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More Slick Racist Psuedoscience of Sports


"S. E. Anderson" <[log in to unmask]>


Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 28 Jan 2000 20:49:36 -0400





text/plain (587 lines)

Can we get SfTP folk to respond to this 21st Century attempt at saying
Blackfolk have a genetic disposition to runnin' an' jumpin'... but not
to "abstract" thinking? By the way, African Americans (from all of the
Americas and the Caribbean) are the most mixed up African Descent...
compliments of slavery/rapes-by-Europeans/sancuary amongst the
indigenous folk over the 5 centuries. So how can you speak of sharp
genetic demarkations cial/ethnic categorizations?

The black edge

      Are athletes of African descent genetically superior?

      - - - - - - - - - - - -

      It's no secret that blacks dominate much of the world of
      sports. In track, the purest test of athletic ability,
      runners of
      African descent hold every single world record at every
      standard distance, from the 100 meters (where no
      non-black athlete has held the world record since 1960)
      the marathon. In pro football, the positions that require
      greatest combination of speed, power and explosiveness --

      wide receiver, cornerback and running back -- are almost
      entirely played by blacks. In pro basketball -- the sport
      requires the greatest combination of leaping ability,
      bursts and agility -- almost all the starters and
      virtually all
      the superstars are black. In baseball, blacks are also
      disproportionately represented, although not to the same
      degree that they are in the more athletically demanding
      basketball and football.

      None of this is news to anyone who watches American
      sports or track and field -- and it hasn't been news for
      30 years. You have to go back to the early '60s, if not
      earlier, to find a time when blacks didn't completely
      dominate basketball and, to a lesser degree, football.
      days when NFL teams routinely started two white wide
      receivers (remember Boyd Dowler and Carrol Dale?)
      seem as paleolithic as the jump pass and the quick kick.

      Black athletic domination is so accepted today that it's
      to forget how astonishing it is. But what is even more
      astonishing is that everyone -- with the exception of the

      athletes themselves -- is afraid to talk in public about
      Even acknowledging that blacks are superior athletes
      uncomfortably close to a question still too traumatic for

      America's delicate racial sensibilities: Why are they?

      The politically correct answer is that blacks dominate
      sports not because of a biological advantage, but because

      of an environmental disadvantage. Black athletic
      achievement is a direct result of racism: For blacks,
      athletics was practically the only way out of the ghetto,
      they had extraordinary motivation to succeed.

      There is obviously much truth in this answer. Before
      scoffing at the idea that environment alone could produce

      so many world-class black athletes, we would do well to
      remember that cultural and environmental factors are
      notoriously easy to underestimate. No one suggests that
      Ashkenazi Jews or Asians are genetically selected to be
      superior classical musicians, yet they are
      disproportionately represented in that field. (For that
      matter, no one suggests that blacks are genetically
      to be virtuoso improvising musicians -- yet they dominate

      jazz as much as they do football or basketball.) Why not
      run out looking for Japanese genes that select for
      flower-arranging, or Southern American Scottish-Irish
      genes that lead to NASCAR driving?

      Moreover, there are good reasons to wantto believe that
      black athletic domination has no physiological basis.
      Science has a long and disreputable history of making
      extrapolations from inconclusive hard data --
      extrapolations that often merely parrot the prejudices of
      age. In the case of blacks, whom whites have perniciously

      associated with "brute animality" ever since they first
      encountered them, those prejudices have gone underground,

      but can be easily reawakened. And certainly with a "soft"

      social phenomenon like athletic domination, as opposed to

      a "hard" one like blacks' genetic susceptibility to
      sickle-cell anemia, hard-science explanations must be
      looked at with skepticism.

      But setting a world record in the 100 meters is a more
      quantifiable achievement than ripping through a
      Rachmaninoff concerto or blowing a trumpet solo on "So
      What." And as both black athletic domination and our
      knowledge of genetics, physical anthropology and
      physiology have grown, it has become increasingly hard to

      assert that environmental factors alone can explain black

      superiority in sports. Jon Entine's "Taboo: Why Black
      Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk
      About It" will make it even harder.

      Entine, a journalist and TV producer, makes a compelling,

      if not absolutely conclusive, case that blacks are
      better athletes. Their extraordinary athletic
      are due in large part, he argues, to certain genetically
      based physiological traits that are common to two
      African-descended populations -- the first population
      originating in West Africa, the second in East and North
      Africa. The West Africans (most black Americans trace
      their lineage to West Africa) are exceptionally fast and
      jump high. The East and North Africans excel in
      endurance. It's hard to say which population has
      more: West African-descended blacks hold an astounding
      95 percent of the top times in sprinting, while athletes
      just one East African country, Kenya (and most of them
      from just one region), hold an incredible one-third of
      top times in all long- and middle-distance races.

