The Misadventures of Quinxy truths, lies, and everything in between!

19May/1175

Why Slavery Didn’t Make African Americans Superior Athletes

(Note: I never expected this page to be widely read.  Somehow, perhaps because of a paucity of public discussion on the topic, this page is highly ranked in search engines and receives more hits than any other page on my site.  I say all this to try and explain what this page is and isn't.  I am not a scholar, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, I was simply trying to document my own experience of the topic and its various arguments.  I leave the comments open as people seem to be interested in sharing their views and often adding potentially relevant information.) 

Back when I was 16 a famous CBS sports commentator, Jimmy the Greek (aka Jimmy Snyder) destroyed his lifelong career with the following comment:

"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way — because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trading, the owner — the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid."

jimmy_and_jesseA furor erupted. He became instantly anathema. Everyone got very angry, screamed that his statement was racist and deeply ignorant. But despite all the television and print coverage of the issue no one seemed to actually discuss what he had said, no one would actually explain to me or anyone else what the factual errors were in his statement. Did slavery (by way of selective pressure in intake, purchase, transportation, or breeding) make African Americans better athletes? The question was so offensive that it didn't apparently deserve an answer. Everyone seemed to already knew why it was racist and deeply ignorant, and if you didn't know, then you were probably racist and deeply ignorant, too. And that was a horrible thought since racism requires heaping doses of idiocy and dishonesty, and I didn't want to be an idiot or dishonest.  But I suspect I wasn't alone in feeling very confused by this situation, very confused that we couldn't talk about it, couldn't educate ourselves about it. I'd never consciously wondered about African Americans in sport, never wondered why there were so many in sport, why they were doing so well in sport, never wondered about any possible genetic implications of slavery. But suddenly I'm presented with a very interesting riddle (why are African Americans dominating in most American sports: basketball, football, baseball?) and the only solution to the riddle anyone will openly share is Jimmy the Greek's. Nobody else is saying anything, nobody else is saying what specifically is wrong with his solution to that riddle. I tried to talk to people about it at the time, to understand what the "real solution" everyone else seemed to already know was, but the universal response I got from the enlightened around me (friends, teachers) was that everyone seemed very uncomfortable talking about the topic, seeming to feel my even bringing up the topic hinted of racism or ignorance.

So yesterday, after 23 long years I finally found the answer I had been looking for. And surprisingly, after the excitement of having a definite answer, I had to admit I was feeling pretty angry that nobody told me sooner. I don't like being actively denied answers to questions. I don't like being encouraged to remain ignorant and discouraged from trying to get answers. I don't like people hinting that I'm a racist or ignorant when my trying to discuss a topic is an attempt to eradicate whatever ignorance or racism I could have. If everyone wants me to be informed, inform me! And, now that I know what seems very likely the correct answer, I'm also pretty pissed because I suspect the vast majority of the people unkindly refusing to enlighten me had no idea what the answer really was. I think many weren't refusing to tell me the answer because it was a stupid question, they were refusing to tell me because they didn't know the answer, and were simply satisfied repeating what they knew society wanted to be the proxy answer, which was, "Don't ask such a stupid and racist question." Obviously some may have had the real answer, but I'm sure many didn't, or at the very least couldn't explain it.

Fortunately I found a great discussion yesterday where some poor fool asked the question I could easily have asked, and he received profoundly thoughtful answers, though similar to my experience the answers were delivered with an air of irritation and condescension.

Just to try and reiterate my own position, or lack thereof, I've never claimed that slavery contributed to the superiority of African Americans in sport. I have (I think) always admitted that I have no definite answers, but that it seemed plausible to believe that the slave trade could have altered genetics and unless someone told me why that couldn't be, then I'd continue suspecting it might be. But suspecting something might be true is not an actionable position, and shouldn't be viewed so harshly anyway; I suspect capital punishment is wrong, but I wouldn't cast a vote for or against it because I have not yet devoted the time/energy to come to a definite conclusion.

