Because race-based privilege, power, and exploitation are facts of planetary life, almost any society can be expected to maintain mythologies about race. That mythology includes the belief that those who belong to the racial power structure are superior to those who are excluded from that racial power system. Some of the excluded are deemed intellectually equal or potentially superior, but lacking in physical prowess and, for lack of a better term, “natural rhythm.” But then there are other people excluded by the racial power system, and inside the racial mythology, they are deemed intellectually and morally backward, but physically superior.
The late Dr. Manning Marable, a Professor of History and Political Science and formerly the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, discussed in a 1991 column called “Racism and the Black Athlete” how the mythology of race affected athletics. He wrote,
“For generations, White athletes who excelled in any sport were described as “hard-working,” “diligent,” “dedicated.” African-Americans who achieved prominence in sports, by contrast, were known as “natural athletes” who did not have to train rigorously for their successes. Joe DiMaggio and Rocky Marciano were applauded by the media for their work ethic; Sonny Liston and Willie Mays were described as “naturally-gifted athletes.”
“The basic racist assumption beneath these statements was that Blacks were “animals,” not human beings. Anyone knows that a horse can outrun any person. A gorilla is more powerful than the strongest weightlifter. To be Black was to be closer to the physical world of beasts. And of course, Whites who displayed physical prowess were said to have achieved these accomplishments by their mental powers.”
“The argument is not only racist, it’s illogical in the extreme. Because in reality, success by any group in any avenue of human endeavour is largely determined by the factors of opportunity, availability of resources, and the levels of individual dedication.
“Why do African-American athletes dominate the NBA, but are virtually unrepresented in the NHL or the Professional Golfers Association? Build 5,000 ice skating rinks and public golf courses in the African-American community and create hundreds of training programs and incentives for Black elementary school children. Believe me, within 20 years you’ll have some Whites writing about the “natural ability” of Blacks in golf and ice hockey!
“Blacks excel in athletics because opportunities are still limited in professional and corporate circles for minorities and women. Expand job access and affirmative action enforcement, and fewer Blacks would go into sports.
“Racial discrimination is still rampant in college athletics. A recently released NCAA study indicates that the graduation rate after five years for Black athletes is only 26.6 percent, compared to 52.2 percent for Whites. More significantly, the vast majority of White athletes drop out of college during their early years, while nearly as many Black athletes leave school in their final years as in their first two. This implies that many coaches and academic officials are more concerned with eligibility rather than the goals of education and graduation, when it comes to Black athletes.”
“The NCAA study also indicated that when African-American and White athletes have the same SAT scores, Blacks graduate from college at higher rates than Whites. This shows that standardized tests are a poor indicator of future academic performance, and that Blacks with lower SAT scores shouldn’t be arbitrarily denied admission to higher education.”
Today we’re going to hear a Canadian’s take on the issue. Dr. Carl E. James
is a professor in the Faculty of Education and director of the York Centre for Education and Community. He’s cross-appointed in the graduate programs in Sociology and Social Work. He researches how marginalised youth experience school, sport, and society. The Royal Society of Canada inducted James as a Fellow, one of the highest honours a Canadian scholar can achieve in the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences.
He’s the author of the book Race in Play: Understanding the Socio-Cultural World of Student Athletes. The book examines the sociology of sport, youth, racism, and education, and how institutions such as public schools shape the career paths and educational future—or failure—of athletes based on race. In December 2005 James was in Edmonton for a conference on anti-racist education. We spoke at CJSR studios about how racism and athletics are tackling African-Canadian students.
A note: During this conversation recorded in December 2005, I remarked that racism against First Nations Canadians meant that they had no paths to sharing in the bounty of multicultural settler Canada. While I meant that as a critique of the settler colonial state of which I am a part, my statement blindly ignored the many First Nations Canadians who achieve excellence and even national and international influence in innumerable fields. We make far more progress not when we simply condemn what’s unjust, but when we by recognise and replicate success.