Black, White, and Unequal?
By Robert Bryce
AUGUST 18, 1997: In the December 1995 issue of Texas Monthly magazine, Kirven Blount, the author of a story on pickup basketball games, wrote about what it was like to be a white player in a game dominated by blacks. Discussing the fact that whites were often inferior to blacks on the basketball court, Blount wrote that "it's okay to offer up your whiteness as an excuse if you miss an alley oop, which I have done more times than I care to mention. And when someone says of me, as they did once in North Carolina, `That's a tall nigga,' I beam inwardly." Wow.
What a role reversal. A generation ago, few whites would have been thrilled to be called "nigga." And yet, in the current state of popular athletics in America, being white is seen as a disadvantage. The pop cultural world of sport is not dominated by white players like Troy Aikman and Greg Maddux, but by Michael Jordan and Deion Sanders.
Black athletes have come to be seen as superior. And in a year in which Tiger Woods won the Masters and major league baseball is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into the league, Americans seem to be embracing black athletes more than ever. But by doing so, is America once again moving blacks to the back of the bus?
John Hoberman thinks so.
In his recent book, Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race ($24.95, Houghton Mifflin) Hoberman, a professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas, contends that "the cult of black athleticism continues a racist tradition that has long emphasized the motor skills and manual training of African Americans." This "sports fixation," says Hoberman, is "emblematic of an entire complex of black problems, which includes the adolescent violence and academic failure that have come to symbolize the black male for most Americans."
Hoberman's book is a provocative look at race relations, delivered at a time when Americans seem disinclined to delve deeply into divisive issues, particularly ones that might lower the pedestal of superstars like Jordan. But Hoberman believes that a critical analysis of our sports culture is essential. In a recent interview, he told me, "there's this constant temptation, especially for whites with good intentions, to inflate the significance of black athletes because in terms of prominent African Americans, they are most of what we've got. I say this is something less to celebrate than to be very disturbed about and to try to redress."
Hoberman points out that Jackie Robinson was both a political activist and an athletic hero. Why then, wonders Hoberman in his book, are current black athletes so politically uninvolved? Why, given their huge numerical advantages -- 80% of the players in the National Basketball Association are black -- don't black athletes flex their political muscle and agitate for more black coaches, owners, and club presidents? "Arthur Ashe answered one such question by correctly asserting that `advertisers want somebody who's politically neutered,'" writes Hoberman. "That black athletes have been willing to conform to this standard is borne out by their conspicuous political quiescence."
Hoberman makes many provocative statements in his book. And the fact that he is white has made him something of a target. He has been sharply criticized by a few black academics, one of whom told Hoberman that what blacks need is "fewer white people telling us what to do." Hoberman has written about sports for some 20 years and has published three other books on sports, including one on the Olympics and the science of athletic performance. He says his new book is "not about black people. It's about race relations." Despite that fact, he says, "I think there's a lot of emotional resistance to this book because I'm white."
While much of Hoberman's book focuses on the role of blacks in modern sports, he also offers an extensive history of black athletics, including accounts of some of the earliest contests between black teams and white teams. He also includes several chapters on the history of racial biology, a discipline which attempts to explain and quantify the physiological differences between blacks and whites. Hoberman includes instructive passages about the Tuskegee airmen, the all-black aviators who were nearly prevented from flying combat missions during World War II. He says that the concept that blacks were "physiologically unsuited for military aviation" was argued on the basis that blacks carried the sickle cell trait and that "this disorder could endanger the carrier and fellow crew members under hypoxic conditions." Hoberman points out that this "biological" fact of black inferiority persisted until 1981, when the air force modified its policies.
Hoberman points out that both blacks and whites have used racial biology to argue that blacks are superior when it comes to athletics. He notes in the book that many black athletes including "O.J. Simpson, Joe Morgan, Carl Lewis and Barry Bonds have made public statements to the effect that black success in sports is due to the fact that blacks are physically superior to whites." The fact that blacks and whites accept the superiority of blacks perpetuates racism, says Hoberman.
"The reason so little is accomplished in terms of moving race relations forward in this country is that people won't acknowledge how much damage has been done by racist folklore," he said during an interview in his cramped office earlier this summer.
Despite the fact that Hoberman lives and works in Austin, his book has been virtually ignored by the local daily. That is an odd fact, given the University of Texas' inglorious history of race relations both in the classroom and the athletic field. While giving extensive coverage to the debate over the Hopwood decision and the recent bill by Rep. Ron Wilson that would require athletes to meet the same academic requirements as other students, sportswriters at the Austin American-Statesman ignored Hoberman's work. In fact, the only mention of his book in the Statesman was a negative op-ed piece written by syndicated columnist William Raspberry.
But then, perhaps it isn't surprising. The Statesman also ignored the racial underpinnings of the on-campus debate over the naming of the football stadium for Darrell K. Royal, the last football coach in America to win the national championship with an all-white team.
"Our football team would be Division III if it weren't for the black athletes," says Hoberman, who points out that the vast majority of the "skill" positions on the UT football team are occupied by blacks. Despite that fact, Hoberman says UT won't be hiring a black head football coach any time soon. "It would be very difficult to put a black man at the head of this football team" while answering to the team's mostly white constituency, says Hoberman.
The racial politics of the UT sports department -- in which largely black players are coached almost exclusively by whites -- are not unique. That system exists many places, as does the notion that whites are at a disadvantage on the playing field. In his book, Hoberman refers to this idea as the "vital black" versus the "depleted white." And that's what makes Hoberman's book so provocative. The author points out that in the decades following the Civil War and in the early parts of this century, it was the blacks who were considered "depleted" and the whites who were thought to be "vital." Now those roles have been reversed, according to Hoberman.
In Darwin's Athletes, Hoberman challenges readers to look for meaning and context beyond the latest slick advertisements for Nike and Reebok. Hoberman's work cuts through the silliness of most sports reporting and asks readers to think about the symbolism and unspoken racial issues that loom just beyond the headlines of the sports page.
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