Race Tracks

Jon Entine likes to think of himself as an archetypal white liberal baby boomer.

Entine, 48, dropped out of college in 1972 to work for George McGovern, and says he's voted for only one Republican political candidate in his life.

When Entine, a former producer for NBC and ABC News, began work on his explosive new book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, he expected plenty of skepticism from the African-American community. After all, sociologists have long attempted to use science to propagate racist notions about black inferiority. Although he was confident that his agenda was not racist, Entine knew that even attempting to link genetics and athletics was treading on dangerous ground.

But Entine has been stunned to find that his most vehement opposition has come from white liberals.

"Whites basically are condescending and patronizing, and white liberals are the worst," Entine says from his home in Southern California. "They've reacted in this kind of knee-jerk way. I think in a hidden racist way, white liberals assume that blacks are going to be offended talking about race and human differences," Entine says.

With Taboo, Entine has dared to openly explore an issue that is generally relegated to whispers by the water cooler and armchair-quarterback exchanges around the TV set: Why are blacks so dominant in particular sports? The standard, politically correct explanation is that blacks have simply been hungrier for success because they've had to overcome economic desperation, and sports has been one of the few avenues accessible to them in this society.

But Entine persuasively argues that the statistics are too overwhelming to be explained this easily. How can economic need explain why 494 of the top 500 times in the 100-meter dash are from runners of West African ancestry? Or that nearly half of the top times in middle- and long-distance running have come from East African runners? He also debunks the economic argument by pointing out that many of America's most successful black athletes actually came from comfortable middle-class environments.

Instead, Entine suggests that a combination of biology and environment have created evolutionary differences for various cultures. He says that black Americans -- most of whom can trace their origins to West Africa -- are naturally imbued with body types high in bone density and possess muscle fibers that help to generate great speed and leaping ability. On the other hand, East Africans -- who are generally hopeless in sprint events -- have grown up in mountainous environments and developed the thin, long-legged frames of classic distance runners. He adds that whites tend to have more upper-body strength and excel in sports where that is a prerequisite.

"There will never be a huge number of Asian jumpers or sprinters; they just don't have the body type for it," he says. "There will never be a huge number of black body builders, because they don't have the body types for it."

Although the book has generated some high-profile interest -- including positive notices in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and a discussion on Chris Matthews' MSNBC show Hardball -- what's striking is the degree to which it's been ignored, considering how central the intersection of race and sports is to contemporary America, and how painstaking Entine's research is. Entine says ESPN has generally refused to acknowledge the book and that the New York Times backed away after initially offering him a chance to write a related article about athletic hot spots around the world. He adds that many sports writers and radio programmers privately have told him they liked the book but have considered its topic too potentially inflammatory to touch. ESPN and the New York Times did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

This week, Entine comes to the Valley to lecture students of Arizona State University biological anthropology professor Joe Graves and to promote Taboo on local talk radio. In recent months, Phoenix has emerged as a particularly supportive market for his book. Local sports promoter Chris Visser has worked to publicize the book, KDUS-AM 1060 sports talk host Jeff Kennedy has invited Entine on the air for three well-received interviews, and former Phoenix radio host John Cannon was enlisted by Visser to help line up radio interviews for Entine. Cannon spent much of the summer working to generate a national buzz for Taboo and says he was surprised by the roadblocks he encountered.

"Chris and I thought this was a slam dunk," says Cannon, who relocated from Phoenix to his native San Francisco two months ago. "It seemed so clear that this was a great topic and a great guest. But I started making phone calls and would not get calls back. Or I'd get producers who wanted to do it but hosts who would resist. I'd get people who just wouldn't get it.

"People make a judgment without having read it, and this is a book you have to read to understand what it's really all about. It's really heady stuff. It's complicated at times, it's not easy reading, but it's not inflammatory. It's science-based."

Entine is quick to acknowledge that the book "hasn't caught on," selling a fairly modest 18,000 copies. Cannon suggests that the book's title, while consistent with Entine's theme, might have been a mistake, because it's scared people away unnecessarily.

Although the book has received considerable praise from the black community -- and the book's foreword was written by Earl Smith, an African-American professor at Wake Forest University -- for some African-Americans, even exploring this topic is like opening up an old wound. They view the issue as a white obsession and argue that there is nothing to be gained from biological research. Entine long had a hard time accepting this viewpoint, but he says he understands it better now.

"When I went to Kenya to do research for the book, I went into the mountain areas, and I was there for quite a while with Kenyan athletes," he says. "And I was the only white there. And I was amazed at how I felt my whiteness there. It gave me just the slightest inkling of what it's like to be a black in the United States, where at every moment you're defined by your blackness.

"I asked one of the Kenyans, 'Do you think of me as a white person?' and they said, 'Of course.' And I asked, 'Do you think of yourself as a black person?' And they looked at me as if I was crazy, and said, 'No, I think of myself as a person.' And that's the difference between the way whites and blacks think of themselves in this country. Blacks are constantly defined by their race. So if I was a black person, I'd probably be hypersensitive to these issues."