“Slave genes” myth must die

“Slave genes” myth must die


Amy Bass, Associate Professor of History
The College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, New York

Michael Johnson links African-American sprinters to slavery, and revisits a particularly ugly pseudo-science

In 1988, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder (in)famously stated that the prowess of African-American football players could be traced to slavery, saying “the black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way … [They] jump higher and run faster.” The reaction to such obviously racist remarks was fast and furious: Amid the uproar, CBS Sports fired him. So when Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson predicted this month that African-American and West Indian track athletes would dominate the London Olympics because of the genes of their slave ancestors, I paid little attention, thinking there was no way this could become a viable conversation yet again. “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,” Johnson told the Daily Mail. “Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me—I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.”

As a historian, what I find to be stunning about what he said is the claim that the supremacy of black athletes in track had never “been discussed openly before.” Actually, with his words, Johnson plunged himself into a century-old debate that seems to rear its (rather ugly) head every four years, just in time for the opening of sport’s largest global stage. Johnson supported his theory with the example of the men’s 100m final at the Beijing Olympics: Three of the eight finalists came from Jamaica, including record-breaking winner Usain Bolt, and two from Trinidad; African-Americans Walter Dix and Doc Patton and Dutch sprinter Churandy Martina, who hails from Curacao, rounded out the line.

But racial assumptions don’t work as easily as simply noting that four years ago all eight finalists in the quest to be “world’s fastest man” likely had ancestors who were slaves, because race is, well, never simple, but rather works as an amoebic identity formation that changes throughout history. It’s a social construction deeply entangled with definitions of class, gender, sexuality and so on…

…Such scientists first engaged in racialized theories of athletic aptitude in the 1930s, during the large-scale breakthrough of African-Americans in track and field:  following DeHart Hubbard’s gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924; the success stories of Ed Gordon, Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe; and, of course, Jesse Owens’ legendary performance at the Berlin Games in 1936. Although the number of African-American track champions would greatly decline in subsequent decades, the belief in some sort of quantifiable connection between race and physical ability would not wane, with scientists creating comparative analyses between “white” and “black” calf muscles, bone densities, heel lengths and so on. “Is there some difference between Negroes and white in proportions of the body,” asked Iowa State physical educator Eleanor Metheny, “which gives the Negro an advantage in certain types of athletic performance?”

While one such study was plagued with what to do about subjects of “mixed parentage,” and Metheny admitted that “Negro” was heterogeneous by its very constitution, few scientists defined “Negro” or “white” beyond skin color, never pausing to wonder how they quantified categories that were subjective to begin with.  These scientists easily translated the racially infused stereotypes of the 19thcentury minstrel stage, in which physical traits such as fat lips, wide-open red mouths and large noses existed alongside the perceived innate ability to dance and sing, to have athletic bodies.  In doing so, these studies – which took place in labs at Harvard, Vanderbilt and Duke – produced some of sport’s most venerable racist convictions: Black athletes are more adept at sprinting, more relaxed, make better running backs than quarterbacks, and jump farther, all of which reduced their athleticism to a solely physical condition with no room for intellectual capacity, training nor discipline.

One notable exception was W. Montague Cobb, Howard University, the first black physical anthropologist in the United States. His extensive work on “the physical anthropology of the American Negro” never referenced slavery directly, but did make several assertions regarding the environmental and physical challenges African-Americans historically faced as a means for survival in the modern world. Yet Cobb, whose most famous subject was Owens himself, refused to simplify the complexities of race, which he insisted could not be a fixed category because of “interbreeding.” Indeed, he concluded, Owens was more “Caucasoid rather than Negroid in type” based on measurements of his foot, heel bone and calves. Jesse Owens, according to Cobb, did not have the body of a “Negro star.”…

Read the entire article here.

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