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Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It
By Jon Entine
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In virtually every sport in which they are given opportunity to compete, people of African descent dominate. East Africans own every distance running record. Professional sports in the Americas are dominated by men and women of West African descent. Why have blacks come to dominate sports? Are they somehow physically better? And why are we so uncomfortable when we discuss this? Drawing on the latest scientific research, journalist Jon Entine makes an irrefutable case for black athletic superiority. We learn how scientists have used numerous, bogus “scientific” methods to prove that blacks were either more or less superior physically, and how racist scientists have often equated physical prowess with intellectual deficiency. Entine recalls the long, hard road to integration, both on the field and in society. And he shows why it isn’t just being black that mattersit makes a huge difference as to where in Africa your ancestors are from.Equal parts sports, science and examination of why this topic is so sensitive, Taboois a book that will spark national debate.
PRAISE FOR JON ENTINE'S TABOO
"Provocative and informed... A well-intentioned effort for all to come clean on the possibility that black people might just be superior physically, and that there is no negative connection between their physical superiority and their IQs."
—John C. Walter, director of the Blacks in Sports Project at the University of Washington, The Seattle Times
—The New York Times Book Review
—St. Petersburg Times
—Gary Sailes, Associate Professor of Kinesiology, Indiana University and editor of the Journal of the African American Male
—Human Biology Association President Michael Crawford,University of Kansas professor of Biological Anthropology and Genetics, and former editor of Human Biology
"Carefully researched and intellectually honest."
—Jay T. Kearney, Former Senior Sports Scientist, United States Olympic Committee
—The Black World Today
—Claude Bouchard, geneticist and director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University
—Amby Burfoot, Runner's World editor
—Brian Gilmore, Africana.com.
—American Journal of Physical Anthropology
REFLECTIONS ON SPORTS AND THE GENETIC REVOLUTION
Although Taboo draws its empirical evidence from the sports world—there is a vast trove of statistics from almost every population group in the world—its scope is far broader than athletics and race. My intention was to answer questions and debunk myths about human biodiversity in the context of the unfolding genetic revolution. As Scientific American wrote in its review, "Few issues are as provocative and as poorly understood as biological differences among the races."
For the most part, the science community has welcomed an honest discussion of issues frequently addressed only in the most circumspect or politicized ways. "Entine has put together a well-researched ... and lucidly written case," the same review noted. "[His] proposed biocultural theory offers an attractive explanation, suggesting that cultural conditions can amplify small but meaningful differences in performance related to heredity."
The most deeply felt criticism came from those who believed that the book reflects a historical "white obsession" about racial differences. Ken Shropshire, a thoughtful Wharton business school professor, asked rhetorically "Why care? Why care if there are some minor anatomical or genetic differences between blacks and whites? ... Will acknowledging some measure of black superiority in a handful of athletic maneuvers help us achieve social understanding? I don't think so."
Although professor Shropshire's sentiments are understandable, I believe he underestimates the importance of the dramatic revolution in genetics that is now unfolding. The challenge is not whether we should address such issues—we have no choice short of shutting down genetic research—but whether we can discuss human biodiversity in ways that enhance human dignity.
Over the past months, I've reflected on that concern, turning over in my mind a conversation I had with Arthur Ashe, Jr. shortly before he succumbed to AIDs. I had asked Arthur what was his greatest challenge, fully expecting him to cite his battle with the disease that would ultimately claim his life. But his life-and-death struggle was not what he voiced. "It's being black," he stated in his matter of fact voice that spoke of an utter absence of disingenuousness. "It's waking up in the morning and realizing that no matter what I've achieved, I will still be thought of first as a black man." It was a startling statement to me, for I had always assumed that Ashe was of such stature that he transcended race and the daily indignities, large and small, which blacks face.
