Blacks, Sports and Lingering Racial Stereotypes

June 17, 2002

By Salim Muwakkil

These are challenging days for those fond of racial stereotypes in sports.

The world's top two female tennis players are African-American sisters and the world's leading golfer is the son of a black father and a Thai mother, and Africans hold records in just about every distance race held around the world. Those racial designations should not mean much, but for most Americans, born and bred in the briar patch of color biases, they do. They certainly matter to African-Americans, who repeatedly have been told they lacked the "qualities" for certain athletic pursuits like tennis, golf and distance running.

The further withering away of sports stereotypes was most vividly illustrated by the tennis superiority of Venus and Serena Williams. After finishing as finalists in the recent French Open, the sisters were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the women's world tennis rankings.

Tiger Woods has attained a similar kind of dominance in golf. Since turning professional in 1996, the 26-year-old has won seven major championships, including setting a record in the U.S. Open.

For most of this country's history, tennis and golf were considered "white sports," despite the brilliant exceptions of black athletes like tennis stars Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe and golfer Charles Sifford. In that way, tennis and golf were a lot like hockey, distance running and most of the professional team sports as well.

Even basketball was considered a white sport. Few basketball fans, as late as the mid-1950s, could have conceived there one day would be black point guards capable of surpassing the ball-handling wizardry and court intelligence of Bob Cousy, the white star of the Boston Celtics.

And, as Jon Entine notes in his book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid To Talk About It, long before Cousy made his mark with the Celtics, an all-Jewish team dominated basketball during the 1920s, '30s and part of the '40s.

The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association was the best known and most successful all-Jewish team.

"The Hebrews barnstormed across the East and Midwest, playing in a variety of semipro leagues that were precursors to the NBA." Entine writes. "In an incredible 22-season stretch, they played in 18 championship series, losing only five." Entine reveals that the team was more popular than Philadelphia's two baseball teams.

"The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background," Entine quotes Paul Gallico, former sports editor of the New York Daily News and one of the premier sports writers of the 1930s, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."

Mainstream writers readily resorted to stereotypes to explain the athletic dominance of those Jewish European immigrants who had surged into the ghettos of booming Eastern cities.

Stereotypes also greeted black basketball players as they slowly supplanted whites. Sports biases usually mirror the society's prevailing prejudices and African-American athletes have long been the brunt of those prejudices.

From the days of American slavery and a culture shaped by assumptions of white supremacy, many white Americans have perniciously associated blacks with bestial behavior.

At one time, racist theorists asserted that blacks were better at athletic activities that required quick bursts of speed and other explosive "animalistic" actions, but were ill-suited for more demanding endurance events.

It is true that in track, the purest test of athletic ability, runners of African descent hold every sprint record. But it is also true that runners of African descent also hold every single men's world record at every standard distance, from the 100 meters race (where no non-black athlete has held the world record since 1960) to the marathon.

Runners from East Africa are by far the world's leading distance runners. Kenyans alone win 40 percent of the top international distance events. In fact, East African runners have become so dominant in distance races, Boston Marathon organizers reportedly considered imposing a quota on East African applicants. Because Africa is the ancestral home of humans, black Africans have more genetic variation than any other population in any other geographic region, says Yale University geneticist Kenneth Kidd in a 1997 New Yorker article.

Stereotypes die hard, but die they must.