and talking about?"

Entine cites the case of Tiger Woods, who is (by racial arithmetic) only one quarter African but who is "seen as a young black man" by the African-American community and most of the media. "Woods' very American story," he admits, "underscores the fluid nature of scientific categories of race in contrast to the rigid popular concept." He acknowledges that "North American blacks do contain a significant percentage of non-African genes," but, without considering the implication of these points, he still insists on employing the one-drop rule to decide who is black and therefore lumps North American blacks with Africans into a single race. There is nothing except the racist traditions of the United States, associated with slavery and Jim Crow, to justify this decision.

Ironically, if we wanted to argue for the dominance of whites in sports, all we'd have to do is flip the one-drop rule over. Anyone with any European background, however slight, would be classified as white. In an instant, North American "blacks" would be relabeled North American "whites" and the athletic hegemony of "blacks" would disappear. If someone accused me of playing semantic games, my response would be, "Exactly." The labeling of mixed-race people as white is no more and no less a linguistic fiction than labeling them as black. Can science provide any reason whatsoever to employ one method of classification and not the other?

THE EAST AFRICANS

Well, then, what about East African (especially Kenyan) long-distance runners? Aren't they "pure" black superstars? Doesn't their incredible success support Entine’s claims for genetic superiority of blacks over whites? Surprisingly, the answer is no, not at all. Once again, Entine’s own evidence demonstrates the exact opposite of what he's trying to show. Without seeming to understand the significance of this information, Entine cites "recent gene studies" that "show Ethiopians with a genetic mixture of about 60 percent African and 40 percent Caucasian."

In other words, East Africans are even less "black" than African Americans. Therefore, if we simply reverse the traditional one-drop rule and insist that anyone with Caucasian ancestry is Caucasian, we would effectively eliminate blacks from the highest ranks of virtually all sports. In purely scientific terms, of course, we cannot know if it is East Africans' black genes, white genes, or mixed genes that make them superior long-distance runners, but, ironically, the evidence provided by Entine would certainly not implicate the black side of their heritage. All the other blacks, Entine tells us, are even less successful than whites at distances over 800 meters: "runners of West African ancestry. . ., with rare exception, . . . do not even compete in elite middle distance races." The conclusion based on this information is unavoidable-if East Africans inherited their unique running ability, then it must have come from their white ancestors. So much for the advantage of being a "black" athlete.

Notice that what pushes people's buttons (and presumably makes Taboo much more sellable) is not merely Entine’s claim that physical prowess or athletic ability is inherited. It is his much bolder assertion that this inheritance is meaningfully associated with traditional racial categories, that our words for different groups actually match up with their ability to succeed at sports. But he seems to think that validating one theory is all that's necessary to validate the other. Again, he has tripped over the language. Demonstrating that some identifiable populations pass on their running ability to their children is a world away from demonstrating that black people as a whole have a genetic advantage over white people as a whole. Even if we could isolate the genes in Kenyans that translate into winning marathons (and Entine doubts we ever will), we could merely say that Kenyans, a beautiful blend of two very distinctive racial stocks, have a genetic advantage over non-Kenyans, a much less threatening (and politically much less potent) concept than the broader one. And the case is even weaker for Americans with West African ancestry. Even if those elusive "running and jumping" genes could be identified in West Africans themselves, the deliberate obscuring of racial admixtures in U.S. blacks would make it nearly impossible to determine the proportion of African and European ancestry associated with sports success.

Entine VS. THE ENVIRONMENTALISTS

But how solid is Entine’s case for the inheritance of athletic ability- apart from questions of race? Does he at least show conclusively that a genetic theory explains what a sociological explanation cannot? The answer is no. His most extensive evidence relates to what he calls the "Kenyan miracle," the phenomenal success of long-distance runners from a tiny region in west-central Kenya, which, according to Entire, "represents the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports." Entire meticulously spells out the accomplishments of the Kalenjins, a tribe of Kenyans that continues to produce world class runners. He lists some sociological explanations that people give for the Kalenjins' dominance of long-distance running, but asserts that "all of the unique cultural factors-altitude, diet, tribal traditions, role-model worship, dedicated training-don't add up to the enormity of what is occurring in Kenya."

Surprisingly, Entire does not say why the causes listed (especially when taken in concert) aren't sufficient to explain the enormity of what is occurring in Kenya." He also omits some obvious nongenetic factors, such as group pride and international acclaim, that undoubtedly play a strong role in Kenyans' successes.