Shortly thereafter, I got the tiniest inkling of what millions of African Americans experience daily when I traveled to the Nandi Hills in western Kenya. I visited the open market in Eldoret, where the early morning crowd bargains over the day's selection of fresh chicken and vegetables. I was one of the few white men for miles around and acutely aware of my skin color. People stared, though no one was hostile.
Later that afternoon, I turned to my host Ibrahim Hussein, one of the world's all time great marathoners. "Do you think of yourself as a 'black man' or just as a man," I asked. I was immediately embarrassed for fear that he would be offended, but I pressed on. "I mean, are you aware of your blackness."
Ibrahim looked at me as if I had just landed from Mars. "No, of course not," he said, breaking into a gentle Kenyan smile that immediately put me at ease. "I am just a man. Do you see yourself as white in your country? Certainly not. But in America, I became aware of my color. There are not many whites in this part of Kenya. Here you are a white. It is I who is just a man." For one of the few times in my life, I shared with American blacks the omnipresent awareness of being judged, analyzed, dissected, and abstracted by the dominant culture.
There exists a blurry line between a healthy fascination about human differences and a white obsession. It's that concern that led dozens of journalists and media outlets to refuse to even discuss Taboo—as a matter of conscience, some asserted. It was popularly perceived as a skunk in heat. For instance, shortly before Taboo appeared in bookstores, The New York Times Magazine dropped plans to publish an adaptation because the very idea of discussing human differences—not the book itself, was too hot to handle. "Our reluctant decision to drop it is no reflection of my regard for your work, which remains high," wrote Kyle Crichton, who had championed the article. "In brief, the whole subject worries my editor ...." I encountered such reactions repeatedly, most pointedly from those who had not read the book.
Even raising the issue of racial differences is considered racist in some circles, an odd stance considering the lip service given to cultural diversity. "It is perhaps the existence of these lingering attitudes—still prevalent throughout much of this country—which explains some of the backlash against Taboo's central thesis," wrote Michael Crawford, University of Kansas biological anthropologist, president of the Human Biology Association, and former editor of the journal Human Biology. "While the sections concerning Entine's hypothesis will surely attract the greatest attention, they actually form a relatively small portion of the book," he added. "The majority of Entine's tome is concerned with outlining the origins and history of the 'taboo' itself—the reasons why Americans are reluctant to talk about human differences in general, and athletic differences in particular—and it is here that Entine is at his best."
In general, black scholars and journalists were the most enthusiastic about the cultural history of the race concept. "I am an editorial columnist," wrote Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times in a personal note to me. "I reviewed your book because I enjoyed reading it. It cut through all of the bullshit. I am black." What are we to make of the phenomenon in which some whites, so quick to crow about their own racial sensitivity, inject racial divisiveness into a debate in which many African Americans see refreshing candor?
It's apparent that many blacks have become irritated to the point of anger by the patronizing censorship and condescension of some journalists and academicians. "You will be accused of spouting old fashion racism for even raising the issue of African American superiority in athletics," I had been warned by Earl Smith, an African American scholar and head of the sociology department at Wake Forest University who took a considerable personal risk by writing the Foreword to Taboo. "All this beating around the bush has to stop. This is a good book. I am quite excited with the arguments that are raised."
"Taboo is both provocative and informed," added John Walter, professor of American Ethnic studies and director of the Blacks in Sports Project at the University of Washington, in the Seattle Times. "Entine has provided a well-intentioned effort for all to come clean on the possibility that black people might just be superior physically (for the record, Taboo asserts not superiority but anatomical differences between populations, a crucial distinction), and that there is no negative connection between that physical superiority and their IQs."
Although only briefly addressed in the book, the potential link between athletic differences and the genetics of intelligence provoked a surfeit of not-so-thoughtful reactions, mostly from right wing zealots who saw an opportunity to promote a racist agenda. But there was also a reflexive criticism from ideologues on the left who believe that any mention of human difference is the first step down a slippery slope. "There has never been a single study linking a genetic trait, racial or otherwise, with athletic performance," claimed Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards. "The existing genetic data testify that known DNA variations do not respect the boundaries of human groups," echoed University of North Carolina/Charlotte anthropologist Jonathan Marks.
