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Race, sport and willful ignorance

By James Thomas

In the Wednesday, September 27 issue of the Oxford EAGLE, local author Michael Henry argues that the recent efforts by professional athletes to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality reflects misplaced anger. Henry’s argument rests upon a kind of willful ignorance that is the bedrock of white supremacy.

I do not have the space in this column to dispel Henry’s patently false claims about the war on police (there isn’t one), that whites make for better CEOs and neurosurgeons than other groups (they don’t), or that Asians show greater mental aptitude than other groups (they don’t). Instead, I want to focus on his claim that the disproportionate representation of black athletes in professional football and basketball is evidence of their superior athleticism.

The myth of the superior black physicality dates back to at least the early nineteenth century. Western Europeans and white Americans used it to justify the enslavement and subsequent exploitation of black labor; and then slave-like labor regimes in colonial Africa and the American South. Contemporary medical and genomic research has completely debunked this myth. Yet, these stereotypes remain popular explanations for blacks’ overrepresentation in basketball and football. But what about other sports?

Both soccer and volleyball also demand speed, agility, power, and strength. Yet, these sports remain woefully absent of black participation. Meanwhile, sports like rugby, lacrosse, and hockey feature a high degree of physicality, yet their participants are overwhelmingly white.

The overrepresentation of black athletes in professional basketball and football, then, has little to do with tired old tropes about black physical prowess. Instead, blacks’ overrepresentation is best explained by examining the opportunities made available to different groups of people based on their racial and socioeconomic status.

Historically, American Jews once dominated the sport of basketball. Early twentieth-century Jewish immigrants, much like their contemporary black counterparts, were isolated within inner cities. Basketball was a relatively cheap sport compared to soccer or football. Basketball courts were also more widely available in inner cities than football or soccer fields. To play, participants only needed a pair of shoes and a basketball. These factors and others helped American Jews dominate the sport for the first half of the twentieth century. For many, basketball was the only opportunity to attend a college or university. Institutions like Harvard, for example, had quotas on the number of Jews they would accept. Yale, meanwhile, opted to end its discriminatory practice against Jews so that they could field a championship team. Basketball scholarships allowed for poor, Jewish immigrants to receive a college or university education.

Similar to how Henry justifies black athletes’ success in basketball today, stereotypes of Jews helped to justify their success in basketball in the early twentieth century. For example, a sports editor of the New York Daily News in the 1930s declared Jews’ success was due to the sport placing “a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” Others declared Jews had “G-d given better balance and speed.” Still, others asserted that Jews’ shortness in height gave them a competitive advantage.

The end of World War II brought a willingness among American institutions to more fully incorporate American Jews into the body politic. Quotas on Jewish enrollment in colleges and universities were prohibited, and Jews gained greater entry into professions previously denied to them. Consequently, Jews moved from inner cities into emerging suburbs, where opportunities to participate in different sporting activities helped end their disproportionate concentration and dominance in basketball.

The history of American Jews’ participation in basketball not only dispels popular myths about certain races being more disposed than others to athletic superiority; it also demonstrates the enduring intersection of American sport with American politics. Henry and so many others willfully ignore this intersection, yet it continues to bear fruit. Sport shapes how we view our politics through metaphors of wins, losses, and political strategy; and politics shapes sport in who participates, and how they participate. The recent demonstrations among professional athletes are neither an anomaly, nor misguided. They reflect a deep historical relationship between American sport and American politics, including the politics of race.     

James M. Thomas (JT) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi. His latest book, Are Racists Crazy? (NYU Press, 2016 and coauthored with Sander Gilman), was recently featured in The New Yorker’s “What We’re Reading This Summer” (July 6th, 2017). Follow JT on Twitter @Insurgent_Prof.