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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Unnatural Selection Racial Mythology on the Field of American Sport BY ROBERT BRYCE DARWIN’S ATHLETES: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. By John Hoberman. Houghton Mifflin. 319 pages. $24.95. Kt. evin Little is an athletic oddity. The 29-yearold sprinter garnered a great deal of media inerest in March, when he won the World Indoor Championships in the 200-meter sprint. In the wake of his victory, the reporters weren’t much interested in Little’s time even though it tied the American record of 20.40 seconds. They were interested in Little’s color. Little had become the first white American to win a major sprint title since 1956. Little’s victory was considered historic because it undermines the popular notion that on the athletic field, blacks are superior to whites. His win came just a few weeks before black golfer Tiger Woods won the Masters and baseball celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough integration of the major leagues. Americans are embracing black athletes like never before. Woods and Michael Jordan have become self-contained multinational corporate marketing juggernauts. But is their success and the success of other black athletes relegating other, non-athletic blacks, to the back of the bus? John Hoberman thinks so. In Darwin’s Athletes, Hoberman, a professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas, contends “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 symbol John Hoberman U.T.Austin ize the black male for most Americans.” Hoberman’s book is a provocative look at race relations, published at a moment when Americans seem disinclined to confront racially divisive issuesparticularly ones that might lower the pedestals of black superstars like basketball’s Michael Jordan. But Hoberman believes our sports culture requires a critical analysis, particularly in regard to race. In his judgment, “there’s this constant temptationespecially for whites with good intentionsto 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 generally so politically passive? Given their huge numerical advantages on the playing fields-80 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association, for example, are blackwhy don’t black athletes flex their political muscle and agitate for more black coaches, owners, and club presidents, or indeed for improved social conditions generally for African Americans? “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’s provocative analysis, and his own white skin, have made him something of a target for other social critics. He has been sharply criticized by a few black scholars, one of whom told him that what blacks need is “fewer white people telling us what to do.” Renowned black sport sociologist Harry Edwards reportedly described the book as “Hoberman’s hoax.” Yet Hoberman has written about sports for some twenty years, and has published three other books on sports, including one on the Olympics and another on 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.” Much of Darwin’s Athletes focuses on the role of blacks in contemporary sports, but it also includes an extensive history of black sports in America, including accounts of some of the earliest contests between black teams and white teams. Several chapters address the history of “racial biology”: the usually pseudo-scientific attempt to explain and quantify the physiological differences between black people and white people. A notorious instance is that of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black group of aviators who were nearly prevented from flying combat missions during World War II. Blacks were judged to be “physiologically unsuited for military aviation,” because it was said they might carry the genetic trait of sickle-cell anemia, 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 26, 1997