Both are wrong, literally dead wrong. Medical researchers have already isolated the genetic basis for multiple sclerosis that targets whites and colo-rectal cancer that disproportionately affects blacks, to name just two of dozens of population specific diseases. As Taboo documents, there are innumerable anatomical traits, from basic body shape to muscle composition to metabolic efficiency to skeletal structure that are genetically based, more pronounced in some populations, and critical to athletic performance.
It may be breaking news to Edwards and Marks but it's conventional science that humans have evolved in response to differing environmental conditions in different regions of the world. The explosive issue is not the science of human differences but the historical tendency to misuse the ever-evolving data to promote insidious ends. Simplistic generalizations have linked vague concepts such as intelligence, violence, and sexual aggressiveness to populations grouped by skin color. "Race" confounds even the most careful thinkers. Taboo acknowledges the inherently fuzzy nature of the concept. Trait variations that are the result of waves and cross currents of migrations belie folkloric racial categories based largely on skin color. That's why Taboo draws from the work of top geneticists, such as Stanford University's Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who recognize patterned biological differences between populations.
Are these differences enough to account for the growing phenomenon in which different population groups tend to excel in specific sports? To answer this conundrum, scientists employ Ockham's Razor, also called the rule of parsimony: non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem; i.e., entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. Simply stated, when there are two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is favored.
In this case, the biocultural explanation espoused in Taboo—biological factors specific to populations can exaggerate the impact of small but critical anatomical differences—is opposed by a belief in the primacy of culture. "Black dominance in sports is a combination of opportunity and access," asserted Percy Hintzen, chair of the African American Studies Department at University of California-Berkeley "[To claim that genetics plays a role] doesn't make sense."
What does the evidence tell us? What are we to make of the fact that an athlete of African ancestry holds every major running record, from the 100 meters to the marathon?
Running is truly the most international of sports. Athletes face with the lowest social and economic barriers. Let's look at Kenya, a tiny country in East Africa that has carved out a reputation as one of the world's athletic hotspots. Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers of the adoring fans that regularly crowd the stands at the National Stadium in Nairobi to celebrate the country's national sport. The best players are national icons. The selection process to spot stars begins very young. Coaches backed by federal outlays comb the countryside. The most promising of the lot are sent to special schools and provided extra coaching. It's not an exaggeration to call Kenya's national sport a kind of national religion, the passion of the masses.
According to conventional and socially acceptable wisdom, this is a familiar story—the sure cultural explanation for the remarkable success of Kenyan distance runners. Only one problem: The national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channeling, the confluence of "opportunity and access" that Berkeley professor Hintzen talks about as if it were a revealed truth—that all speaks to Kenya's enduring love affair with soccer, not running.
Despite the enormous success of Kenyan runners in the past fifteen years, running remains a relative afterthought in this soccer-crazed nation. Unfortunately, Kenyans are among the world's worst soccer players. Even with the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars of sparse sports resources, Kenya is regularly trounced by Nigeria as well as far poorer countries in West Africa such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. In fact, there is no such thing as an East African soccer powerhouse. Key skills necessary for soccer success including sprint-like speed are in short supply. East Africans are ectomorphs: relatively short and lean in the upper body, with huge natural lung capacity and a preponderance of endurance-sustaining slow twitch muscle fibers. That's a perfect biomechanical package for distance running, but not so great for soccer or sprinting.
