ANTHROPOLOGY MEETS POPULAR CULTURE
Throughout this chapter, I have stated that the concept of race is a socially constructed idea and explained why biologically distinct human races do not exist. Still, many in the United States cling to a belief in the existence of biological racial groups (regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds). Historically, the nature of popular sports in the United States has been offered as “proof” of biological differences between races in terms of natural athletic skills and abilities. In this regard, the world of sports has served as an important social institution in which notions of biological racial differences become reified—mistakenly assumed as objective, real, and factual. Specifically, many Americans have noted the large numbers of African Americans in Olympic sprinting, the National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) and interpreted their disproportionate number as perceived “evidence” or “proof” that “blacks” have unique genes, muscles, bone structures, and/or other biological qualities that make them superior athletes relative to people from other racial backgrounds—that they are “naturally gifted” runners and jumpers and thus predominate in sports.
This topic sparked intense media attention in 2012 during the lead-up to that year’s Olympics in London. Michael Johnson, a retired African American track star who won gold medals at the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Summer Olympic Games, declared that “black” Americans and West Indians (of Jamaican, Trinidadian, Barbadian, and other Caribbean descent) dominated international sprinting competitions because they possessed a “superior athletic gene” that resulted from slavery: “All my life, I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it’s impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn’t left an imprint through the generations . . . slavery has benefited descendants like me. I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.” Others have previously expressed similar ideas, such as writer John Entine, who suggested in his book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It (2000), that the brutal nature of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and harsh conditions of slavery in the Americas produced slaves who could move faster and who had stronger, more durable bodies than the general population and that those supposedly hardier bodies persisted in today’s African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, giving them important athletic advantages over others. In a similar vein, former CBS sportscaster Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder claimed, on the eve of Super Bowl XXII in 1988, that African Americans comprised the majority of NFL players because they were “bred that way” during slavery as a form of selective breeding between bigger and stronger slaves much like had been done with racehorses. Snyder was fired from CBS shortly after amid a tidal wave of controversy and furor. Racial stereotypes regarding perceptions of innate differences in athletic ability were a major theme in the 1992 comedy film White Men Can’t Jump, which starred Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as an inter-racial pair of basketball street hustlers.
Despite such beliefs, even among people who otherwise do not harbor racist sentiments, the notion of innate “black” athletic supremacy is obviously misguided, fallacious, and self-contradictory when we examine the demographic composition of the full range of sports in the United States rather than focusing solely on a few extremely popular sports that pay high salaries and have long served as inspiration for upward mobility and fame in a society in which educational and employment opportunities for lower-income and impoverished minority groups (often concentrated in inner-city communities) have rarely been equivalent to those of middle-class and affluent “whites” living in small towns and suburban communities. Take the myth that “blacks” have an innately superior jumping ability. The idea that “white men can’t jump” stems from the relatively small number of white American players in the NBA and has been reified by the fact that only one “white” player (Brent Barry of the Los Angeles Clippers in 1996) has ever won the NBA’s annual slam-dunk contest. However, the stereotype would be completely inverted if we look at the demographic composition and results of high jump competitions. The high jump is arguably a better gauge of leaping ability than a slam-dunk contest since it requires raising the entire body over a horizontal bar and prohibits extension of the arms overhead, thus diminishing any potential advantage from height. For decades, both the men’s and the women’s international high jump competitions have been dominated by white athletes from the United States and Europe. Yet no one attributes their success to “white racial genes.” American society does not have a generational history of viewing people who are socially identified as “white” in terms of body type and physical prowess as it does with African Americans.
The same dynamic is at play if we compare basketball with volleyball. Both sports require similar sets of skills, namely, jumping, speed, agility, endurance, and outstanding hand-eye coordination. Nevertheless, beach volleyball has tended to be dominated by “white” athletes from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe while indoor volleyball is more “racially balanced” (if we assume that biological human races actually exist) since the powerhouse indoor volleyball nations are the United States, China, Japan, Brazil, Cuba, and Russia.
Thus, a variety of factors, including cultural affinities and preferences, social access and opportunities, existence of a societal infrastructure that supports youth participation and development in particular sports, and the degree of prestige assigned to various sports by nations, cultures, and ethnic communities, all play significant roles in influencing the concentration of social and/or ethnic groups in particular sports. It is not a matter of individual or group skills or talents; important socio-economic dimensions shape who participates in a sport and who excels. Think about a sport in which you have participated or have followed closely. What social dynamics do you associate with that sport in terms of the gender, race/ethnicity, and social class of the athletes who predominate in it?
