Taboo by Jon Entine
Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why we are Afraid to Talk about it
by Jon Entine
Public Affairs. 387 pp. $25.00
Do black athletes have innate physical advantages? The six-pack brigades watching them on television take it for granted that they do, and this is also the view of numerous highly qualified scholars. One who is quoted in this book is the anthropologist Vincent Sarich of the University of California at Berkeley: “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, then you probably could be led to believe just about anything.”
Still, the case for innate advantage continues to give jitters to the opinion-making classes, who are far more comfortable with environmental explanations, and especially with the notion that blacks dominate sports because discrimination has barred them from alternative careers. This standard line was ritualistically recited by Jim Holt in his New York Times review of Taboo: “The explanation for why every men’s world record at every standard track distance belongs to an athlete of African descent may turn out to be purely sociological—hard work, a dearth of opportunities elsewhere.”
But this is hardly what Taboo tells us. Although it meanders all over the lot and is sloppily argued and clumsily written, almost despite itself it is utterly persuasive in making the case that black athletic superiority is genetic in nature. The author, Jon Entine, a former television producer, collaborated with Tom Brokaw a decade ago on an NBC News documentary entitled Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction. Arguing powerfully that blacks are “naturally” better athletes, the show won a mixture of pans and plaudits, but when Entine proposed a book on the subject he ran into nothing but nervousness in the politically correct world of publishing; he had accumulated a dozen or so rejections before Public Affairs took the project on.
The argument for genetically based black superiority in sports becomes compelling when you combine two sets of data. First and most obvious is the fact that ever since segregation barriers were removed, American blacks, 12 percent of the adult U.S. population, have become wildly over-represented in big-time sports. A dearth of opportunities falls well short of explaining these gains, because black athletes have at all points been competing with a far larger population of talented white athletes, and for careers offering very high salaries and star-kissed celebrity.
No, the most parsimonious explanation resides in the second set of data: the well-established physical differences that point to black superiority in underlying athletic skills. The physical data also explain why other ethnic groups remain significantly under represented in American sports. Asians, especially, are nearly invisible, unless you count table tennis.
In mid-April of this year, the New York Times sports section published color photographs of all 31 of this year’s first-round draft choices for the National Football League (NFL). Twenty-four were black. Overall, black representation in the NFL now exceeds 60 percent, and is apparently still growing. Similarly, the National Basketball Association, which was entirely white until 1950, is now about 80-percent black, and among the league’s stars that figure may run closer to 95 percent. In major-league baseball, blacks have been slipping somewhat as Latin American athletes have increasingly come to the fore, especially in middle-infield positions, but even so the black share remains over a third.
The story of black physical superiority turns out to be two separate stories. One centers on East Africans, and especially Kenyans, who completely dominate long-distance running but do not ordinarily live in the United States and are not represented in our big-league team sports. Dominating those sports and getting the high-round draft picks are American blacks descended from slaves who were brought here, overwhelmingly, from West Africa. The two groups have quite different physical profiles and athletic talents.
In the early pages of Taboo, Entine devotes a great deal of space to the Kenyans, especially to a tribal group in the Great Rift Valley called the Kalenjins. We have become accustomed to seeing Kenyans win the New York and Boston marathons, but the degree of their dominance in distance running is nothing short of staggering. Ten years ago, a Scandinavian researcher named Bengt Saltin, observing that both Nordic and Kenyan runners showed blood levels low in lactic acid—signifying muscles that fatigue less easily—became curious to see how the two groups would match up in a competition. He arranged for a half-dozen top-tier Swedish distance runners to be brought to Kenya and race against teams from one local high school in the Rift Valley. It was a stunning experience for the Swedes, who were badly and repetitively beaten in races from 800 meters to ten kilometers. In this one small geographical area, Saltin concluded, there were at least 500 schoolboys who could beat Scandinavia’s champions.
The Kenyans’ abilities neatly reflect the advantages in evolutionary “fitness” of a group based for thousands of years in a sparsely settled, mountainous, sunny environment. The Kalenjins today have slender hips, relatively long legs, and ectomorphic physiques that help to dissipate heat. Kenyans, in general, also have a superior ability to metabolize oxygen, and, according to Saltin, the greatest aerobic potential of any group ever measured on the planet.
The West African physique is quite different, and typically of the muscular, mesomorphic variety. The evolutionary pressures that produced it are a matter of conjecture—Entine does not pursue the issue—but there seems to be no doubt about its genetic character. This physique features relatively low levels of body fat and high levels of bone density (a combination that, since it reduces buoyancy, may explain why American blacks are underrepresented in competitive swimming). More to the point are the muscles, whose long, “fast-twitch” fibers make possible an explosive speed and extraordinary jumping ability.
Among white athletes, a jump of 33 percent of one’s height is considered impressive; among athletes of West African descent, jumps of 50 percent are common, and some NBA stars have been measured above 60 percent. The white-men-can’t-jump stereotype is thus all too faithful to reality. American black athletes may not do as well as whites in distance running, but they do far better in sprints. At distances of up to 400 meters, all world running records are held by athletes of West African origin. Not one white or Asian runner is represented among the top 200 times recorded for the 100-meter sprint.
I have said that Taboo meanders. The argument I have so far described is taken from only two or three of Entine’s 24 chapters; the rest sail blithely past it, treating the reader to some hugely irrelevant stories that for the most part seem designed to reach out to those who might be offended by the central genetic thesis. Huge chunks of the text are given over to feel-good stories: there is, for example, a whole chapter dwelling on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Jesse Owens put the Nazis in their place, and another long chapter is given over to the boxing career of Joe Louis, culminating, of course, in his dramatic one-round demolition of Hitler’s favorite, Max Schmeling, in their dramatic 1938 rematch. There is even a chapter on the days when American Jews showed prowess in basketball, allowing Entine to comment that, since basketball has always been an inner-city game, it was only natural that blacks would take it over as they replaced Jews in inner-city neighborhoods. This is, to say the least, a jarring point to come across in a book that decisively demonstrates blacks’ innate abilities at basketball.
One can only guess at the reason for all these backward-leaning irrelevancies. (A tip-off may reside in En-tine’s grateful acknowledgment to his editor at Public Affairs press, who “reshaped what was an intriguing manuscript into a thoughtful book.”) But what, then, about the second part of Entine’s subtitle: why the issue of black “innate superiority” is so nervous-making, and “why we are afraid to talk about it”? After hovering inconclusively over this question, he takes a final and seemingly promising swing at it in the last few pages. There we read: “Of course, we all know what is behind this contentiousness. The elephant in the living room is intelligence.”
One waits expectantly to be told by Entine that this subject has been placed off-limits because, once you start talking about racial differences, you are only a step removed from the awkward fact that blacks, on average, have lower IQ’s than whites. That would certainly be a plausible point to make, and to discuss frankly and fully. But it turns out that Entine is not up to even mentioning it. Instead, what he confides to the reader is that we all labor under the unfortunate stereotype of athletes as “dense,” and this general stereotype is now clinging to blacks “like a barnacle to a boat . . . because blacks are starring in disproportionate numbers in almost all sports.”
Why there was no elephant in the living room when whites dominated American sports, Entine does not say. Evidently there are some taboos that even Taboo is afraid to break.