by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
Dancing. Singing. Running.
These are just a few of the areas in which blacks are supposed to excel. With the Olympics in session, interest in blacks’ so-called prowess in the last of the trio above has been renewed.
Slate.com is a case in point. In the site’s “Explainer” section, the following question was posed: Why are Jamaicans So Good at Sprinting?
Slate answered the question by citing studies that found that West Africans tend to have higher numbers of muscle fibers responsible for “short, explosive bursts of action” than whites do—an advantage in running competitions. It also included this nugget of information:
“So far, there is no evidence that even extensive training can turn slow-twitch muscles into fast-twitch ones, though moving in the other direction is possible.”
In short, white folks don’t stand a chance against those of West African descent in track and field events. Even if they work hard, they can’t develop the innate skills that blacks have in the sport.
This response is problematic for all sorts of reasons. On one level, it robs track and field Olympians of West African descent of their accomplishments. It insinuates that these athletes didn’t triumph because of hard work but because they have an innate sprinting ability. Underlying this insinuation is the notion that whites are being unfairly disadvantaged. This idea—that blacks are advantaged to whites’ disadvantage—extends far beyond running.
When blacks achieve in the professional or academic world, there is the same sort of outcry. How often have you heard this argument in some form: Successful blacks would not have achieved what they had or been admitted to the university they attended without affirmative action. And that, say disgruntled whites, amounts to “reverse racism.”
Why can’t blacks simply be allowed to enjoy an achievement without having doubt cast on it, without someone protesting that they didn’t do it because of hard work or self-reliance but because they were given a hand-out, be it on the legislative front or from Mother Nature? Moreover, why are black athletes always subjected to such scrutiny? Do blacks demand to know why the best swimmers or hockey players are overwhelmingly white? Do blacks cite studies that identify a European gene that gives whites an advantage in these sports, all the while pouting that they’re being unfairly disadvantaged?
The answer, of course, is no. That’s a good thing, as the field of performance genetics is still considered suspect in the scientific community. A thoughtful Slate reader was kind enough to point this out, as well as the following, in the comments section:
“Athletic performance is determined by a complex mixture of multiple genes and many interacting environmental factors (diet, training, culture, etc.). Although genes are certainly important, ACTN3 alone is not the explanation: this gene predicts only around 2% of the variation in muscle strength and sprint performance in the general European population, and is likely just one of dozens or even hundreds of genes that contribute to athletic prowess.”
Even with these facts pointed out, I wonder how many of Slate’s readers will insist on discounting the achievements of black track and field athletes by arguing that blacks have a biological edge. Whites, you see, aren’t on a level playing field.
To be white is so unfair.
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Latoya’s Note –
The conversation over on Slate about the nature of scientific studies is beneficial in light of some past conversations about the how bias can taint a scientific study. Here are some of the more relevant comments:
Reply to: Why are Jamaicans so good at sprinting?
08/19/2008, 8:45 AM #
I find it disappointing that Slate has included this story at all. These findings merely indicate a correlation, and they say nothing about causation. We could just as likely attribute greater skill at sprinting to having dark skin rather than having active ACTN3. Or we could argue that the Jamaican diet explains these differences rather than genes (the logic is the same).
In order to establish causation, we would need to select a group of roughly equally skilled athletes who all lack this gene, genetically modify half of them so that this select subgroup subsequently had an active ACTN3 gene, and then test the two groups to see if we see any differences in their athletic performances. If we notice such a difference, then we might be able to make a causal link between these variables. Of course such research would violate a number of ethical principles; however, for the sake of argument, we would need a procedure like this in order to begin to consider the questions posed by the article. I wish the Slate author had discussed this significant weakness in her paper. Without such a discussion, too much room is left for misinterpretation of the summarized findings.
Another weakness of this article is the fact that it does not appear that any of the winning Jamaican athletes referenced underwent any testing to see if they actually have this genetic trait. So, again, we don’t know if the trait had anything to do with their success at all — remember, not all Jamaicans have this trait. And for those who managed to win without this trait, how do we explain this?