My inherited false line of reasoning went this way:

  • Selection occurs gathering slaves in Africa (selection for strength, perhaps)
  • Selection occurs transporting slaves to market in Africa (selection for strength, survival, perhaps)
  • Selection occurs by traders in markets in Africa (selection for strength, perhaps)
  • Selection occurs in transportation to the New World (selection for survival, strength, perhaps)
  • Selection occurs by slave masters controlling resources and forcing or encouraging sexual matches (selection for strength, docility?, perhaps)

To a person with very modest knowledge of biology/genetics, a coffee table/cultural knowledge of evolution, that surely sounds perfectly reasonable. We see all sorts of variation within species, and under extreme pressure we see many of these variations introduced within a very, very short span of time. I am forever reminded of the program that completely transformed and domesticated Russian silver foxes in less than 40 years. So, all I wanted is for someone to tell me where that chain of reasoning failed.

And here is the answer I finally found...

  • Selection in Africa was largely the result of tribal conflicts and war. Those who became slaves were not selected for strength but were merely the survivors of conflict. Even if the people choosing who became a slave was selecting for apparent strength/health the basis of that strength/health was NOT genetic but was environmental/opportunistic, that person just happened to not be suffering from randomly acting disease/injury/malnutrition.
  • Survival on the way to the slave markets was similarly not genetic but had to do with the slave's health at the beginning of the trip and specific events (disease exposure/nutrition/etc.) during the trip.
  • Traders in markets in Africa may have selected for perceived strength/health, but again the basis for this selection was not primarily genetic, it had more to do with the "luck" of the slave to that point.
  • Transportation to the New World was like the previous transportation, survival was primarily controlled by the environment and initial health conditions of the slave
  • And while some slave masters did engage in eugenics their efforts were ineffectively crude, being incredibly limited in scale and inexactly uncontrolled. Further, even with a more controlled and widespread eugenics program, 250 years would not have been enough time for major genetic differences to emerge.

That is all the answer I wanted. It is perfectly reasonable, makes absolute sense, and therefore I believe it. Why couldn't someone have just told this to me 23 years ago? If the goal on everyone's part is to stamp out racism and ignorance, it really doesn't help when everyone refuses to share the details of their enlightenment.

Why do some topics have to be viewed as so god damn touchy that people refuse to discuss them?

Hist-slave-inspection-Library-of-Congress1Back in 7th grade we learned about the Coriolis Effect. If you don't remember, the rotation of the earth causes hurricanes in the norther hemisphere to rotate clockwise and in the southern hemisphere counter clockwise. A few years later I hear someone say, "The water goes down the drain clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the southern hemisphere." I accepted the statement as true. I knew nothing to disbelieve it, and it fit well my understanding of the Coriolis Effect. In senior year in high school I was in a physics lab and at some point had the occasion to relay this drain comment to my lab partner. The student had never observed this and as the teacher was passing asked him if it was true. The teacher helpfully explained that while the Coriolis Effect effects hurricanes it is too weak to influence water going down a drain, that the direction in that situation is controlled by random chance and subtle asymmetries in sink/tub shapes. Why can't we expect all of our ignorances to be similarly corrected with alternative information, without being made to feel stupid for asking the question, without being made to feel stupid for wrongly believing or suspecting something else was true, most particularly when the unchallenged errors fit other facts/theories as best as we know them?

I do appreciate, to the degree anyone can when an issue does not directly effect their identity, that the suggestion of a genetic advantage for African American athletes could be driven by a racist attempt to deny African Americans their achievements, that it could be driven by a racist attempt to suggest slavery was a "positive" for African Americans, that it could be driven by a set of racist assumptions that African American achievements in sports are related to strength and not intelligence, but the person asking the question should not be suspected of having those motivations, consciously or unconsciously, without other evidence to the contrary. In this case, I did not create the question. I only asked for it to be answered because other people claimed they knew what the "right" answer. And even left without their answer, I never treated my "wrong" answer as fact. Why can't we dispassionately discuss these things, so that those who are educable can become educated?

