Not So Black and White
Are all races equally gifted when it comes to athletic ability? A quick observation casts doubt on the notion. Roughly three-quarters of the players in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League—two of the largest commercial sports industries—are African-American. Further, Olympic track events have for years been dominated by black athletes from across the world. How can we explain the disproportional presence of black athletes in these elite classes of professional sports? Liberals and black activists argue that black dominance is environmentally or culturally produced, or that it merely illustrates entrenched stereotypes that keep African-Americans entertaining white audiences. In his new sensationally titled book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, journalist Jon Entine argues that the environmental explanation is an orthodoxy that must be challenged. Instead, he suggests, it is “natural” ability, understood as genetic difference, that accounts for the disproportionate success of black athletes.
The crux of Entine’s claim begins with his description of the resistance faced by scientists and even athletes who believe a genetic difference explains the gulf in athletic performances across races. He then provides a detailed analysis of black athletic dominance across several sports and across countries. An account of Kenya’s production of nearly all of the world’s top middle-distance runners is central. The opening chapters thus outline the problem that Entine claims to address: Black athletes dominate some of the most visible sports, but societal norms prohibit explanations of this success based in scientific analysis of physiology.
The bulk of the book blends historical anecdotes about the intersection of race, science and sports with genetic research underwritten by a supposed objectivity of observation. Entine refutes deterministic environmental explanations for athletic superiority. Too often, he argues, such accounts completely ignore the contribution of genes in our ability to dunk a basketball, run long distances or elude a defensive back. But Entine goes too far in the opposite direction. Although he occasionally gives lip service to the idea that nature and nurture both contribute to athletic ability, Entine ultimately dismisses substantive consideration of environmental factors as ideological or self-censoring. He leaves the impression that there are clear racial differences in athletic abilities and that all such differences are traceable to genes.
Regrettably, Entine’s version of genetics constitutes a caricature of that science. His account of the debate over the “out-of-Africa” hypothesis is lopsided and reflects the hastiness and sloppiness that also bedevils the proofreading, organization and argumentative structuring throughout the book. Ultimately, Entine takes what may be a kernel of truth—that there are very small differences in frequencies of particular physical structures in some geographically localized populations—and distorts it into the claim that “blacks” are universally better athletes because of their genes. (The quotation marks are intended to differentiate between Entine’s notion of biological homogeneity and our use of the terms for their social utility.)
The flaws in this larger claim are illustrated by Entine’s use of Tiger Woods as an example of the physical superiority of black athletes. Entine admits Tiger Woods’s multiracial origins but then lumps him back into a mythical racial group called “blacks.” Throughout, Entine plays fast and loose with categories in this fashion. He proves that a local group of Kenyans dominate middle-distance running, then uses this to make generalized statements that “blacks” are better “athletes.” Sports where “blacks” do not dominate (swimming, cricket, gymnastics, polo) are quickly dismissed on grounds of nurture or environment (for instance, blacks don’t have access to polo ponies), but in either case, the difference somehow is treated as support of his claim that “blacks are innately superior athletes.”
Entine’s claim is thus severely distorted. Localized differences in genetics may make some contribution to patterns of success in sports, but such differences are not summable in the social categories of “black” and “white,” and they do not efface environmental inputs. To succeed in a given sport, athletes of all geographic backgrounds must still train hard, think hard, have facilities, receive good coaching and live in a culture that values cricket, tennis, basketball or boxing. Additionally, at the elite level, the physical potential for greatness is so rare among all populations that geographic differences do not swamp the significance of individual variation.
If taken seriously, Entine’s claims could only support the silliest of propositions. Entine maintains that the “disparity between blacks and whites in sports is at least as pronounced” as the disparity between women and men. Do we need, therefore, a separate “white men’s league” for basketball and tennis? Should Title IX agents worry about the inadequacy of opportunities for young white boys to play basketball or go bowling? Any other suggestions? As long as white-skinned boys, even those who are relatively untalented, continue to have greater opportunities for athletic self-development than boys of all other cultural and geographic heritages and than all girls, Entine’s argument will remain one undeserving of much concern.—Paul Achter and Celeste M. Condit, Speech Communication, University of Georgia