Totem and Taboo

By Hoberman, John | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Totem and Taboo


Hoberman, John, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THE MYTH OF RACE IN SPORTS

IN APRIL 1989 THE AUTHOR OF TABOO produced an NBC-TV documentary titled Black Athletes--Fact and Fiction. The purpose of this program was to examine the question of whether the dominance of black athletes in high-profile sports such as basketball and Olympic running events could be traced to genetic advantages that translated into superior performances. At the conclusion of the show, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw solemnly announced that the preceding interviews and demonstrations had, indeed, confirmed the biological superiority of the black athlete. In other words, something over an hour of network television put together by a lay enthusiast had managed to resolve one of the great nature-nurture conundrums of modem science.

More than a decade later, Taboo is Jon Entine's lengthier attempt to demonstrate that "the scientific evidence for black athletic superiority is overwhelming" (341). The thesis of the book, he says, is "that [racial] populations have evolved functional biomechanical and physiological differences" (83) that can and do determine the outcome of elite athletic competitions. The fact that this argument can only give aid and comfort to "the [potentially harmful] stereo-type that blacks are more naturally athletic than whites" (264) has compelled the author to announce that the book has some other, more politically correct purposes, as well. Taboo is "out to do some damage" to the "virulent stereotypes" that still lurk in our interracial sports world (8).

Precisely how the documenting of "functional biomechanical and physiological differences" might dissolve racial-athletic stereotypes is never made clear. The achievement of his television program, he says, was to have "stimulated a dialogue about the underlying issue: the destructive categorization of people based simply on their ethnicity or the color of their skin" (7)--a formula that harmonizes well with the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race the author criticizes later in the book (213). Yet it is hardly surprising that not all of the members of NBC'S large audience that evening either intuited the shape of the intended dialogue or discerned the producer's humane motives. As one black professional man asked me at the 1990 meeting of the American Psychological Association: "What can we do to keep that kind of programming off the air?"

Whether an exploration of this topic belongs on television is, in fact, an interesting question. Having watched Black Athletes--Fact and Fiction several times, both in and out of the classroom, my own view is that it is a textbook example of how the presentation of racial biology to a mass audience can go wrong due to the absence of scientific rigor. Racial anthropology has, after all, been a magnet for amateur speculation over the past two centuries, in part because it is a kind of fantasyland, and it is only natural that an endless stream of books, treatises, and pamphlets on this subject has continued in various electronic forms.

Presenting this material over 340 pages is, however, a more promising strategy, and Entine has worked hard to put together a convincing scientific argument wrapped inside capsule treatments of just about every topic that is relevant to a discussion of race and sport. Here we find chapters on Kenyan runners, black boxers, the Jesse Owens story, the history of racial science and eugenics, the age of Jewish-American prowess in basketball, the East German doping program, and more. While little of this book qualifies as original research, many readers will find it a useful survey that aims at serving a wide readership. Its principal contribution is to have assembled more evidence in favor of the genetic hypothesis than any other previous publication. Whether the book serves scientific inquiry as well as it claims to do is a separate matter that will be examined below.

The author further justifies the publication of this book by claiming that "this is the right time to look at this issue" (8) for two reasons.

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