So how’s this for a controversial quote: “Let’s start with a few safe predictions. All of the sprinters in the men’s 100 meter final at the Athens Olympics in 2004 will trace their ancestry to West Africa. Almost all of the world-class throwers will be white, and mostly of Eurasian ancestry. And, except for the marathon, there will be almost no athletes of Asian ancestry appearing in Athens finals. On the other hand, elsewhere in the games, Asians will flourish in diving, some gymnastic events, judo, and table tennis.”
I’ll tell you who said this in a minute, but first, remember that movie White Men Can’t Jump? The one where Woody Harrelson (non-jumping white guy) and Wesley Snipes (black guy with springs in legs) play two basketball hustlers in Los Angeles? The hustle works — at least in the movie — due to the power of stereotypes. Black guys see some suburban-lookin’ white guy standing next to the court, and nobody believes the white boy can be any good because, well, look at him. He’s a white boy. But then, naturally, the brothers all get their hair straightened when, miracle of miracles, it turns out that blue-eyed, blond-haired white kid sure plays a mean b-ball.
So, if you remember the flick, you might also recall the minor controversy stemming from the movie’s title. The minute you make a blanket statement like “White men can’t jump,” it’s a virtual guarantee that a number of white people are likely to get rather upset and start racing through their files digging up every white person they know personally who really can jump damnit. It’s kind of like the response you might get from black folks when you say, “Black folks can’t swim.” Although some of us may nod and say, “Yeah, well, that is kinda true, you know,” we’ll more likely say it among ourselves. If any sportscaster said something like that on the air, we’d be screaming for his job and our best and brightest socio-economic-cultural commentators would hit the airwaves with a laundry list of socio-economic-cultural reasons why black folks really would swim just as fast as white folks if we only had access to those really nice pools like the white folks have and so on.
So here’s where I’m going with this. I’m an Olympics junkie, especially when it comes to track and field. This year, as in all other Olympic years, I sat in front of the screen for hours at a time, as long as my eyes would hold up. But on the evening when U.S. sprinter Jeremy Wariner won the 400-meter race, I was out at another engagement. Once I got home, my wife informed me that a white guy had won gold in the event. At first I thought she must have meant that a white guy won one of the heats in the semifinals. No, she said. He won the gold medal. Beat all the black guys cold.
“Guess we’d better check his family tree,” she joked.
I was floored, and apparently so was a buddy who sent me an e-mail saying, “Jeremy Wariner must obey the law.” The law, of course, is that white guys don’t win the 100-, 200- or 400-meter races. Somebody obviously fell down on the job and forgot to send Jeremy the memo. Suddenly, the natural order of things has been thrown horribly out of balance. What to do? What to do?
What I found rather comical was that, as I followed the commentary, hardly anybody mentioned this rather obvious oddity. But I’d bet a large sum that Jeremy’s race and Jeremy’s race were a hot topic of conversation for those same commentators once the mics were turned off.
Of course, the role of race in athletics is one of those topics that we alternately debate and avoid. One question that must be asked is whether some of the things many of us have always considered stereotypes are just that — or whether there might be some truth imbedded in them. Jon Entine, a scholar-in-residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, as well as an author, columnist and Emmy-winning network television producer, is responsible for the quote at the beginning of this article. Entine is one of those brave souls who apparently doesn’t care about the controversy that his statements have caused, in the black community and among whites as well.
From Entine’s point of view, it’s foolish not to talk openly about what to him is an increasingly obvious phenomenon; thanks to the gene pool, certain groups are better suited for certain sports. In other words, American blacks aren’t better at sprinting because so many grew up poor and running was the only affordable sport (after all, a lot of whites grew up poor too); American blacks are better at sprinting because, well, we’re built better for it.
Yes, it sounds a bit crazy and inflammatory and maybe even racist, but isn’t it kind of interesting that Entine’s prediction about the 100-meter race turned out exactly right? It’s interesting, but renowned sports sociologist Harry Edwards cringes at the suggestion that blacks are somehow genetically programmed to run fast and slam dunk. In fact, in an interview in the magazine Colorlines a few years back, Edwards suggested that the golden age of the black athlete is fading fast.
Said Edwards, “By the time we finish looking at the last 30 years, through societal processes, through institutional erosion, through the degradation of the black athletic pool, through disqualification, judicial procedures and deaths, we have so emaciated the talent pool, that we are beginning to see a drop-off in performance at every level, in all sports where blacks participate in numbers. We are simply disqualifying, jailing, burying, and leaving behind our black athletes, right along with our potential black doctors, black lawyers, and so forth.”
Obviously, Jeremy Wariner is a hell of an athlete. But does Edwards have a point?
A quick update: Two columns ago I wrote about the ridiculous difficulty my wife faced in trying to vote in Detroit’s most recent election. My wife, who has never missed an opportunity to vote in 30 years, was finally able to vote, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of the workers at our nearby polling station who tried to find out how her name had suddenly disappeared from the list of voters. Since that time I have received a letter from a lawyer for the Michigan Democratic Party as well as one from Detroit City Clerk Jackie Currie’s office, apologizing for the screw-up and offering their assistance to straighten things out. I am certainly grateful for the special attention, but I also realize not everyone would necessarily receive such attention.
Bottom line? You’d better be prepared to fight for your right to vote.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org