Is it a racist assumption to say blacks have certain physical superiorities over whites that enable them to be dominant in certain sports?
The people who believe so tend to condemn particular aspects of last week's NBC documentary, "Black Athletes - Fact and Fiction."I again applaud the thrust of the program because I agree with Arthur Ashe, who said, "My heart tells me blacks are not superior physically, but my head says otherwise."
Ashe was interviewed in the documentary and was also a panelist on the live discussion afterward, but did not get to say much at that time.
"It comes down to two fears of American blacks," Ashe said by phone Thursday. "One, if we say the black genetic pool is superior, there is fear it means we are all brawn and no brains. And two is the fear that having said that, it will lessen the appreciation of the hard work that goes into blacks' achievement in sports.
"I think those fears could be dispelled if the issue were studied more. I'm curious about scientific experiments measuring certain differences, because I'd like to know. I don't think that a sociologist like Harry Edwards or the vast experience of (Stanford track Coach) Brooks Johnson is enough to refute what scientists seem to say."
On the other hand, the findings of the scientists interviewed on the show are not necessarily conclusive. That is why it would seem the way to approach the issue - to get the discussions out of the barrooms and onto a more elevated plane, as host Tom Brokaw said - would be to encourage, not discourage, scientific study about whether black dominance in certain sports traces to a superior black genetic pool. Study and publicize as well cultural and social conditions that block black access to the power structure.
The answer for those who labeled the experiments "pseudo-scientific prattle" would be to encourage experiments to refute the findings. Knock them down the same way physicists are running their own experiments to try to refute the claims out of the University of Utah about a new kind of nuclear fusion.
Jon Entine, the producer who had major input with Brokaw on the report, is most offended by the criticism that the documentary did not take into account the social and cultural factors inherent in black youths' concentration in sports.
He said, "We did do that with the Philadelphia high school basketball player, with the reports out of Kenya which show how much the national attitude there encourages running."
Entine, 37, a one-time unsuccessful placekicker at Trinity University in Connecticut said, "We didn't come out and say that physical characteristics were the definitive answer. We cited cultural and social factors and we pointed out the hard work by blacks, but to deny the genetic factor is being blind to the facts. As (anthropologist) Robert Malina said, the gene factor might be the slight difference between a gold and a silver medal for a black over a white."
He lamented that the issue is so touchy that several others who did experiments with similar findings about superior performance by black youths to whites were reluctant to appear on the show or run their experiments in conjunction with NBC for fear of being labeled racist. And he added that in going through the scientific literature he found no reports or experiments that say there is no physiological differences between blacks and whites.
Entine acknowledged the many instances where people equated black physical superiority with intellectual inferiority. "We certainly didn't say that," he said.
A Newsday reader, Len Bernstein of Westbury, N.Y., wrote, "Why the objections? It would be just as easy to say that because the blacks are superior physically, they are also superior intellectually."
And it may be of interest to point to an aspect of male-female relationships. Many 19th-century thinkers claimed women might be superior morally, but not in conducting worldly affairs. Once women showed they could equal men in worldly pursuits, some feminists proclaimed what writer Jacques Barzun called "The Natural Superiority of Women."
Fears about Brokaw reinforcing stereotypes are justified. One yahoo editor of a pro football weekly wrote to Brokaw, taking him to task for not noting that "black athletes lack discipline; are more likely to get into trouble; are not as smart players as whites; and that black quarterback Doug Williams' Super Bowl success was a fluke."
Entine responded that "whenever you do a documentary on a sensitive subject like this you will bring the kooks out of the woodwork. That's unfortunate, but it is the price any journalist has to pay."
Harry Edwards dominated the live critique of the report, so it was a surprise when he said at the end that he approved of the effort.
Ashe said, "I think Harry was saying the experiments were valid, but that the conclusions are not."
Edwards made a telling point when he noted that the mixed heritage of American blacks makes it difficult to choose any group of blacks as a pure sample for any experiment.
Ashe agrees. "Being black in America is more of a social difference than a racial one," he said. "That is part of the reason the issue isn't an open-and-shut case for me either way."