This piece really annoys me for two reasons. First, it undermines the legitimacy of the hard work that these Jamaican athletes have put in because it implies that they had an unfair advantage that non-Jamaican athletes lack. Second, it does not address the history of racism behind such research. Specifically, I have yet to see a study examining the genetic cause of why White athletes tend to dominate at water polo, swimming and diving, and other stereotypically “White” sports. There is a reason that these questions are not asked, and I think addressing this issues would be at least as (if not more) interesting as the questions posed by the present article.
In the future, I hope that Slate does a better job distinguishing between correlational designs and true experiments, as well as addressing how the biases of researchers influences not only the questions they ask, but the conclusions they draw concerning their findings.
Slate really dropped the ball on this.
Re: Reply to: Why are Jamaicans so good at sprinting?
08/19/2008, 10:20 AM #
Windorchard, I could not have said it better! The journalist behind this article exemplifies the dangerous disconnect between true science and science interpretation and reporting. The average layman will read that article and believe it to be a legitimate representation of the actual science involved — when it is not.
I also like your comment about how the biases of scientist affect the type of questions they formulate. I have been a firsthand witness to this, and can say that science becomes repulsive when its methodology is skewed by social stereotypes.
Seriously, reporters need a course in causal inference!
I think you went overboard with this
08/19/2008, 3:13 PM #
the fact that there is an history of racism behind ethnicity-based research does NOT mean that we will never be able to conduct any research, or postulate theories that will have to be proved or disproved. Your demand for totally outrageous conditions for performing research (genetically modify people …) thinly masks the fact you do not want ANY research that might find a difference between ethnic groups. BTW I am not claiming that such difference exists or was proved in this case; but I am annoyed at the attempt of muzzling any discussion of these subjects by raising the “racism” flag. At some point I believe this is self-defeating, and will contribute to more people believing in this.
as for this:
“Specifically, I have yet to see a study examining the genetic cause of why White athletes tend to dominate at water polo, swimming and diving, and other stereotypically “White” sports”
Very weak, my friend. All these sports, as has been pointed time and again, need MONEY which does not exist in poor, non-white countries, nor in poor, non-white population areas in developed countries.
Re: I think you went overboard with this
08/19/2008, 3:29 PM #
Training and traveling to international track meets is not a “money sport”? Pretty weak arguement. I’m pretty sure they have plenty of water in Jamaca to swim in.
Re: I think you went overboard with this
08/19/2008, 6:33 PM #
As I was taught to practice science (and perhaps it differs across fields), one does not “prove” anything with science; one supports hypotheses. So, science is not an objective enterprise, it is one based on aggregated studies, analyses, and opinions. If science was clear and objective, we would not be having this debate.
I was taught that one must ask why one is performing a particular study and also consider what the ramifications of your findings might be. And yes, I was taught that some studies perhaps should not be done. I suspect you would agree that there are some studies that should not be done. We merely appear to disagree on which studies fall into which category.
My concern with cross-cultural studies like the one that precipitated this discussion lies in the fundamental understanding of correlation, causation, and research methods. Unless you can actually manipulate your independent variables, it is impossible to make causal statements. Therefore, all comparisons of men and women, Blacks and Whites, or any group of people who already come to a study having already been ascribed a quality that a researcher might like to use as an independent variable is automatically confounded. This is not something that is my opinions. This is what the scientific method says.
Does this mean we ought never conduct such studies. Certainly we ought! Sometimes such studies are very useful. However, those of us who do such work (and I sometimes do such work) must be conscientious to convey to those who read our work that our findings are merely correlational, and therefore must be carefully considered.
Further, I believe that researchers have a responsibility to try (even if we are not always successful) to not do research that harms people, particularly the people we are studying. In the present era, many cross-cultural studies (though not all of them) have great potential for harm, and must be undertaken with great thoughtfulness.
(Photo Credit: Slate)