In contrast, in Sydney, for the fifth Olympics in a row, all of the runners sprinting for gold in the 100 meters could trace their primary ancestry to West Africa. And consider this: while the qualifying time for the men's 100 meters was 10.6 seconds, pokey by modern standards, one of the world's historical running meccas, Finland, could not produce a qualifier. This came as no surprise to Olympic analysts, as no Finn has ever topped 10.27 in the 100 meters. Neither has a runner from Denmark (10.23), New Zealand (10.27) or Taiwan (10.27). In fact, while Maurice Greene has cracked 10 seconds more than thirty times, that barrier has proved impenetrable for runners of Caucasian, Hispanic or Asian descent. East Africans, who dominate world distance running, fare no better. The best Kenyan time ever in the 100 meters—10.28 seconds—ranks somewhere near 5,000 on the all-time list.
Genes may not determine who are the world's best runners, but they do circumscribe possibility. "The basis for the success of black runners is in the genes," asserted Bengt Saltin, physiologist and director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute (and author of the September 2000 Scientific American cover story, "Muscles and Genes," on why athletes are born and not made). "There is no question about that."
The Sydney Olympics underscored that reality. There were no prominent Chinese sprinters, or male East Asian runners of any note, except at the longest distances, and no jumpers. East Asians do flourish in the martial arts, diving, and gymnastics. Is this totally a product of cultural factors? Perhaps, but doubtful. "Chinese splits," a rare gymnastics maneuver demanding extraordinary flexibility, has roots in this unique anthropometric capacity of East Asians. Even Asian domination of Ping-Pong is likely to have a genetic component; test after test has shown that Asians have significantly faster hand-to-eye coordination of any population group. Why? Scientists can only speculate about the genetic basis for this phenotype, but the facts, documented on the field and confirmed in the laboratory, are certainly intriguing.
A few critics remain defiantly resistant to the confluence of empirical (in this case, on-the-field) evidence, anatomical data, and population genetics. Kenan Malik, a science journalist, argued that that anyone who even acknowledges human differences, even multiculturalists, are fellow travelers. "By emphasizing differences rather than equality, anti-racists are resorting to the same philosophies as gave rise to racial thinking itself," he wrote. Such views appear well motivated, but the call for censorship is a cynical prescription.
As Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh wrote in the liberal weekly The Nation in 1997, this unrelenting attack on genetics by a coterie of social thinkers is an attempt to subvert science to politics. "What began as a healthy skepticism about misuses of biology," they wrote, [has become] a new form of dogma. Like the religious fundamentalists, the new academic creationists defend their stance as if all of human dignity—and all hope for the future—were at stake. [But] in portraying human beings as pure products of cultural context, the secular creationist standpoint not only commits biological errors but defies common sense."
Demonizing genetics in the name of social justice is a dangerous (and ultimately futile) gambit. Today, no credible scientist disputes that evolution has helped shape Kenyan distance runners, white weight lifters with enormous upper body strength, and the explosive runners and jumpers of West African ancestry. "Entine understands that as scientists continue to study the complex interactions between genes and the environment, population-based genetic differences will continue to surface," wrote professor Michael Crawford. "We can speculate in private, or openly probe, debate, and seek answers. Taboo is not only an excellent survey of a controversial subject, it is also an impassioned argument in favor of this more democratic approach."
Respecting human differences enhances the possibility that we can constructively, but critically, confront the breathtaking changes that genetic research is spurring. "Entine writes carefully on a very touchy topic, and made me a bit more optimistic that some decent people have the courage to broach important questions of genetics and race," wrote George Mason University professor Walter E. Williams in American Enterprise. "If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity, we concede the turf to black and white racists."
That is the guiding spirit of Taboo.
Agoura Hills, California
Agoura Hills, California
ADDRESSING TOUGH QUESTIONS: AFRICAN AMERICAN ATHLETES, SPORT, AND GENETICS
In the United States, a country obsessed with sports, race and athletics are inextricably linked. But it is a subject that is often difficult to discuss because of our long and deeply antagonistic racial history. All of us—professional scientists, weekend sports enthusiasts, athletes, coaches, and even "soccer moms" may wonder why Jon Entine, a journalist, has jumped into these stormy waters? Collectively we may also ask: "Why this particular topic at this point in time?" Is there some way to take on such tough questions, especially by someone who is white, and not be labeled a racist? I definitely think so.
