Sunday, May 7, 2000



Jon Entine

Why do we readily accept that evolution has turned out Jews who are 100 times more likely than others to contract Tay-Sachs disease, yet find it racist to suggest that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters?

Yet, that is the illogic that flows from Justice Hill's characterization as "racist" and "warped" my book, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It." Hill (review, The Journal Gazette, March 26) stands almost alone with that hyperbolic view. Scientific American writes that "Entine put together a well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case." The New York Times calls it "careful and reasoned." Emerge characterized it as "thoughtful, thorough and sensitive - a good read for anyone interested in the history of Black athletes." Journal of the African American Male editor Gary Sailes calls Taboo "compelling, bold, comprehensive, informative, and enlightening. After reading the book and meeting Jon, I'm very comfortable. It is not racist to acknowledge science."

"In A Hard Road to Glory," the late Arthur Ashe provided endless anecdotes about black athletes bootstrapping themselves to success, yet did not find that explanation convincing. "Sociology can't explain it," Ashe sighed, frustrated at the political incorrectness of his beliefs. "My heart says 'no,' but my head says 'yes'; I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge. I want to hear from the scientists."

"Taboo" is a response to Ashe's challenge. Scientists have documented that blacks in general have less body fat and more efficiently process energy. Athletes with western African ancestry have a body type most suited to anaerobic sports such as basketball and football. And while athletes from this region monopolize sprinting - holding the fastest two hundred 100-meter times, all under 10 seconds, which no white, Asian or East African has ever broken - they are hapless at longer distances that demand endurance.

East Africans, an ancestral blend of West Africans and whites, are relatively slow sprinters but the world's best distance runners. The Kenyan tribe of Kalenjins, who represent one-2000th of the Earth's population, win 40 percent of top international distance-running honors - by almost any measure, the greatest concentration of athletic talent in the history of sports.

"If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," observes University of California anthropologist Vincent Sarich, "then you probably could be led to believe just about anything."

In contrast, whites have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, and predictably dominate weightlifting, field events (holding 46 of the top 50 throws), and the offensive line in football. When flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events.

Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, lung capacity and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations. The lower the social and economic barriers in a sport, the more likely "natural" abilities will circumscribe the size of the talent pool.

But ancestry is not destiny. Athletic success is not born but made, a result of ambition, creativity and intelligence. However, the potential for athletic success is almost totally circumscribed by roulette wheel of genetics rooted in thousands of years of evolution. That's what population genetics measures - overall trends, not individual performance.

"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," says Robert Malina, editor of the Journal of Human Biology, "that if you have a physique or the ability to fire muscle fibers more efficiently that might be genetically based ... it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

So what explains the charged reaction by a few, who in their understandable zeal to fight racism end up encouraging censorship? As Emerge notes, "Entine understands the reasons Blacks lash out against the determination theory, knows that whatever White America gives to Black athletes in terms of athletic superiority, it takes from their mental abilities. And the stereotype, suggests Entine, is probably the single most important reason people have problems debating the issue."

Unfortunately, the taboo that prevents discussion has the boomerang effect, of making racist myths seem legitimate, if socially abhorrent. That feeds racism - the very point made by the reviewer from Hill's own newspaper, the Seattle Times. "Taboo is both provocative and informed," writes University of Washington ethnic studies professor John Walter. "Entine has provided 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 that physical superiority and their IQs."

"Taboo" confronts racist stereotypes that blacks or whites or any "racial" group are innately "superior" or "inferior." With remarkable discoveries from the Human Genome Project coming out every day, the question is no longer whether such inquiries will continue but to what end.

Human beings are mostly the same but wonderfully different. Science is not an assertion of inalterable facts but a method of interrogating reality. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than serving as fodder for demagogues. "If decent people don't discuss this subject," writes George Mason professor Walter Williams in American Enterprise, "we concede the turf to black and white racists."


Jon Entine, who has won National Press Club and Emmy awards, is a journalist formerly with ABC and NBC News, whose 1989 documentary, "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction," was named International Sports Film of the year. He wrote "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It."

Copyright 2000 Journal Gazette