"Slave genes" myth must die

Michael Johnson links African-American sprinters to slavery, and revisits a particularly ugly pseudo-science

Published July 25, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.    (AP/Michael Probst)
Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. (AP/Michael Probst)

In 1988, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder (in)famously stated that the prowess of African-American football players could be traced to slavery, saying “the black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way ... [They] jump higher and run faster.” The reaction to such obviously racist remarks was fast and furious: Amid the uproar, CBS Sports fired him. So when Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson predicted this month that African-American and West Indian track athletes would dominate the London Olympics because of the genes of their slave ancestors, I paid little attention, thinking there was no way this could become a viable conversation yet again. “All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it's impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn't left an imprint through the generations,” Johnson told the Daily Mail. “Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me –- I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”

As a historian, what I find to be stunning about what he said is the claim that the supremacy of black athletes in track had never “been discussed openly before.” Actually, with his words, Johnson plunged himself into a century-old debate that seems to rear its (rather ugly) head every four years, just in time for the opening of sport’s largest global stage. Johnson supported his theory with the example of the men’s 100m final at the Beijing Olympics: Three of the eight finalists came from Jamaica, including record-breaking winner Usain Bolt, and two from Trinidad; African-Americans Walter Dix and Doc Patton and Dutch sprinter Churandy Martina, who hails from Curacao, rounded out the line.

But racial assumptions don’t work as easily as simply noting that four years ago all eight finalists in the quest to be “world’s fastest man” likely had ancestors who were slaves, because race is, well, never simple, but rather works as an amoebic identity formation that changes throughout history. It's a social construction deeply entangled with definitions of class, gender, sexuality and so on.

Just ask USA Swimming. A few years ago, the organization released data from its diversity study, which found that almost 60 percent of African-American children couldn’t swim, twice as many as their white counterparts. Of the organization’s 252,000 members, less than 2 percent who swim competitively identified themselves as black. At the core of the racial gap, researchers found the influence of parents to be key: If a parent could not swim or was afraid of swimming, the child was less likely to learn.

The reason behind the drought of diversity in swimming is not hard to figure out, and it has nothing to do with the physical legacy of slavery: Throughout the Jim Crow era – and beyond – swimming pools were located where black families were not. While swimming is not really one of the so-called patrician sports, such as golf or tennis, which are connected to membership in restricted clubs, minority access to swimming pools was limited, at best.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Anthony Ervin changed what an elite U.S. swimmer was supposed to look like. Heralded as the first swimmer of African descent to make the U.S. team, Ervin’s family background, with ties to Jewish, Native American and African-American lineages, exemplifies why it is so difficult to make racial assumptions. Just as journalists scrambled to find a language with which to describe Tiger Woods’ decidedly “mixed” parental heritage in 1997 when he won the Masters, Ervin eschewed being pigeonholed as a “first” anything. But in the United States, race is generally dealt with in a binary of black and white, regardless of the multiplicities of “color.” Thus, if one is not white, which neither Ervin nor Woods is, one is black.

Now, after retiring for a lengthy period, Ervin is heading to London alongside Cullen Jones and Lia Neal.  The trio makes for the most diverse U.S. swim team in history, as never before has more than one swimmer with what Jones describes as “African-American roots” represented the U.S. at an Olympic Games.  That’s right: Three athletes out of 49 is historic.

The diversity study has pushed USA Swimming to launch several outreach programs – including Make a Splash, which Jones is involved in – in minority-dense communities.  But the organization recognizes the difficulty when dealing with race.  “We are working hard at inclusion … and some of our past collection of ethnicity information is less than perfect,” says Matt Farrell, chief marketing officer. “The more you pull on the thread of defining ethnicity, the more complicated it becomes. As marketers we want to measure progress in diversifying the sport, but kids aren’t labeling themselves. They just want a sport or activity where they feel they belong. Our 2012 Olympic Team is starting to better reflect society.”

But swimming’s problems aren’t merely rooted in its inabilities to categorize the multi-ethnic backgrounds of swimmers such as Ervin and Neal. Just as Johnson’s remarks about black sprinters rest upon well-worn mythologies about the black body, long-standing stereotypes about African-Americans in the water continue to plague the sport, based on a tabloid science that has wielded destructive authority in racist dialogues for decades, ensuring that the school of “white men can’t jump” persists in a post-civil rights era. While the late Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis takes most of the heat for his infamous exchange in 1987 with Ted Koppel, in which he asserted that African-Americans were not good swimmers “because they don’t have the buoyancy,” beliefs in racialized biology and athletic ability are deeply embedded in much of what people think they know about sports.

Untangling such stereotypes is difficult, because they feed into the racist structures upon which the United States was built. Sport has played a multifaceted role in both enforcing racist beliefs and combating them, sometimes simultaneously, from the turn of the 20thcentury to today. While strategies in the early 1900s at institutions such as Howard University and the Tuskegee Institute, for example, were meant to use sport as a means of black upward mobility for African-Americans, they also ensured the reinforcement of racialized notions of innate athletic ability, many of which were being generated in university laboratories.

