White men can jump

Posted on Jan 28 2014 - 7:14am by Orion Wilcox

All too often we tend to attribute personal characteristics to a person’s race. If a basketball player is not talented enough to make it to the college level, it must be because he is white. If a student is particularly gifted at math, it must be because she is Asian. If an athlete excels on the football field, it must be because he is black (and if, after a stellar performance, a player happens to talk a little too much trash on national television, maybe that is because he is black, too). But these types of generalizations are dangerous. They are also often completely incorrect.

Take, for example, the theory that individuals of African descent are naturally better jumpers. If we look at the last seven world-record holders in the high jump, we find one from Cuba, one from Sweden, two from Russia, one from China, one from Germany and one from Poland. In his book “The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America,” the geneticist Joseph L. Graves Jr. shows that, as a group, the world’s best jumpers are Eastern European power lifters.

Despite these anecdotes, surely blacks’ dominance of the game of basketball cannot be coincidental. Even if they are not the world’s highest jumpers, there must be a reason why blacks are overly represented on elite college basketball teams and in the NBA. The most probable answer is that blacks predominantly reside in urban areas, where basketball courts are ubiquitous. Compared to other sports, basketball requires little space, so it makes sense that in areas where space is scarce, municipalities will invest funds in building basketball courts instead of football fields or baseball diamonds.

If we look at the history of the game, groups that reside in inner-city urban areas are almost always overly represented. In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, Jewish athletes dominated college basketball and the professional leagues. Players like Red Auerbach, Larry Brown and Art Heyman were stars, and Jews were actually regarded for the athletic prowess. And then, as now, Jewish athletes’ success on the basketball court was attributed to something other than their environment. The New York Daily News explained that “the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and generally smart aleckness (sic).” Today, we can clearly see that these are stereotypes about Jews, but few of us would consider them to be sufficient characteristics for an elite basketball player.

Attributing a person’s success in a sport to his or her race may seem harmless, but I believe it is dangerous for three reasons. First, when we ascribe to the belief that success is the result of natural ability, we ignore the real sacrifices people have to make in order to achieve success. Maybe that basketball player earned a scholarship because he worked harder than anybody else. Maybe that Asian student who got into Harvard just studied really hard.

Second, if we can determine a person’s success based upon their race, it is a slippery slope to start determining peoples’ failures based on that same metric. If Asians are naturally good at math, maybe Arabs are naturally religious zealots. This is clearly a dangerous way of thinking.

Finally, when we assume that a person’s success or failure in life is determined by his or her race, we ignore the effects of our shared political, social and cultural institutions. Charles Darwin himself once wrote, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great be our sin.”

Orion Wilcox is a senior economics major from Bay St. Louis.

 — Orion Wilcox