American Anthropologist, review by Leonard Lieberman of the book Taboo by Jon Entine



MARCH 2001


Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. Jon Entine. New York: Public Affairs, 2000, 387 pp.

Leonard Lieberman

Central Michigan University

The title encapsulates the book. There has been a rise to dominance of black athletes, especially in the last half of the twentieth century, and in the same time span a taboo has developed against verbal expressions of racism including the fear of utilizing racial and genetic explanations for this success. The book grew out of a 1989 NBC news documentary “Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction” narrated by Tom Brokaw and co-produced by John Entine. The book contains several well-told chapters about Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Joe Lewis, and their struggle against the biological reductionism and Jim Crow thinking of sports reporters and American popular culture. Equally engrossing are the chapters on “East Germany’s Sports Machine,” “The Superiority of White Female Athletes,” and “The Renaissance of the Black Female Athlete.” Entine rejects any implication that high athletic achievement is coupled with lower intelligence, and he opposes any sense in which athletic excellence is demeaning. Entine also declares his rejection of biological determinism.

Throughout the book, in the more analytical chapters, the author asks whether black athletic achievement is due to nature or nurture, and he declares that “a dispassionate inquirer would have to suspect that there are a host of intertwined cultural and genetic explanations for black athletic success. And the dispassionate observer would be right” (p. 328, emphasis in original). This statement is preceded by chapter 19, “Winning the Genetic Lottery” (25 pages, 92 notes), in which Entine informs the reader that blacks with West African ancestry generally have less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs, more fast-switch muscle fibers, more anaerobic enzymes, larger quadriceps, heavier bone mass, and more. These characteristics are a “gold mine in such anaerobic activities as football, basketball, and sprinting...” (p. 269). As for East Africans who have excelled in long distance running, they are the world’s best aerobic athletes because of a variety of bio-physical attributes” (p. 269). Entine ends the chapter saying that the “unassailable truth is that the genetic pool of potential champions is a lot wider and deeper in African than anywhere else” (p. 271). The reader will note that most of the above statements about West Africans are based on samples of American Negroes, but are generalized both to elite black athletes and to West Africans. Throughout the book Entine refers to the presumed small genetic differences between black and white athletes that are said to make the difference between winning gold or lesser medals.

After the strong conclusions reached about genetics in chapter 19, the next chapter presents “The Environmental Case Against Innate Black Superiority in Sports.” It is shorter (19 pages, 43 notes), and weaker. Entine quotes sports sociologist John Phillips seeming to acknowledge that sociologists “can offer little empirical or theoretical work as an alternative” (p. 281). This is offered despite statements by sports sociologist Harry Edwards about how discrimination curtails and channels young blacks into athletic competition. The environmental chapter ends by quoting physical anthropologist Robert Malina that if small differences among elite athletes are “genetically based. . .it might be. . .the difference between gold medal and fourth place” (p. 291). Clearly, Entine considers environmental factors but presents a dilute case in this chapter, ending on a genetic emphasis.

The de-emphasis on environmental influences in chapter 20 occurs despite the earlier chapter 5 in which Entine presented a rich description of the environmental factors involved in the Kenyan miracle of medals won in long distance running. Entine tells us the altitude is 5,000 to 8,000 feet, that the Swahili motto of Kovumulia refers to the tradition of being “mentally and physically prepared” (p. 47), that during the British period the military had jailed rambunctious youth and set them to leveling tracks and later organized them to participate in track meets, a tradition that continued after colonialism. Also in the 1950s and 1960s, Kip Keino was the first Kenyan Olympic-class runner to become widely known, and “Keino became a monumental role model for aspiring runners” (p. 54). Perhaps unintentionally, Entine has shown that environmental factors can explain why small genetic differences are more frequently expressed in Kenyans from some areas of East Africa. Entine’s own maps of the per capita indices of top Kenyan runners by region (p. 41) look very much like cline varying with environmental influences.

Entine seems to be struggling to be evenhanded regarding racial genes and environment, but thinking in terms of the typology of three races leads him to over-emphasize those small genetic differences, and de-emphasize environmental factors. Entine could have escaped racial typologies and genetic over-emphasis if he had utilized the idea of clines. His commitment to the three races boxes is also seen in his description of Tiger Woods’ multiple ancestry (p. 98) while classifying Woods as black (p. 334).

Consider variation at the population level for persons of African ancestry. M. Cobb’s (J. Health and Physical Education, 1936) research established that Jesse Owen’s Olympic success was not due to alleged longer heel bones of blacks. Owens was physically similar to white athletes. Ashley Montagu reported that physically African Americans are an amalgam of African, white and some American Indian (Man’s Most Dangerous Myth 1974:338). Entine adds to this by stressing variety among black Africans, especially West and East Africa, and his own map of Africa testifies to that (p. 32). A clinal analysis would make possible the study of biological variation and cultural influences without forcing conclusions into the big race boxes (Brace, Current Anthropology 1964:313-320).

Near the end of his final chapter, Entine quotes C. Mukhopadhyay and Y. Moses that “It is time to once again make race a central theme of anthropological inquiry” (American Anthropologist 1997:521). Entine seems to believe the co-authors are calling for a revival of biological race, when instead they are concerned with the neglect of racism and clarifying the scientific reasons for rejecting the biological concept of race. Anthropologists and Entine share an interest in studying variation and opposing racism, but disagree on the utility of the race concept.

Entine informs us that the children of 20th century immigrant Irish, Italians, and Jews excelled in American sports until other opportunities were possible, then came the entry of blacks into sports. That cultures change is also seen in the rise in IQ in 20 nations by three points for each of the past several decades (Flynn, Psychological Bulletin 1987) and the narrowing IQ gap between blacks and whites (D. W. Grissmer et al. in E. Neisser, The Rising Curve, American Psychological Association, 1998). Entine’s own examples from Kenya and the United States demonstrate that we cannot assume a snapshot of athletic achievement at one point in time provides an adequate data base. It is important to study comparative differences and historical change in order to clearly identify the role of environment.

The book provides a stimulus for discussing cultural variation without needing the race concept, for debating issues of methodology and for examining conceptual controversies, as does Vol. 8 of the Skeptic (2000) which includes a brief summary by Entine and several related articles.