Prior to the 2012 Olympics in London, former U.S. champion of the games, Michael Johnson, shared his thoughts with the Daily Mail, predicting the highest honours for African-American and Caribbean athletes.
Johnson was bold, confident in a justification founded in what we can only describe as his own indisputable truth, for he believed that diasporic blacks owe their athletic excellence to slavery.
The former sprinter said: “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.”
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For Johnson, although it is difficult to accept “slavery has benefited descendants like me”, he is thankful for what he considers a “superior athletic gene”.
As anyone could have comfortably predicted in this fast-paced, social media world of outrages waiting to happen, Johnson raised a furore. The bashing was unforgiving, with many calling him uneducated.
Yet, Johnson himself was only parroting an old theory – a gist of which he probably heard and never took the time to challenge. It is quite probable that he may have even heard it from another black person.
Johnson’s belief is actually very popular and goes like this: The reason black people (at least in the US) are stronger than white people is that blacks are naturally gifted with strength. So slaveowners, by virtue of controlling breeding among their properties, raised stronger black people than weaker ones.
This thinking appeals to the knowledge that descendants of slaves in the United States are the results of social engineering. Although that is not entirely false, it is another thing maintaining that “superior strength” is a natural characteristic of black people.
Views like Johnson’s play into a larger pool of logically deficient and evidence-lacking narrative. It is a pseudoscientific sentiment as old as the intellectual conception of race.
The “strong negro man” was invented to justify the exploitation of the humanity of the African people. Racism was invented to justify the slave trade and not the other way round, we often forget.
The champions of European enlightenment had to defend the evils of slavery, one way or the other.
And so we saw such 18th-century inventions as Carl Linnaeus‘ “European” described as “gentle, acute, inventive”. But the “African” was “crafty, lazy, careless”.
As if by some preordained Pareto efficiency, these Europeans thought it was impossible for the “negro African” to be strong and smart; the stronger, the stupider (We may also trace to this period the idea that the more beautiful a woman, the dumber she is).
It was only in the white man did humanity have its epitome of excellence. When the white man needed physical labour, he enslaved the black.
But what we understand from modern science is that physical capabilities are shaped both by environmental and biological factors and these are even variables susceptible to change.
There is no such thing, as far as evidence is concerned, like Johnson’s “superior athletic gene”. You may inherit your metabolic capacity and height but not your ability to dash across the basketball court while shoving everyone else off on your way to a mighty dunk.
Kenyans and Ethiopians are not born with the ability to run marathons and neither are Jamaicans naturally gifted with capacity to run 100 metres under 10 seconds.
So why does the lie persist, even gathering apologists among black people? Why do many Africans and people of African descent believe we are better at sports because we are superior to white people in terms of physical capabilities?
In Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, John Hoberman argues that the problem is a matter of what African-Americans and white have chosen to worship about the black person.
While the black person could be doing other less physically demanding activities, the strictures of his life in the United States confine him or her to sports.
White America, consciously or unconsciously, through its ownership of sports franchises and the media, has come to celebrate the importance of black people by the way of the black person’s usage of their bodies.
Hoberman’s fears are simply that the African-American’s relevancy has been successfully designed to come in an athlete’s attire. The black athlete is what the market demands and so the black athlete is what the market will have.
This is why about 75% of NBA players, about 65% of NFL players and a great many of America’s champions of the athletic tracks are black. This is not the making of nature.
Subsequently, what has been created is a dangerous heuristics for young black people. The frequency with which they see black NBA players makes these kids feel as if their chances of making it into the NBA are bright.
It is an over-representation that creates a false picture of social probability. For instance, a young black kid has a better chance of being a programmer than a basketball player, but how many black programmers does the kid know?
The way our brains are set up, we tend to think what is more familiar is more probable. In the end, more black kids are sacrificing to become the next LeBron James than they would the next Iddris Sandu.
Nothing is out of place or outside the loop of scientific explanations. African-Americans are not magical or miraculous creatures fulfilling the fantasies and business interests of white people.
The conclusions of this pseudoscience, when unchecked, propels the everydayness of racism.
So are African-Americans better at sports than white people? Yes, in some sports. And this has nothing to do with the “special negro”.