April 2000

Dark Secret

By Walter E. Williams

John M. Olin professor and chairman of the department of economics at George Mason University

Asians are 57 percent of the world's population but are virtually invisible on the world stage of running, soccer, and basketball. The smallest of the world's major races, people of sub-Saharan African ancestry, are about 12 percent of the world's 6 billion population, yet their dominance of some sports is staggering. Blacks are 13 percent of the U.S. population but are: 80 percent of professional basketball players, 65 percent of professional football players, one-third of professional baseball players, and 70 percent of women's professional basketball players. No one questions the accuracy of statistics showing black dominance in many sports, but in our modern world of political correctness one mentions them at his peril; speculation about the causes is out of the question altogether. In comes Jon Entine making waves with his new book, Taboo. Entine is an Emmy-winning producer, formerly with NBC and ABC News, and co-author with Tom Brokaw of the award-winning documentary Black Athletes: Fact & Fiction. Jon Entine chances being tarred and feathered as a racist by not only cataloging statistics of black sports dominance but, what's even more grievous, hazarding an explanation.

In our politically correct world, everybody is equal. Any inequalities in performance, particularly as they are associated with race or sex, are to be explained by environmental factors such as poverty and discrimination. Genetic explanations are off-limits in cases of race and sex but acceptable, even demanded, in explaining homosexuality.

Entine's first suggestion that genetics might explain black sports excellence comes when he writes, "All of the thirtytwo finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races are of West African descent." The probability of such an outcome by chance is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001 percent.

Suggesting that genetics might explain some of the racial differences in sports goes up against deeply entrenched received wisdom. University of Texas sociologist John Hoberman dismisses genetic theories of black sports excellence as "Euro-American white racialist thinking... quasi-scientific... irresponsible ... sensational... scientifically invalid.' Sociologist Laurel Davis, professor at Springfield College, contends that "reports that purport to show black genetic advantages in sports [are] built upon racist assumptions" and reinforce "white power structures."

Despite the quest for political correctness, considerable physiological and anthropometric evidence suggests that blacks systematically differ from whites. Blacks of West African ancestry have smaller chest cavities, greater body density, heavier bone mass, longer arm span, less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs, faster patellar tendon reflex, a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles, more anaerobic enzymes (which can translate into more explosive energy), and higher levels of plasma testosterone. Entine says, "Relative advantage in these physiological and biomechanical characteristics are a gold mine for athletes who compete in such anaerobic activities as football, basketball, and sprinting, sports in which West African blacks (and their American progeny) clearly excel."

Some of these same characteristics spell disaster for blacks who have aspirations to be, for instance, Olympic-class swimmers. Entine writes, "No African American has ever qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim or dive team. Indeed, despite a number of special programs and considerable funding that have attracted thousands of aspiring black Olympians, there were only seven blacks who could even qualify to compete against the 455 swimmers at the 1996 Olympic trials... . In colloquial terms, blacks are considered sinkers.'

Entine examines the "environmentalist case against innate black superiority in sports. ' Physiologist Owen Andersen insists that "Elite runners have worked unbelievably hard, and their extreme physical travail and motivation-not their geneshave played the key roles in getting them to the front of the pack" Professor Harry Edwards explains, "Discrimination curtails black access to alternative highprestige occupations. ' Other non-genetic explanations, not suggested in Taboo, might be that sports like basketball, football, and baseball can be learned without much money, while not much progress can be made in tennis, golf, and swimming without money and teachers early on.

Many find the environmentalist explanation of black sports superiority far more acceptable, particularly in light of eugenic arguments that have questioned black intelligence and morals and served as justification for all manner of restrictions, including those on intermarriage, as means to preserve the white race. Taboo has a lively discussion of this era in a chapter called "American Eugenics. " Many respectable scientists contributed to eugenics. It is a testament to earlier acceptance ol their arguments that the founder of the NAACP, W. E. B. DuBois, said, "The mass of significant Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among ignorant Negroes, even more than among whites, is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children properly."

Taboo is not all controversy. Entine provides us with many interesting vignettes of the struggle blacks made to break the color line. He 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. If decent people don't discuss this subject, we concede the turf to black and white racists.

Copyright American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research Apr/May 2000