WHEN RACE MATTERS
Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It
By Jon Entine. Public Affairs. 387 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Paul Ruffins
In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois, America's preeminent black intellectual, said that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." For 100 years explaining race and racism has filled the entire spectrum of nonfiction, including the best efforts of journalists such as Ida B. Wells, visionary academics such as Gunnar Myrdal, and eccentric essayists and novelists such as James Baldwin.
Taboo, by journalist Jon Entine, As Long as They Don't Move Next Door, by historian Stephen Meyer, and Workin' On the Chain Gang, by novelist Walter Mosley cover that same spectrum while discussing widely disparate topics. What unites them is their belief that understanding history is a critical prerequisite before the truth can set you free.
Taboo was clearly born out of frustration. In 1989, the author and Tom Brokaw produced an NBC News documentary entitled "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." It produced so many personal attacks that Entine still felt singed 10 years later.
Entine asks "Is it necessary to walk the edge of censorship to protect us against ourselves? The fear of sounding racist has conspired to stifle debate and suppress legitimate scientific inquiry. Anyone who attempts to breach this taboo to study or even discuss what might be behind the growing performance gap between black and white athletes must be prepared to run a gauntlet of public scorn, survival not guaranteed."
Entine doth protest too much about censorship. His documentary was aired, and he himself quotes scores of athletes, scientists and scholars willing to discuss the question. In fact, race and sports has received wider consideration than many more important issues. In Body Count, conservative moralist William Bennett argues that it's nearly impossible to get an honest debate about race and crime, another arena in which black men dominate the statistics. Black feminists feel the same way about serious discussions of gender and race.
Entine also underplays the political and cultural land mines that make the discussion so controversial. He states that "Winning athletic competitions does not make one superior in any moral sense." Since when? When white men were winning, athletic excellence was considered evidence of such character traits as discipline, hard work and determination. His assertion about what winning means confirms many African-Americans' fears that any genetic explanation will always be used against them. After all, musical talent is often considered highly linked to mathematical ability, except when discussing black performers.
Because it bravely tackles the exhaustive list of ideas that must be considered in any open-minded discussion of this topic, Taboo could well be the most intellectually demanding sports book ever written. It discusses the history of evolution and theories of racial science, the politics of why Hitler thought the 1936 Olympics would prove the superiority of the Aryan race, the statistical improbability of a country with the population of Kenya dominating every important record in long distance running, the biochemical mechanisms governing the genetic transmission of mitochondrial DNA, and The Bell Curve.
To Entine's credit, he seriously addresses the many counter-arguments against his position. In fact, he includes so much different material that Taboo may seem exhausting for anyone without a strong interest in exploring this specific issue. On the other hand, because it includes so much information, some parts will be fascinating to almost anyone who cares about sports.
Taboo convincingly argues that race does make a difference and lists several different medical conditions that are widely accepted as genetically inherited within racial and ethnic groups. These include cystic fibrosis, ABO blood types, and the presence or lack of enzymes to digest lactose or metabolize alcohol. He then follows up by asking, "So why do we so readily accept the idea that evolution has turned out Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs disease and that blacks are more susceptible to sickle cell anemia, yet find it racist to suggest that West Africans may have evolved into the world's best sprinters?'
Where Entine falls down is in making the link between race, biology and performance in sports. He admits that no one has yet isolated a gene for speed, or found that black people have muscle cells that are stronger or nerves that fire more quickly. He also goes too far in documenting the importance of psychological and cultural advantages in sports. Maybe the black athletes are just psyching the white guys out. Is there a chromosome that explains the continued Russian domination of chess, the most "objective" sport of all?
Most important, he falls into the sports world's common trap of equating who's "best" with who is winning what sport right now. The period since World War II is just not long enough to prove much about thousands of years of evolution or genetics. History is unpredictable. In the 1920s, white men dominated the popular contests of their time. Perhaps Italian women's genes and high carbohydrate diets will let them set records in events that haven't been invented yet, like the 400-mile ultra-marathons which may be the most popular sports of 2080, when nobody watches basketball anymore.
Despite these criticisms, Taboo is an informed exploration of a fascinating phenomenon. Entine marshals such an impressive array of evidence that we should no longer be content to explain why blacks excel at certain sports by simply resorting to the old cultural argument that athletics have been the only avenues of upward mobility that were truly open to them. He's raised the argument to new heights.
Paul Ruffins is a former editor of the NAACP's Crisis Magazine.
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