For additional insight into the important role that social dynamics play in shaping the racial/ethnic, social class, and cultural dimensions of athletes, let us briefly consider three sports: basketball, boxing, and football. While basketball is a national sport played throughout the United States, it also has long been associated with urban/inner-city environments, and many professional American basketball players have come from working class and lower-income backgrounds. This trend dates to the 1930s, when Jewish players and teams dominated professional basketball in the United States. That dominance was commonly explained by the media in terms of the alleged “scheming,” “flashiness,” and “artful dodging” nature of the “Jewish culture.” In other words, Jews were believed to have a fundamental talent for hoops that explained their over-representation in the sport. In reality, most Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century lived in working class, urban neighborhoods such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago where basketball was a popular sport in the local social fabric of working-class communities.
By 1992, approximately 90 percent of NBA players were African American, and the league’s demographics once again fueled rumors that a racial/ethnic group was “naturally gifted” in basketball. However, within ten short years, foreign-born players largely from Eastern European nations such as Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey accounted for nearly 20 percent of the starting line-ups of NBA teams. The first player selected in the 2002 NBA draft was seven-foot six-inch center Yao Ming, a native of Shanghai, China, and by the early 2000s, the United States had lost some of its traditional dominance of international basketball as several nations began to catch up because of the tremendous globalization of basketball’s popularity.
Like basketball, boxing has been an urban sport popular among working-class ethnic groups. During the early twentieth century, both amateur and professional boxing in the United States were dominated by European immigrant groups, particularly the Irish, Italians, and Jewish Americans. As with basketball, which inspired the “hoop dreams” of inner-city youths to escape poverty by reaching the professional ranks, boxing provided sons of lower-income European immigrants with dreams of upward mobility, fame, and fortune. In fact, it was one of the few American sports that thrived during the Great Depression, attracting a wave of impoverished young people who saw pugilism as a ticket to financial security. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, intra-European ethnic rivalries (Irish vs. Italian, Italian vs. Jewish) were common in U.S. boxing; fighters were seen as quasi-ambassadors of their respective neighborhoods and ethnic communities.
The demographic composition of boxers began to change in the latter half of the twentieth century when formerly stigmatized and racialized Eastern European immigrant groups began to be perceived simply as “white” and mainstream. They attained middle-class status and relocated to the newly established suburbs, and boxing underwent a profound racial and ethnic transition. New urban minority groups—African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans who moved into inner-city neighborhoods vacated by Europeans began to dominate boxing.
Finally, consider football, which has surpassed baseball as the most popular spectator sport in the United States and is popular with all social classes, races/ethnicities, and regions. Collegiate and professional football rosters are also undergoing a demographic change; a growing number of current National College Athletic Association and NFL players were born outside the mainland United States. Since the 1980s, many athletes from American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, have joined U.S. football teams. A boy in American Samoa is an astounding 56 times more likely to make the NFL than a boy born and raised on the U.S. mainland! American Samoa’s rapid transformation into a gridiron powerhouse is the result of several inter-related factors that dramatically increased the appeal of the sport across the tiny island, including the cultural influence of American missionaries who introduced football. Expanding migration of Samoans to Hawaii and California in recent decades has also fostered their interest in football, which has trickled back to the South Pacific, and the NFL is working to expand the popularity of football in American Samoa. Similarly, Major League Baseball has been promoting baseball in the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Japan in recent years.
Issues of race, racism, and ethnic relations remain among the most contentious social and political topics in the United States and throughout the world. Anthropology offers valuable information to the public regarding these issues, as anthropological knowledge encourages individuals to “think outside the box” about race and ethnicity. This “thinking outside the box” includes understanding that racial and ethnic categories are socially constructed rather than natural, biological divisions of humankind and realizing that the current racial and ethnic categories that exist in the United States today do not necessarily reflect categories used in other countries. Physical anthropologists, who study human evolution, epidemiology, and genetics, are uniquely qualified to explain why distinct biological human races do not exist. Nevertheless, race and ethnicity – as social constructs – continue to be used as criteria for prejudice, discrimination, exclusion, and stereotypes well into the twenty-first century. Cultural anthropologists play a crucial role in informing the public how the concept of race originated, how racial categories have shifted over time, how race and ethnicity are constructed differently within various nations across the world, and how the current racial and ethnic categories utilized in the United States were arbitrarily labeled and defined by the federal government under OMB Directive 15 in 1977. Understanding the complex nature of clines and continuous biological human variation, along with an awareness of the distinct ways in which race and ethnicity have been constructed in different nations, enables us to recognize racial and ethnic labels not as self-evident biological divisions of humans, but instead as socially created categories that vary cross-culturally.
Entine, John. Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. New York: Public Affairs Publishing, 2000.
- Rene Lynch, “Michael Johnson Says Slave Descendants Make Better Athletes” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2012. ↵
- The 2010 documentary The First Basket by David Vyorst describes the experiences of Jewish basketball players in the mid-twentieth century U.S. ↵
- Scott Pelley, America Samoa: Football Island. CBS News, September 17, 2010 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-samoa-football-island-17-09-2010/↵
- Ibid. ↵
"Race and Ethnicity" by Justin D. García, Millersville University of Pennsylvania. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.