      To avoid misunderstandings, Entine makes it clear from
      outset that he is talking about groups, not individuals:
      It is
      not the case that all or most blacks are better athletes
      members of other racial groups, only that over the entire

      population, there are higher odds that some individuals
      will be faster or able to jump higher than individuals
      other populations. The black guy playing corner in a
      football game may or may not be a better athlete than the

      white wide receiver lined up opposite him, but there's no

      statistical reason to assume he is -- genetics doesn't
      that way. But when you leave the sandlot and move up to
      the level where the world's elite athletes compete --
      world-class track meets, the Olympics, the NFL and the
      NBA -- genetics confers the tiny advantage that separates

      starters from bench-warmers, world record holders from

      Entine also addresses an even more volatile subject: the
      unfair devaluation of black athletes' blood, sweat and
      that can all too easily accompany encomiums to their
      "natural abilities." He is at pains to point out that
      having a
      genetic advantage doesn't automatically confer success:
      Black athletes have to work as hard as athletes of other
      races if they want to reach the top. Their success is a
      of a "unique confluence of cultural and genetic forces."

      "The importance of the individual remains paramount,"
      Entine emphasizes. "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
      wheel of genetics, cultural serendipity, and individual

      Both great genes and great discipline are required to
      world-class athletic status. The greatest wide receiver
      all time, the 49ers' Jerry Rice, might have been gifted
      West African genes that gave him speed and explosiveness,

      but those genes didn't make him design and stay with an
      offseason hill-sprinting exercise regimen so brutal that
      superbly conditioned teammates vomited and collapsed
      while trying to stay with him. Rice made a catch for a
      first down in one of the great drives in pro football
      the legendary 92-yard, fourth-quarter, game-winning drive

      in Super Bowl XXIII. On 2nd and 25, facing another
      world-class athlete perhaps carrying similar genes, when
      Rice's exhausted body needed to come up with one final
      burst, one more cut executed at full speed with no
      give-away body lean, with enough concentration left at
      end of the pattern to reach far out and up and make the
      grab, it wasn't his genes that allowed him to do it -- it
      those agonizing hours spent running up that mountain,
      of pain spent so that at the end of a game, sucking air,
      would have maybe 2 percent more left in his tank than the

      guy covering him.

      Most important of all, Entine refutes the idea that there
      any sinister corollary to black genetic superiority in
      athletics. This is, of course, the real reason why this
      subject is so loaded. "The elephant in the living room is

      intelligence," Entine notes. "In the familiar if
      calculus, I.Q. and athleticism are inversely
      Entine points out that there is no scientific support for
      idea and dismisses it out of hand. Whether it will find
      fertile ground for a rebirth in books like Entine's is

      In support of his thesis, Entine relies on two different
      bodies of evidence: the undeniable, but scientifically
      "soft," record of black athletic achievement, and the
      contested but increasingly accepted theories of
      anthropologists, physiologists and geneticists. Neither
      alone is decisive, but taken together, they are -- to a
      -- pretty convincing.

      Entine breezes through an endless list of stellar
      achievements by blacks. Track records are the most
      impressive, of course, but he also throws in some
      fascinating lesser-known studies, like one undertaken by
      the famous baseball "sabermetrician," the
      statistics-obsessed baseball analyst Bill James. In a
      study, trying to figure out what factors best predicted
      rookies would become baseball stars, he compared the
      careers of 54 white rookies against those of 54 black
      rookies with comparable statistics. Greatly to his
      he found that, on the whole, the black rookies went on to

      have better major league careers than the whites; the
      players hit 66 percent more home runs, stole 400 percent
      more bases, etc. He repeated the study with 49 more pairs

      and got similar results. Race, it turned out, was the
      best predictor of stardom -- and this in a sport in which

      blacks dominate less than in football or basketball,
      at least partially because West African genes confer less
      an advantage in baseball. Such studies are obviously not
      going to end up in the New England Journal of Medicine,
      but they aren't meaningless, either.

