Author gives balanced look at taboo subject

Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It
by Jon Entine
Public Affairs
387 pages $25

Journalist Jon Entine espouses the idea that there are genetic differences between human races, and that these differences can explain the disproportionate success of blacks in sports.

In "Taboo," he suggests there is a genetic disposition that has led to black superiority in athletics, and argues that this superiority cannot be explained by social or environmental motivations alone.

Entine does not attribute success in sports solely to genetic factors, but he claims they cannot be dismissed. He also concludes there are significant genetic differences within races, contrasting the remarkable endurance of people of East African ancestry with the quickness and jumping ability of blacks with West African ancestry.

Entine's argument does not focus solely on blacks, and he discusses distinguishing traits of other races as well. But the heart of his argument is that blacks have come to thrive in sports, in part, because of a genetic capacity.

Such a race-based argument is inflammatory almost by definition, and it's hard to imagine anyone who would not find some element of the argument offensive. But Entine retorts that an idea should not be ignored just because it may be inflammatory.

He recognizes the incendiary potential and handles his argument with tact. He supports his thesis even as he works to appease possible critics.

The result is a balanced, thoughtful work with tremendous scope. It covers scientific thought on evolution and nature vs. nurture, as well as sports history and a breakdown of political and social thought regarding race.

While the book's vast scope makes it an interesting read, it also is the weak link in the argument. It is almost as if Entine is trying to hide behind the great wealth of information.

Behind all of his sophisticated and well-researched arguments lies an appallingly simple assumption: Blacks excel disproportionately in sports, so they must have a "natural" advantage.

Though it is easy to lose track behind all the information, Entine offers no real scientific basis for this conclusion, thus marring what is otherwise a remarkable piece of work. Right or wrong, ultimately he fails to make his case.

Entine is not a racist trying to slight black achievement. Rather, he seeks to encourage discussion on a taboo topic. And it is on this level that the book truly succeeds. Whether readers agree or disagree with "Taboo," the book certainly is worth some attention.

JOHN LYONS (John Lyons is a copy editor with The Post and Courier News Department.)

Copyright 2000