^ Quinxy

Comments (75) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Ian

    Since my vocational interest and expertise lies elsewhere the best I do is give vaguely informed opinions on topics interesting to me, which I rather thought was the point of a blog (at least before blogs became big business for people). You expect more of me, and, I suppose I’m sorry I can’t deliver. But, I wrote about a topic that interested me, confused me as a child, and on which I could find little helpful discussion. So I wrote about it, what made sense to me, what seemed right to me. This isn’t a news article, this isn’t a journal article, this isn’t a Wikipedia article, it’s a blog article by some random person on the internet. All I know about genetics or biology would probably impress no one much older than 10 years old.

    I let others freely post their opinions on this topic as others seemed to find this blog entry for the same reason I wrote it, because a lack of discussion elsewhere; and by freely I mean that I deleted just one or two in many years, and those only because they added nothing to the discussion, were anonymous, and were needlessly abusive in language. My purpose here isn’t to win converts to my cause or camp, I was trying to explain what I understood of the camp about which no one seemed to offer details and to which I suspected I belonged.

    You’ve shared your opinion, others have shared theirs, I’ve shared mine. I’m not sure what the problem is with that, again within the context of a blog.

    As for me being devoid of true, honest observations, umm, they seem honest to me. It is always possible I may not interpret things properly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I lack honesty. To bring it back to the blog post, I see the water going down all the drains in my house the same way and honestly believe the Coriolis Effect is acting. It turns out scientists have proven it was just sink/tub design, random chance, or my subtle influence; I wasn’t being dishonest.

  2. The thought behind your comments here has a rare sort of clarity to it. It strikes me as an impartial evaluation of an injustice levied upon a person (Jimmy Snyder) based on a too-vague assessment of what he “might have been ‘trying’ to say.”

    When you looked at him, and heard him say a few words, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder looked like a person and could easily have sounded like a person who might plausibly be racist. But Occam’s razor does not apply to people, however compelling it might be to accept simple explanations and flush people and their lives down the toilet due to perceived slights. Snyder was no racist; he was simply verbalizing something that seemed a plausible explanation for why African Americans dominate most professional sports.

    I don’t think the bulleted explanation given above, however, amounts to much in the way of science. It is hard to take such generalized information as a refutation of an assertion that still seems a plausible PARTIAL explanation for the conditions we can (and are) observing. African Americans dominate many of the most demanding sports, and not only do they dominate in number, they SEVERELY dominate them by percentages. What explains this?

    If we’re to accept the alternative (as yet unstated) hypothesis, we are essentially asking ourselves to accept that “blacks versus whites” have ‘more heart.’ That there really *isn’t* a physical difference, it’s all in the mind and the ‘heart.’ Is that plausible? Is it any less racist? Who is most responsible for that as-yet unspoken (but accepted-as-a-default) hypothesis? Is a person any less racist when they don’t open their mouth?

    Again, excellent post. This is the sort of genuine dialogue we must have if we’re to stamp out real racism (i.e. viewing people as “less than” merely because they are different) and false racism (i.e. the belief that people are different, but not the less due to their differences.) It’s a fine line, but one we’re ultimately going to have to accept if we’re going to make any progress.

  3. You would have to be dumb to think selective breeding didn’t take place in during slave times, I think the Greeks comments were accurate and true.

  4. Jesus buddy, get to the point. You’re not Socrates!

  5. sir, I am surprised that after being curious for so long, you came to conclusions that you did.
    you can selectively breed cows in 2 to 3 generations to reflect the augmented strength. So the argument about 250 years is not true. the selection happened because the weak slaves could not make it through the journey and tough labor. so the stronger ones remained…and bred to augment the affect. besides, how then are can one figure out the enormous difference in physique of Africans and American blacks? heck, even magic Johnson recently pointed out to the same reason for his being s great athlete.

