Any topic involving race is dangerous, especially when you throw genetics, slavery and athletics into the mix. But, I think this is discussion worth having and I’ll attempt to do it in the most sensitive manner possible. I won’t be using the term African-American because that’s inaccurate in my eyes: Dikembe Mutumbo is African-American, Allen Iverson is not. Would you call Kevin McHale Irish- American? Many black people living in this country could theoretically trace their roots back to colonial America (ala Alex Haley), so it’d be just as ridiculous as people calling themselves English-Americans.
Now that we’ve laid down a few ground rules, we get to the initial question: are black people better athletes? While many would prefer not to decline or come up with some politically correct answer, deep down inside I think most people believe this to be true. Yes, it’s stereotypical, but at the core of many stereotypes is some truth. Why are the overwhelming majority of NBA players, sprinters, Wide Receivers, and Running Backs black? Surely you’ve asked yourself this question before. Is it a case of perception or reality, nature or nuture? There has to be a sensible answer, right?
A little less than 20 years ago, Jimmy the Greek was fired for attempting to answer this question honestly on the CBS Evening News.
The black is the better athlete. And he practices to be the better athlete and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back to the slave period. The slave owner would breed this big black with this big black woman so they could have a big black kid. That’s where it all started. (http://www.papillonsartpalace.com/cbsfired.htm)
Insensitive? Yes. His statements were very controversial and cost him his job, but was he wrong? While he used a very simplistic way to explain the process, I certainly believe there is a great deal of truth to his theory. More importantly, there’s more dimension beyond the physical that he was unable to explore.
Assuming slavery started somewhere around 1650, for more than 200 years slaves were bred for their physical prowess. It’s important to note that it wasn’t some natural selection process, where females were attracted to the alpha male, it was an outside party controlling who was to “breed”. Since slaves did physical work, stronger stock was more profitable both on the plantation and in the marketplace. I’m no biologist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that typically when two people with great physical size and ability have a child, their child shares many of those qualities and in some cases, exceeds them. During this same period, white people at large chose who they would reproduce with, leaving no distinct pattern about which to theorize.
But, more importantly than the biological effects of slavery and the dehumanizing “breeding” process, is the psychological impact it had and continues to have on both black and white people. In short, suppressing black people was much easier when they were viewed as less than human. But, that greatly increased the focus on their physical abilities, which were considered to be superior to those of “civilized” white people. Unfortunately, both white and black people are still hamstrung by that mentality in the new millennium.
Let me be clear, I don’t think modern white people view black people as less than human. But the residue of that thinking exists in the high regard for the physical prowess of black people. Who gets picked first in the pick-up basketball game? How do you describe the strengths of white athletes? Sadly, the black community at large has embraced this mentality and focused their attention on physical pursuits as opposed to getting the most from their mental capabilities. Who would you pick in an essay contest? What percentage of black people are famous for physical pursuits (sports, singing, dancing, etc.)? To paraphrase Chris Rock, even getting out of prison is more celebrated than graduation.
To answer the question posed by my title: Yes, black people are better athletes in the current state of our society but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. It has just as much (if not more) to do with nurture than it does with nature. At the end of the day, there is no clear solution. I’m saddened by black kids that believe athletics are their only legal shot to make it. I’m angry that in many situations, they’ve been given few reasons or resources to hope for anything different. While the perceived inferiority in physical pursuits can erode the confidence of a white child, but statistically speaking, they have better career options so it’s not as critical of a situation as black people face. As with most important things in life, there are no easy answers.
While many may disagree, my intent was to encourage honest dialogue about race, not just in blogfrica, but in real life. I’m more than open to feedback and criticism. The worst thing to happen to race relations in America was the politically correct movement. I truly believe it removed honesty from many discussions involving race, leaving the subject a hollow shell of procedures and etiquette. And since people aren’t accustomed to honesty, both sides become very sensitive even at the slightest mention of the topic. So, please have an opinion and express it. We have to be the generation that starts to move past this ridiculousness. I promise I won’t call you racist if you don’t call me a race-baiter.