Jon breaks with the stereotypes of nineteenth-century racial discourse that represented African Americans as a race of physical bodies (athletes) without minds or spirits. He has skillfully rekindled the burning questions of the innate physical abilities of African American athletes that have been the focus of speculation, research, and scholarship for more than 100 years.
Most importantly, though, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It opens the possibility for concrete dialogue. It will cause people to think. It allows for professional disagreements. I have convened a panel of experts for a professional society meeting to discuss it and have had numerous opportunities to engage Jon in many a varied discussion about the book. Overall, the book has prompted me to reconsider the types of questions I now ask myself, especially those that were once deeply recessed in my mind. What accounts for athletic superiority, real or imaginary? Why, for example, is every finalist in the elite Olympic 100-meters dash (or 400 meters for that matter) of African origin?
Over two decades ago, in 1978, the eminent Harvard University sociologist William J. Wilson was lambasted by his peers—both African American and White—for writing a book entitled The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Wilson's thesis that social class had become more important in determining the life-chances of African Americans than were issues related to race (e.g., mobility through different class strata) was a bold, new, and extremely unpopular perspective. This was especially true coming from an African American scholar on the heels of the tumultuous 1960s and the Vietnam War era.
By today's standards, Wilson's argument was mild, but the initial response to the book was mostly negative. What struck me most were the tenor of the public denouncements, a high pitched rancor, and the source of the loudest denouncements, a group of African American sociologists. "The Association of Black Sociologists is outraged over the misrepresentation of the black experience," read the widely circulated critique. "We are also disturbed over the policy implications that may derive from this work and that, given the nature of American society, are likely to set in motion equally objectionable trends in funding, research and training." The die was cast. Yet, looking back, William J. Wilson was not far off the mark. His analysis, considered controversial at the time, proved to have been right.
And so it may be with Taboo. I will argue that Jon's book will take its place in historical scholarship, but as with the Wilson book, it may have to wait years before full assessments are realized.
The distance between journalistic inquiry and scholarly research has received much attention. It is a sort of "Two Cultures" debate, rooted in the notion that a journalist cannot and should not tackle difficult subjects. Why? They don't have the time to do the necessary research for good, solid analysis. This is not true in this case. Jon has not rushed his subject, and he has certainly done the research.
This book argues that different populations, dominate certain athletic events because they have innate skills that are critical in certain athletic events. African American athletes dominate in North American sports because they are able to run faster, jump higher, and perform some incredible feats that athletes from other racial or ethnic groups cannot. Is this the primary reason that Michael Jordan became the best basketball player in the world? Or, is Jordan the best because he has an insatiable work ethic? Jon's book forces us to rethink such questions. Hopefully, it will contribute to finally putting to rest the torturous stereotype of the "dumb black jock." For sure, this distorted view of African American athletes does not apply to Michael Jordan!
People are attracted to simple cause/effect relationships. Yet it does not work that way in life or sports. Since this is the case, the public should ask for more from journalists, researchers, and scholars. Hopefully, Taboo does not mark the end of the dialogue, but acts as a stimulus to new research. In particular, I would like to see addressed the origins—the etiology—of African American athletic domination. At what point did a despised, segregated people come to "dominate" many North American Individual and team sports? My suspicion is that if African American athletic domination exists at all, it began with the destruction of the high walls of segregation in sports.
In rummaging through old magazines, I came across a Sports Illustrated that pictured the start of an Olympic 100-meter dash. It showed only the athletes' feet, wearing Nike, Adidas, and Puma running shoes. In viewing such a picture I often wonder: "Why are all the feet black?" Anyone seriously interested in knowing about the "double-edged sword" of athletic achievement for African American athletes need look no further than Jon's book. If nothing else, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It will make it possible to more openly discuss this issue.
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2008
- Page Count
- 352 pages