  6. In a country of limited options for blacks, it could be that athletics have simply been traditionally one of the avenues open to African-Americans, and so they have excelled at it because it is one of their opportunities to get somewhere. It’s like asking “why did their used to be so many Irish policemen?” The answer is, “because at the time, nobody wanted the job and the Irish had few other options, so many of them became police. ” Often, people excel at what is available to them. Many Jews are great writers and comedians, probably because they have always been an extremely literary people. And so on….

  7. I think there is an inherent belief in culture that physical aptitude automatically equates to being unintelligent, and those who are intelligent nonathletic. The fact that culture believes the two attributes cannot exist together a fallacy. Humanity has influenced numerous species throughout the course of its existence so the possibility that we cannot influence our own is not completely implausible. Saying slavery has impacted African Americans is not a racist statement in my opinion, but a fact. That it has impacted African Americans negatively is a given, no one would dispute that, but to say it had an unintentional positive effect, blasphemy. Genetics and environment play a role that cannot be separated form each other. You say that the people brought from Africa were survivors of war, then survivors of the long trip to America I doubt was sheer luck; environment and genetics probably played a huge role in the survivors that made it here to be forced into slavery. I doubt the fact the strongest, most capable individuals that made it to America in order to survive the brutal labor they endeared here is chalked up to sheer luck. Most people would probably attribute this opinion as racist, but why? I believe it’s a testament to their intelligence, capability and ability to form a community to survive. In my opinion, in order to survive the brutal treatment they received they must of had not only physical strength and endurance, but intellectual and emotional endurance. To look back on the slave is to think of the brute laboring in the field, but on the contrary, it was a community with great resilience.

  8. Gregory,

    I can see your view on the NBA, NFL draft, but keep in mind that it isn’t only black males competing for the positions on teams. It is not a slave trade but enviable positions people voluntarily compete for (of all ethnic backgrounds). Also, where slaves were of the lowest social status during that horrible time of our country, athletes (of all colors) of the NBA and NFL are the most revered in society and receive more than most society could possibly wish for.

  9. If you’re going to mention scientific principles, at least get them right. The Coriolis Effect causes Hurricanes/Typhoons/Cyclones to spin counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

  10. So people who may believe that selective breeding and slavery is the reason why for so many black athletes are closed minded? But the people that just accept that it is not true and don’t want to talk about it are open minded? I think it would be more ignorant to assume that slavery didn’t have anything to so on blacks appearance and athletic ability.

  11. Tom, Not sure who you are speaking to. If me, the OP, then I believe the normal definition of open minded. (I consider a person to be open minded if they are able and willing to take in new (to them), likely objectively true data and alter any of their previously held positions if those are in conflict.)

  12. Breeding certainly was practiced. No one should argue that fact.

    It is logical that American Blacks of today are the products
    of the bred Africans of slavery.

  13. It doesn’t take a rocket a scientist to come to the conclusion that if two short people breed then there is a pretty high likelihood that their offspring will be short. Eugenics was around (maybe not the scientific term) long before Darwin titled it. The disproportionate representation of African Americans in pro and upper level college sports is blatant…something is the cause. Why is Jamaican sprinters the fastest in the world even though they are a relatively small populated country? Maybe because they were the hub of the slave trade in the western hemisphere? Why are there no, or very little, Native American (pure blooded) in pro or upper level college sports? Probably because the reverse is true…their gene pool of athletic males was decimated by the europeans settlers and US Army who killed most of them in battle. The majority of survivors were female, sick, and old.

  14. That slave owners practiced selective breeding is a myth that was given fresh life by Jimmy the Greek. He should have stuck to what he knew best, not that he never demonstrated any particular area of expertise. Hired as a sports commentator, prior to the 1973 Kentucky Derby he was telling every receptive ear that Secretariat had gone lame. I need not remind anyone what Secretariat did in the Derby and thereafter.

