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