Making matters worse, Entine doesn't address some commonsense questions that need to be answered before anyone should accept a genetic explanation for the "Kenyan miracle" or any other group's athletic achievements. If athleticism has a significant genetic component, why don't superstars consistently come from the same families? Why, as Entine claims, should "the gap between Kenyans and all other runners" continue to increase? Isn't any change in results prima facie evidence that powerful nongenetic factors are operating? And if so, why are these factors not enough to explain any "performance gap" we come across?

BLACKS AND SWIMMING

Other evidence and arguments that Entine offers to counter the environmentalist position are equally dubious. For instance, he claims that an appeal to genetics can help us understand why "No African American has ever even qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim or diving team": "In colloquial terms, blacks are considered `sinkers.' Numerous studies over many decades have consistently shown that blacks have denser skeletons and that elite black male athletes have lower levels of body fat than whites or Asians."

Unfortunately, his note lists only two such studies-from 1973 and `74. Also, he does not indicate whether the blacks in these studies are unmixed Africans or the North American variety with a generous share of European genes. Doesn't he think we need to have that information to make sense out of these studies? Or do the authors of the studies themselves fail to make clear what they mean by black?

In the next two sentences in the same paragraph, the problems multiply: "Although the effect of these differences on swimming performances has not been conclusively demonstrated, it is not unreasonable to assume they [have] some measurable impact. Certainly the absence of any black presence in international swimming bolsters that belief."

Phrases like "it is not unreasonable to assume" are among Entine’s most powerful rhetorical weapons. He wants us to accept his position not because it's supported by the facts, not even because it's reasonable, but because it's not unreasonable to assume that it's true. Frankly, I do think it's unreasonable for me to "assume" something for which he implies there is compelling evidence, especially when he tells me that a relationship between skeletal density/body fat and the tendency to sink "has not been conclusively demonstrated." Has it even been inconclusively demonstrated?

Topping that bit of sophistry is the final sentence in the above paragraph, which is a perfect example of begging the question. The evidence that blacks are inherently poor swimmers, Entine says, is built into the fact that they do not win international swimming competitions. All the evidence we need is in the phenomenon we're trying to explain. Any student of logic would see that he's assuming what he's trying to prove-a useful technique for propagandists of all stripes, but not exactly appropriate for a rational and fair-minded observer of human behavior.

But that's not the worst of it. Entine is ostensibly attempting to explain in this paragraph why African Americans don't succeed at swimming and diving, but his entire argument focuses only on swimming. How do the "facts" he gives relate to diving off a board into a pool of water? Does being a "sinker" prevent one from twisting gracefully in midair? Why would a dense skeleton or lower body fat keep a person from being the next Greg Louganis? If there is a legitimate genetic reason why blacks don't make world-class divers, why doesn't Entine include it? And if there isn't one, shouldn't we say it is "not unreasonable to assume" that the standard nongenetic reasons that explain the scarcity of world-class black divers (like lack of access to the proper facilities and lack of interest in a "white" sport) would also explain the scarcity of world-class black swimmers?

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?

What difference does it make which explanation we choose? As Entine himself admits, a great deal of difference. Taboo’s most controversial claims, whatever their validity, are seductive to African-American youth, insulting to black athletes, and exploitable by racists. As Entine reminds us, "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. He later says, "Explorations of human biodiversity by their very nature cannot be stripped of racist undertones."

We have good reason to believe, in other words, that a theory of racial superiority, however well intentioned, can and will be appropriated to help justify various forms of social and political oppression. "The existence of innate differences," Entine acknowledges," has been invoked for hundreds of years to rationalize the established social order." So why would we want to accept such a theory unless the evidence was overwhelming and we were fools to ignore it?

As I have tried to illustrate, though, the scientific evidence presented in Taboo that speed, strength, and jumping ability are heritable traits is hardly as compelling as the author wants us to believe. More important, as we have seen, Entine’s case for a genetic component in blacks' sports dominance is riddled with rhetorical flaws that would be unacceptable in a freshman English research paper, including untenable assumptions and unsupported assertions, questionable categories and manipulative language, faulty reasoning and unjustifiable conclusions.

My fear is that many readers will come away from this book convinced that their long-standing view of blacks as natural athletes-and therefore as secondclass citizens-has at long last (or once again) been confirmed by that most alluring of mistresses, science. I am skeptical that anything of social value can come out of that confirmation. Far from leading to an increase in feelings of brotherhood, tolerance, and understanding, Taboo's most significant impact, I'm afraid, will be simply to justify the status quo.

Stephen L. Sniderman is professor of English at Youngstown State University

Washington Times Corporation Jan 2001