    The truth about “slave breeding” is:

    Poor food, disease, and overwork meant that slaves tended to die young, with half of all slave babies dying before their first birthdays. Thus, many never lived long enough to have children of their own, thwarting any attempt at scientific breeding.

    Though they had access to better food and housing, slave owners were as susceptible to diseases like typhoid fever, cholera, malaria and yellow fever which were endemic to the southern United States. Thus, assuming they understood anything about human genetics in the first place, few slave owners could reasonably expect to live long enough to see three or four generations of their slaves reproduce.

    There was no way to tell who actually fathered a slave’s baby, because slave women had no rights whatever over their own bodies. Even if she had a “husband” (slaves were not allowed to marry, after all), anyone could rape her: her owner, his relatives, the overseers, or other slaves. A strong, healthy baby usually meant nothing except that the owner had another asset he could either put to work or sell.
    Finally, slave owners’ wealth was usually tied up in their land and slaves, who could be sold any time “Massa” needed cash. To his slaves, even a cruel owner was at least the devil they knew, and they dreaded his death because quite often slaves had to be sold to pay the estate’s debts and bequests. A selective breeding program couldn’t last beyond one generation if couples and their children were being split up, never to see each other again.
    Taken from: Angela Stockton on the same topic, different blog

  15. Blog post author, maybe something you aren’t picking up on was that jimmy the Greek was, even if he were correct, speaking very casually about (or even extolling) an extremely painful part of another group of people’s history. Perhaps being told that the exploitation, rape and enslavement of your people was a good thing in any way, shape or form, and maybe especially by someone who is a part of the race that perpetuated such inhumane behavior, was an unnecessary slap in the face. Ever heard the saying “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?” Maybe that was one of those moments.

  16. Slave owners practiced breeding is clear as day and nite. Look at blacks in Africa vs Blacks from American for the proof. People just done want to admit it especially white people because they were the ones who committed this horrible thing and also blacks because they don’t want believe that the physical characteristics they have are a direct result of breeding. You can deny all want but you don’t have to look any further than National Geographic and the hood to see the truth.

  17. Jones, you raise a good point. And I think I touched on that a bit when I said, “the suggestion of a genetic advantage for African American athletes could be driven by a racist attempt to deny African Americans their achievements, […] it could be driven by a racist attempt to suggest slavery was a “positive” for African Americans, […] it could be driven by a set of racist assumptions that African American achievements in sports are related to strength and not intelligence…” But you are right to emphatically underline why the speaker of the words and the context can greatly impact how words are received.

  18. I am a big and tall black man and I have superior upper body strength. I played football and was an effective defensive end. My father is tall and so is my mother. It is obvious that if two large and strong people procreate, there is a big chance that one or more of the kids will get their best features. This world is made up different people who turned a bad thing into good and I do think the forcing a young slave girl to mate with a big man she didn’t have a relationship with was inhumane. Slavery was inhumane. Still, I don’t think that whites need to keep apologizing for stuff that happened many years ago by people who aren’t alive today. My sons are big and strong but they are terrible in sports and love reading and math. Even though “Eugenics” can make a preferred stock of people, it doesn’t negate the determination, will, discipline, and mental ability in todays athletes. It takes support from parents and guidance from coaches to teach you technique. Hitler tried selective breeding as well, yet he was defeated by will and determination. How many naturally gifted athletes get washed down the drain because of the lack of discipline in their sport?

  19. They documented slaves physical attributes like a sports combine or draft, i don’t ssee how or why they couldn’t have practice selective breeding even between 2 different white devils lol. For example when i used to sell pills if some one called me for weed id call my nigga with the weed and if he got a call for pills he called me and split the money. Sort of like out sourcing you know. They could do the same if farmer A. Has a thick strong woman and farmer B. Has a strong hard working man they could mate them together several times if needed. From all that ive read and seem its very possible as is anything but i believe they atleast tried i mean wouldn’t you try almost anything to get the biggest possible return on your product?
    Yes im black

  20. Blue Bland. Thank you from a white man who only looks at people as souls.. not races. We are all in this fight together and I wish people would look at it like you do and forget about what those wicked things people did in the past. It’s just the Devil! He is trying to tear America apart and doing a good job at it!