Such scientists first engaged in racialized theories of athletic aptitude in the 1930s, during the large-scale breakthrough of African-Americans in track and field:  following DeHart Hubbard’s gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924; the success stories of Ed Gordon, Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe; and, of course, Jesse Owens’ legendary performance at the Berlin Games in 1936. Although the number of African-American track champions would greatly decline in subsequent decades, the belief in some sort of quantifiable connection between race and physical ability would not wane, with scientists creating comparative analyses between “white” and “black” calf muscles, bone densities, heel lengths and so on. “Is there some difference between Negroes and white in proportions of the body,” asked Iowa State physical educator Eleanor Metheny, “which gives the Negro an advantage in certain types of athletic performance?”

While one such study was plagued with what to do about subjects of “mixed parentage,” and Metheny admitted that “Negro” was heterogeneous by its very constitution, few scientists defined “Negro” or “white” beyond skin color, never pausing to wonder how they quantified categories that were subjective to begin with.  These scientists easily translated the racially infused stereotypes of the 19thcentury minstrel stage, in which physical traits such as fat lips, wide-open red mouths and large noses existed alongside the perceived innate ability to dance and sing, to have athletic bodies.  In doing so, these studies – which took place in labs at Harvard, Vanderbilt and Duke – produced some of sport’s most venerable racist convictions: Black athletes are more adept at sprinting, more relaxed, make better running backs than quarterbacks, and jump farther, all of which reduced their athleticism to a solely physical condition with no room for intellectual capacity, training nor discipline.

One notable exception was W. Montague Cobb, Howard University, the first black physical anthropologist in the United States. His extensive work on “the physical anthropology of the American Negro” never referenced slavery directly, but did make several assertions regarding the environmental and physical challenges African-Americans historically faced as a means for survival in the modern world. Yet Cobb, whose most famous subject was Owens himself, refused to simplify the complexities of race, which he insisted could not be a fixed category because of “interbreeding.” Indeed, he concluded, Owens was more “Caucasoid rather than Negroid in type” based on measurements of his foot, heel bone and calves. Jesse Owens, according to Cobb, did not have the body of a “Negro star.”

Cobb aside, these ideas prevented anyone from thinking that a black athlete could be successful because of his or her individual ability for achievement, chalking up the medals to nature, not nurture, and reducing success as something that is either learned or innate, with either brain (white athlete) or brawn (black athlete), but never both. The quarterback exemplifies the trend: Typecast as the “thinking position” on the football field, the position was, until recently, reserved for white players, while defensive lineman – a position of brute force – was more traditionally held for black athletes.

Stand Tom Brady next to Vince Wilfork and let the stereotypes fly.

The consequences of these spurious theories are devastating: African-Americans are not smart enough to cope with the position of quarterback, nor able to handle the leadership responsibilities that come with it.  Rush Limbaugh’s roundly condemned remarks about Donovan McNabb demonstrate the persistence of such ideas, and the decades of laboratory work on the subject make them difficult to dismiss as merely the ignorant musings of a reactionary radio personality. In the midst of the controversy, Limbaugh resigned from his brief tenure as a football commentator; without question he represented the racist mind-set of many in the sports industry, and beyond. Thus, the staying power of an expert scientific language in mass-mediated conversations regarding the success of African-Americans on the playing field has saturated how athletes are coached, how events and positions are chosen, and how sportswriters describe the various attributes and feats of athletes.

Michael Johnson’s remarks, then, fall well within the paradigm of scientific racism, as counterfeit connections between race and athletic ability live on, with pseudo-scientific explanations for black success supplementing long-held cultural convictions. The ebb and flow of these arguments has, without question, followed the success patterns of the athletes themselves. With the decline of black track-and-field success throughout the war years, interest in the subject faded, although the legacy of the racist suppositions of those early studies did not. With the rise of black power – both politically and athletically – in the 1960s, such arguments emerged once again. And as genetics has increasingly become part of the American vernacular, used as a commonplace exegesis for a range of human behaviors, world records and gold medals are now explained away by muscle twitch fibers. Indeed, Ball State University’s Human Performance Lab has even fielded calls from parents who wanted their children tested so they would know which sports to steer them toward.

This is not to say that science does not have a role in sports. The difference between fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers can, indeed, determine whether a runner is more suited for short or long distances.  The devastating consequence comes when geneticists attempt to attach particular kinds of muscle twitch fibers to different racial groups, a theory that was brought into popular conversation just days before the start of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 with a Runner’s World cover story titled “White Men Can't Run.”  With a solemn Carl Lewis pictured, executive editor Amby Burfoot aimed to answer “why black runners win every race from the sprints to the marathon,” arguing that there is a geological divide between West African and East African muscle-twitch fibers that explains why some black athletes, Kenyans, had endurance while African-Americans excelled at shorter distances.

While many bought into the West versus East argument, readers of Sports Illustrated did not. In response to a December 1997 cover story, “Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?,” which featured a small sidebar titled “Is It in the Genes?,” readers answered “he’s coaching” and “he moved on to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer,” understanding that an examination of white privilege and the economics of a racially unjust society should be the center of any conversation regarding the perceived predominance of black athletes in some sports. One can only hope that Johnson’s words – and the British documentary “Survival of the Fittest,” which he is promoting about the subject – are greeted with the same amount of disdain.

By Amy Bass


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