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Review by Jim Nadell
Deep in the belly of his essay "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness," Frantz Fanon offered up a brief yet biting analysis of the role played by sport in the post-colonial nations of Africa. "The capitalist conception of sport is fundamentally different from that which should exist in an underdeveloped country," he wrote. "The African politician should not be preoccupied with turning out sportsmen, but with turning out fully conscious men, who play games as well." The production of mere sportsmen, Fanon concluded, would retard the growth of the peoples of the continent, and divert them from their most important task at handnation-building. Although an explicit reference to Fanons reflections on sport does not appear in John Hobermans Darwins Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, Hobermans book explores in depth what Fanon had only mentioned in passing.
Highly critical of the so-called black intelligentsia for its failure to recognize "the ruinous consequences of making athletic achievement the prime symbol of black creativity," Hoberman poses three questions. "Why are many African-Americans feelings about athletic achievement so intense that they amount to a fixation that almost precludes criticism of its effects? How do white-controlled institutions profit from the perpetuation of the sports fixation? Finally, how has the cult of the black athlete exacerbated the disastrous spread of anti-intellectual attitudes among African-American youth facing life in a knowledge-based society?" In each case, Hobermans answer is worth considering.
The symbol of the "black athlete" has become a dominant one in American popular culture and the media. Hoberman believes that the "black athlete" reinforces a racist mythology established over the course of the past 500 years. In its bare bones, this mythology has two simple parts. The idea of black athletic superiority finds itself counterpoised against the idea of white athletic inferiority. Concomitantly, the parallel idea of black intellectual inferiority finds itself counterpoised to the idea of white intellectual superiority. The tug of war between the naturally gifted black body and the equally natural, equally gifted white mind has been played and replayed by numerous Western intellectuals, including the naturalist Louis Agassiz, the anatomist Georges Cuvier, the neurosurgeon Paul Broca, and Charles Darwin. More recently, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (The Bell Curve), and Dinesh DSouza (The End of Racism) have reinforced the theory of black intellectual inferiority and, by implication, the superiority of black physicality and athleticism. Clearly, the legacy of scientific and cultural racism lives on.
The dominance of the superstar black athlete, such as the Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan, also reinforces the myth of white superiority in the realm of non-physical endeavor. According to Hoberman, whites have become convinced that the playing field, rather than the intellectual or managerial fields, is where the physical talents of black folk have led them. In turn, blacks have become fixated on their achievements in sports, a fixation that helps to maintain "African-Americans in a premodern condition which is promoted by the same college and professional sports industries that many blacks regard as places of opportunity." Today, so many blacks derive a form of group pride from the accomplishments of the superstar black athlete that black athleticism is now "embraced as a foundation of black identity."
This same fixation, Hoberman argues, has produced an anti-intellectual orientation in the black communityone that has severely retarded the social progress of the race in general. In Hobermans view, moreover, the rise of respect for the gangster rapper and the rejection of academic pursuits among many black youth is an outgrowth of the athletic fixation. Critical of black commentators such as Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, the professor of communications Michael Eric Dyson, and the author Nelson George for their failure to "resist black Americas profound attachment to athletic achievement," Hoberman warns that the black youth of today have been poorly prepared to enter the complex, technologically sophisticated global economy, and therefore have been condemned to live in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage that their sports fixation only perpetuates.
For its part, Hoberman believes that white America lives with a false sense of black progress and interracial harmony that, at least in part, has been cultivated by the largely atypical gains enjoyed by a few of the exceptional black athletes. But the social progress of blacks as a group bears little if any relationship to the apparent integration theyve achieved on the playing field. The rise of Michael Jordan and other black athletes to the iconic status of Superstar has taken place against a backdrop of insidious racism and active white opposition to the social advancement of blacks more generally. Many white Americans have learned compartmentalization, the mental trick by which they can embrace the accomplishments of a few black athletes, while they remain hostile to the economic and political aspirations of blacks as a whole. The illusory sense of racial harmony on countless playing fields across America masks the true depth of the racial conflict that survives in one and the same society. In this sense, the material gains of a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods impede the process of social change. For every black Superstar, there are thousands of blacks behind bars.
Hoberman believes that black athletes serve yet another establishment function. Namely, they are part of an escapist national entertainment complex that distracts the American masses from delving into questions of racial and political injustice. The success of the elite black athletes on one level of society have helped to perpetuate the grotesque failures that exist on many others. Beyond this, several elite black athletes serve as highly-paid marketing tools for U.S.-based transnational corporations. Nikes use of both Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods is the perfect example. Nike (and scores of other transnationals just like it) manufactures its athletic wear under neo-slave conditions in the developing countries of the Third World. Nikes workers toil for upwards of 70 hours a week, they enjoy no collective bargaining rights, and they receive below-subsistence wages. But when he was questioned about the plight of foreign workers in the factories that Nike employs to manufacture its apparel, Michael Jordan had nothing more to say than "I do my job. Let Nike do its job."
Perhaps the major flaw in Darwins Athletes lies in what Hoberman, in his introduction, calls the "identity problems of black Americans." Here, Hobermans thesis is that a majority of black Americans suffer from a form of self-hate (their identity problem, that is) because they have internalized the perspective of the dominant culture, which is white-supremacist through and through. But his argument is problematic. As other researchers into the subject of identity-development have pointed out, ones racial self-concept is but one of the variables that enter into the formation of ones global self-concept. Thus, it is quite possible for an individual to have internalized a sense of ambivalence toward his or her own racial group, while maintaining a positive sense of self overall. Howard Ramseur for one (Psychologically Healthy Black Adults, 1991) reports that African-Americans are not passive receptacles, waiting to be filled with a white-supremacist ideology. The African-American family, community, and other cultural reference points can and do filter out the negative ideas and images that originate within the white-supremacist setting. When exposed to a sufficient number of positive ideas and images associated with blackness, African Americans are able to develop broadly positive racial and global self-concepts. Hobermans argument that blacks invest a disproportionate energy in the accomplishments of black athletes because they seek to compensate for their damaged sense of self-worth is an oversimplification of the complex phenomenon of black identity development.
Another problem with Hobermans analysis of the sports-fixation is the extent to which he neglects the structural factors that have played so great a role in damaging the everyday lives of black Americans. What about the de-industrialization of urban America since World War II? What about the gutting of social programs, a process accelerated by the Clinton White House? What about the resurgence of anti-minority racism? The long-term underfunding of public school systems? The War on Drugs criminalization of millions of black youths? And the explosion of their rates of incarceration? Hoberman preserves a studied silence on questions of this nature. He attaches too much weight to the sports-fixation and the anti-intellectual trends in black America.
"Sport should not be a pastime or a distraction for the bourgeoisie of the towns," Fanon wrapped up his reflections on the place of sport on the African continent. "We ought not to cultivate the exceptional or to seek for a hero, who is another form of leader. We ought to uplift the people; we must develop their brains, fill them with ideas, change them and make them into human beings."
Whatever its shortcomings, the questions that Hoberman raises about the racist orthodoxy which surrounds black athletic accomplishment are long overdue. Given the considerable setbacks suffered by the Left in this country over the past two decades, they are questions waiting for an answer.
Jim Nadell is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Miami area. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Black Music: Profiles in National Culture. (Winston Derek Publishers.)