  21. what a load of BS…. ofcourse it had an effect on black people in US… the white masters made the biggest man and women breed…. with the extreme torture labour and lack of care… the weaker ones died and the strong ones lived.

  22. Very good article! It is rare to have reasoned discussion. I have studied genetics and answers make sense. And have argued similarly about intelligence differences. Preponderance of African Americans in certain sports likely reflects cultural heritage and preference to a large extent. Or are whites more genetically suited for golf and tennis? Isn’t ice hockey equally physical than American football or basketball but people of north European descent seem to dominate the game. How about Latinos for soccer? It could still be that there is some influence of biology, but this doesn’t imply slavery mediated selection. Asians are smaller on the average than Africans or Europeans. But professional athletes are extreme outliers in any group, so it can be difficult to disentangle the various influences that shaped them. Interestingly since humanity began in Africa, people there have the most genetic variance of any single group. Which might help produce outliers. But again this is unlikely to explain anything. And would be difficult to study. Most important not to let prejudice direct thinking.

  23. I’ve read a lot of these comments and agree with a few people, and will make the same point. I am a late-20’s female and have one black parent (father) and one white parent (mother). Some would say I got the best traits of both sides: mom is overweight, dad is slim and athletically built – I am athletically built no weight issues. My dad has a heart murmur, my mom doesn’t – I grew out of my heart murmur at a young age. I am naturally more coordinated and athletically gifted than my mom ever was, and have better joint integrity (obviously partly due to weight factors) therefore I follow my dad’s natural trend. You can get to more superficial traits as well like the texture and thickness of my hair is a balance between both of theirs, and my height is the exact average of theirs combined. The list goes on…

    Anyway, point being is that it doesn’t take generations to create a genetically stronger individual. We instinctively choose to procreate with individuals we find beautiful, smart, strong, healthy etc in order to produce offspring that are more beautiful, smarter, stronger and healthier than we are. Whether intentional selective breeding or eugenics was a factor, natural selection and simple genetics affect each generation inherently.

  24. I suggest ya’ll read “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance” it will help answer a lot of your questions. The primary reason for African dominance in sports is they have longer legs relative to their height (due to environmental factors), which help them run faster- this helps a lot for most sports.

    Moreover, you may notice East African dominance in distance running; this is thanks to their longer legs combined with higher altitude of the region (helping them become better at endurance sports and develop more slower twitch muscles). Conversely, as a response to sickle cell West Africans developed a greater proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers. These fast twitch muscles are most needed for sprinting (football, basketball, 100m dash); and combined with relative leg length allows them to be better (in general) at sports which require sprinting. Guess where most African-Americans can trace their heritage back to? Thats right, West Africa.

    Its more a response to environmental factors.

  25. I suppose my comment will be buried, but I had heard about the “slave breeding programs” in my youth and I too wondered about their authenticity. Most assuredly, blacks were treated as livestock during the years of a predominately African slave-based system in the Western Hemisphere, and equally assuredly, they were treated as breeding stock. But my caveat to this assumption that somehow black Americans are preternaturally gifted athletically because of their “good breeding” is that one can watch Olympians of recent African descent from any variety of African nations, and although they may be running for Europe, they were born in an African country and are not the byproduct of slave breeding programs, and yet they still manage to utterly squash the competition. I’d say that black people in general are just more inclined toward athleticism. There are, as with anything of course, exceptions to the rule, but in general, I feel it rather safe to assume that on the whole, they are more athletically gifted. And as a white person of northwestern European descent, I see nothing wrong in admitting that.


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