Why Are We Afraid Of Racial Differences

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A recent book, boldly written by Jon Entine (2000) submits a theory for the evolution of physical superiority in African and African ancestry athletes. The book title is aptly named, Taboo!

Entine claims that it has long been known that there are physiological differences between certain populations of people from the West African coast, North Africa, and East Africa and people of European descent that provide the former with a competitive edge in sprint and endurance exercises. The physiological factors that might confer the competitive edge in African athletes include: lower % body fat, higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers, greater capillary-to-muscle fiber ratio, and greater endurance due to lower plasma lactic acid and higher muscle oxidative capacity.

What We Need to Know

  1. Explain the following terms: % body fat, fast twitch muscle fibers, capillary-to-muscle ratio, lactic acid, oxidative capacity.
  2. How could each of these factors lead to a competitive edge in sprinting and endurance?
  3. Can any of these factors be improved by training?

Stereotypes such as "dumb jock" have been very damaging to athletes for many reasons. Likewise, such stereotypes have led people to talk about "natural talent" in athletes of African ancestry. These types of ideas have been used for exploitation also. Stereotypes are simply not useful for a diverse society such as in the United States. Therefore, researchers have to think twice before embarking on research that will lead to public misconceptions! Researchers do not welcome the day when entire human genome sequences can be placed on a microchip and read out by machines as simple as the bar code on ATM cards located in every Seven-Eleven convenience store.

The flip side of this coin, however, is that looking at racial differences with completely open minds could lead to useful information for treatment of diseases. It could be that recognizing differences would lead to different styles of training for white and black athletes, which may led to better performance for ANY athlete--white, black, Asian, or female.

What We Need to Know

  1. Where do you think the notion of the "dumb jock" came from? Is there any scientific evidence to support the stereotype? What is it?
  2. Where do you suppose the notion of the "natural talent" came from? Is there any scientific evidence to support the idea? What is it?
  3. What things might play into our inability to examine differences-whether it be racial, gender, or socioeconomic-in the United States?
  4. Would anything be gained if we were more open-minded about what science can actually "prove" in its methods?

Such topics in scientific inquiry have been off-limits to speculation since the "measuring the cranial cavity" experiment of the 1800's. Race has become such a politically charged issue that scientists have left the subject matter almost alone!

What We Need to Know

  1. What has been at the heart of why scientists are reluctant to examine racial differences?
  2. What is the history of African American athletes in the United States to make the subject such a sore spot with those involved in athletics?
  3. Review what happened after the cranial cavity research on a sociological


Write a paper supporting research into one of the following difficult topics: are there differences between male and female athletes, are there differences between Japanese and Yugoslavian gymnasts, or are rich people smarter than poor people? (HINT: You may also make up your own difficult topic to explore.)

Most medical research is performed on males only. Write a discussion why this may be a problem for females who also get diseases and take medicine.


DiPietro, Loretta. 2000. Tackling race and sports. A review of Taboo, by Jon Entine. Scientific American. May, pp. 112-113.

Entine, Jon. 2000. Taboo. Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. Public Affairs, New York.