      Entine doesn't pursue this, but his theory could also
      why there might never be as high a percentage of black
      quarterbacks in the NFL as, say, black free safeties.
      Historically, the dearth of black quarterbacks was
      due to the racist assumption that blacks lacked "the
      [intellectual] necessities," in the immortal words of
      baseball executive Al Campanis, to play the position.

      As those idiotic assumptions fade, the percentage of
      quarterbacks is certain to increase (a process that has
      already begun: Entine points out that the number of black

      QBs taken in the first round of the NFL draft this year
      equaled the number of black first-rounders in the draft's

      entire history). But the number of black quarterbacks
      never reach that of halfbacks or defensive backs, simply
      because speed and strength, though advantageous and more
      sought after at the position now than before, don't
      confer as
      great an advantage as they do at other positions.

      Case in point from the upcoming Super Bowl: The Rams'
      big, cannon-armed, slow-footed white quarterback, Kurt
      Warner, is a throwback to the Roman Gabriel era. He isn't

      half the athlete his black counterpart, the Titans' Steve

      McNair, is. But regardless of who is the better
      -- a question that has not yet been answered -- the point
      that there will always be room in the NFL for
      like Warner (and, of course, like McNair), whereas there
      will never again be room for cornerbacks like the slow,
      can't-jump white guys of the '50s.

      So why are blacks, as a group, better than whites or
      at sports? The answer is simple: It's in their genes.
      is extensive and persuasive evidence that elite black
      athletes have a phenotypic advantage -- a distinctive
      skeletal system and musculature, metabolic structures,
      other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of
      of evolution," Entine writes. "Preliminary research
      suggests that different phenotypes are at least partially

      encoded in the genes -- conferring genotypic differences,

      which may result in an advantage in some sports."

      So what are those phenotypic (i.e. observable)

      His findings: "Blacks with a West African ancestry
      generally have: relatively less subcutaneous fat on arms
      and legs and proportionally 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
      reflex; greater body density ... modest. but
      higher, levels of plasma testosterone ... which is
      theoretically contributing to greater muscle mass, lower
      fat, and the ability to perform at a higher level of
      with quicker recovery; a higher percentage of fast-twitch

      muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate
      into more explosive energy."

      With genetic research still in its infancy, of course, no
      can assert with certainty that these phenotypic
      are in fact encoded genetically -- the research hasn't
      done yet. But Entine argues that with "dramatic advances
      quantitative genetics," it's only a matter of time.
      (Africa has
      greater genetic variety than any other continent, which
      helps to explain why people of African descent can be
      genetically gifted.)

      It might be objected that Entine's entire argument is
      conceptually flawed from the outset, because "race"
      is a meaningless concept. In a lucid discussion, Entine
      demolishes the voguish assertion that "there's no such
      as race," explaining that the argument over the word is
      little more than semantic. "Limiting the rhetorical use
      folk categories such as race, an admirable goal, is not
      going to make the patterned biological variation on which

      they are based disappear," he argues.

      Regardless of what we call them -- and he acknowledges
      that the concept of "race" is "fuzzy," fraught with
      misconceptions and mythologies -- there are different
      human populations that have in fact clustered and
      developed, through geographical separation, natural
      selection and perhaps catastrophic geological events,
      different heritable characteristics. A Nigerian and a
      are not the same.

      But aside from skin color, are there meaningful genetic
      differences between members of different racial groups?
      Left-wing critics like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard
      Lewontin, opposed to race-essentialist arguments, have
      argued that those differences pale compared to the things

      members of different races have in common. Racial
      differences between individuals are so small as to be
      genetically meaningless, Lewontin argues; skin color is
      only one marker of race -- along with other markers like
      fingerprints and resistance to malaria -- and it can be
      misleading. (In support of Lewontin's claim, Entine cites

      the example of the Lemba, a Bantu-speaking tribe in
      Africa; although their skin is black, they are
      related to white Sephardic Jews.) In similar fashion,
      has argued that "the differences between the races are
      small, just tiny compared to the variation within races."

      Entine acknowledges that "Lewontin's finding that on
      average humans share 99.8 percent of genetic material and

      that any two individuals are apt to share considerably
      than 90 percent of this shared genetic library is on
      But he argues that Lewontin, driven by an acknowledged
      "mission to reaffirm our common humanity," interpreted
      these facts in a tendentious fashion. The crucial point,
      Entine insists, is that "the percentage of differences is
      a far
      less important issue than which genes are different."

