I discovered a used bookstore a couple miles from my home yesterday and spent some time rummaging through their $1-2 rack. In the end, I came away with 6 books. I thought I exercised incredible discipline, being that there were about 20 others I picked up, read the back cover, flipped through the pages, gave the page 100 test (read a bit of page 100 to see if a book is more than just a good first chapter and then junk), smelled the age of the paper, and then ultimately put back for later.
I love used bookstores. Used bookstores love me.
One of the books I picked up was titled Why Black People Tend to Shout: Cold Facts and Wry Views from a Black Man's World by Ralph Wiley. Ralph Wiley was a columnist for ESPN at the time of his death in 2004. His columns weren't like other sportswriters' columns. They simmered and popped. There was anger, impatience, disdain...and passion. He was primarily interested in the black athlete's experience, and he wasn't afraid to talk about it in real terms. Sometimes those terms came off too real. I loved those times.
Ralph Wiley was not just a sportswriter, though. He was an essayist, and the above book is a collection of essays. One of the essays in his book is titled, "On the Natural Superiority of Black Athletes". More on that in a bit.
When I was a college student, I minored in Education Studies. My primary interest was Learning Theory and understanding how and why some students excelled and others did not. I think I applied more of what I learned to my running than my academics, but what I learned stuck with me and much of it is at the core of what I write today. And what you are reading now.
I remember one particular course. Actually, that's not true. I remember one exercise from one class session of one particular course. I no longer the teacher's name or what the course was actually about, though I do have a vague recollection of what Dallia, the exotic Persian woman who sat across from me looked like. This particular session was about "the message implied", to give it my own title. We analyzed situations in which something was said, but the ultimate message--the one subconsciously taken away--was often the opposite. We used a "template" to generate these situations: To say A is (really) to say B. You could use "really" if you felt the need to emphasize your point. I don't remember needing to.
I also no longer remember the examples that students came up with that day, though when they said them I remember thinking to myself, "Oh, that's good," on more than one occasion. I do remember what I came up with, however:
To say that everything important must be tested is (really) to say that anything that can't be tested is not important.
You can probably guess that I was very much passionately anti-standardized testing at that time. I still am. Not enough to rant and rave in a blog the way I do about running, but almost. When my kids are in school that time will probably come.
So back to Wiley. Wiley was the master at flipping a question or a statement on its ear and listening to the subtle message that everybody hears but no one really listens to. And his first reaction to the question of whether or not black athletes are naturally superior was to ask why we were even asking the question. His response, right or wrong, was that we were asking the question because we subconsciously needed to explain a phenomenon that messed with the
accepted propagated social order in our world, i.e. whites are better than blacks.
He begins the essay:
"Are black people, all people of African descent but especially African-American men, naturally superior athletes? If you are asking me, I'd have to say, not that I've noticed. But why ask in the first place? I want to know why black men have to be naturally superior athletes? If we are, it would inevitably follow that black men are naturally inferior at something else. Like thinking." (italics his)
To say that black men are naturally superior athletes is (really) to say that black men are naturally inferior at thinking.
If this all sounds like it's just twisted logic, that's because it is in part. But then again, emotions aren't logical and that's what we're talking about here. What's the emotion implied in the question?
Wiley argues that the emotion behind the question is self-preservation. Or at least the preservation of self-respect. We are only talking about black athletes being better genetically because to not do so would be to invite more difficult questions, the kind we don't want to face. Later he writes:
"Before the integration of sports in this country (which came after the aberration of Jack Johnson, and began in the boxing ring with Joe Louis and in baseball with Jackie Robinson), all the testimonials were that black people were naturally inferior athletically, as in everything else. Black men could not develop the mental discipline it took to go fifteen rounds, or play second base in a taut, 2-1 World Series game.
"Blacks wouldn't work hard enough. Athletics had a mental side then, and a work-ethic side."
I think this is especially prevalent in distance running in America. No self-respect is lost if you just say that Africans are genetically gifted. "(Shrug) It can't be helped." But if you say that all of them are working harder and mentally tougher?
Wiley goes on, primarily focusing on boxing as a microcosm for all of sports. He argues primarily that the great fighters have historically not been determined by race but by class. They came from poor, unassimilated communities until those communities began to experience better fortune. Then, no more boxers. He wonders: Does this mean blacks are naturally superior boxers, because they still do it?
To say that blacks are naturally superior athletes because they are the best is (really) to say that whites are naturally inferior because they aren't the best.
Of course, that's not what most people are arguing. Most people are arguing that blacks are the best because they are naturally superior and whites aren't because they are naturally inferior. (Which itself implies that when whites are the best, they did it through hard work and mental discipline...) But as Wiley points out, when the history and the context of the sports are taken into consideration, the best you can arrive at is the above.
Peter Snell said as much when he discussed the similarities between Kenya today and New Zealand in the 50s and 60s, when Kiwi's ruled distance running. The differences today are comfort and means for survival. New Zealand has both in relative abundance, and Kenya has them in relative scarcity. For Kenyans, running provides one notable (and popular) exception. As it used to do for New Zealanders.
As a result, Kenyans run. Not just a few, or the ones who are "noticed" young. They all run, even the gardeners. Is it any surprise that the number of elite Kenyan runners is high when the pool is so large and other opportunities so scarce? If you want to know whether or not someone is putting their all into a sport, look to see whether their survival depends on it. When no one has life preservers and everyone has to sink or swim, you can bet you'll find some people who can damn well swim. And really, isn't that what you see on a lot of East African running teams, playground basketball courts and inner-city boxing gyms? People who are sinking and swimming, but counting on their abilities to survive?
I've been running a little thought experiment over in my mind as I type this. What if you took away all the money from everyone, but offered a ridiculous fortune to the first white guy to break the world record in the 100 meters? Or in the 10k? Or to the first black guy to break Michael Phelps's swimming records? Or to the first black guy to win an NHL MVP award? And let's assume that any athlete who wanted to go for it would be given adequate equipment and coaching, and time to pursue the dream.
I know I'm asking you to do a lot of assuming. But wouldn't a situation in which the need was great enough, the reward big enough and the opportunity available be likely to generate at least a couple people capable of accomplishing the feat? And if you said yes, then are you really sure you need to ask whether black athletes are naturally superior?