      He points out that humans share 98.4 percent of our DNA
      with chimpanzees, and that just "50 out of 100,000 genes
      that humans and chimps are thought to possess ... may
      account for all the cognitive differences between man and

      ape." The so-called regulatory genes, which make up only
      1.4 percent of the total genes, can have a "huge impact
      all aspects of our humanity." And those genes, he argues,

      are overwhelmingly likely, because of evolutionary logic,

      to be different in different populations.

      It's hard to regard Entine as having dubious motives for
      writing this book. He approaches the subject with neutral

      curiosity about the fascinating variety of the human
      But despite this, "Taboo" is certain to provoke cries of
      outrage in some quarters. Entine notes that he got a
      taste of
      that uproar when he worked with Tom Brokaw on an NBC
      documentary on this subject that aired in 1989 -- he
      Brokaw as saying that a distinguished black friend
      withdrew our friendship for about two years" after the
      show. But he argues that "open debate" beats "backroom
      scuttlebutt" in combating the "virulent stereotypes" that

      continue to swirl around blacks and sports.

      For some critics, who regard white America's interest in
      the subject as suspicious at best and blatantly racist at

      worst, such arguments may not be enough. "The obsession
      with the natural superiority of the black male athlete is
      attempt to demean all of us," Entine quotes writer Ralph
      Wiley as thundering. New York Times sportswriter
      William Rhoden called interest in black athletic
      superiority "foolishness," an "obsession" and "an
      unabashed racial feeding frenzy" -- rhetoric exceeded by
      Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert, who wrote that it was
      "a genteel way to say nigger."

      For Entine, such reactions are understandable but out of
      date. There's no longer any serious dispute on this
      he believes, and people who refuse to face facts will end

      up as ostriches, hiding their heads not just from
      they don't like but from science itself. (Entine takes
      gratifying swings at postmodern academic fog machines,
      who in their scholastic zeal to make sure everything
      out racially rosy simply throw science overboard.)

      Since at this point the science is not conclusive
      (although it
      tends to support Entine's thesis), the question may in
      end come down to what one wants to believe. Is being
      prepared to believe that blacks as a group have a
      genetically based athletic advantage over other races a
      of racism? Or is it a sign of scientific enlightenment, a

      willingness to open oneself up to the truth, wherever it
      leads? There is also an instrumentalist question: Will
      merely raising this subject set back the course of racial

      enlightenment? What happens to the brotherhood of man if
      some brothers can run faster than others?

      Old-school liberals, confronting a legacy of scientistic
      racism, tend to assume that those who believe that
      human populations are fundamentally different in any
      meaningful way (aside from genetic markers like those for

      sickle-cell anemia and the like) are either racists or
      perverse positivists, wrongheadedly seeking to extend the

      dominion of hard science beyond its possible reach (to
      bolster retrograde assumptions, no doubt). This is
      essentially the argument Gould and his like-minded
      colleagues make against evolutionary psychologists and
      others who seek to find a Darwinian imprimatur for men
      behaving badly.

      This assumption was valid once -- and in part it still
      Racists still cloak their bigotry beneath a lab coat.
      But, as
      Entine argues again and again in "Taboo," the mere fact
      that legitimate arguments may also have been advanced by
      racists, or that scientific facts may play into invidious

      stereotypes, is not sufficient reason to abandon those
      arguments or deny those facts. The mania against
      "essentialism," taken to its logical extreme, is nothing
      an assault on the spirit of scientific inquiry itself.

      Yes, some bigots will rejoice in Entine's book and try to

      resurrect the "mind that's weak, back that's strong"
      And some weak-minded resentful people will find in it
      confirmation of their resentment and fear. But the days
      when those kind of simplistic, Manichaean, zero-sum
      appeals could take hold in the public mind are long over.

      In fact, after an initial flurry, the notion that black
      superiority is natural shouldn't change much of anything.

      When and if it is definitively established, it will
      label blacks as physically blessed, gifted by the
      extraordinarily rich variety of genes found in the
      "mother continent," Africa. It'll be a fascinating but minor
      human  reality, a lucky roll of the evolutionary dice, only
      slightly more significant than the genetic fact that some Asians
      get cherry red in the face when they drink. The spectrum of
      human knowledge, of humanity itself, will be expanded.
      And that advance will be remembered when the idea that
      because blacks were fast they couldn't be smart has gone
      the way of the dinosaurs. | Jan. 28, 2000

      - - - - - - - - - - - -

      About the writer
      Gary Kamiya is Salon's
      executive editor.

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