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New Left Review I/181, May-June 1990


Barbara Jeanne Fields

Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America

Two years ago, a sports announcer in the United States lost his job because he enlarged indiscreetly—that is, before a television audience—upon his views about ‘racial’ differences. Asked why there are so few black coaches in basketball, Jimmy ‘the Greek’ Snyder remarked that black athletes already hold an advantage as basketball players because they have longer thighs than white athletes, their ancestors having been deliberately bred that way during slavery. ‘This goes all the way to the Civil War,’ Jimmy the Greek explained, ‘when during the slave trading. . .the owner, the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so he could have a big black kid, you see.’ Astonishing though it may seem, Snyder intended his remark as a compliment to black athletes. If black men became coaches, he said, there would be nothing left for white men to do in basketball at all. Embarrassed by such rank and open expression of racism in the most ignorant form, the network fired Jimmy the Greek from his job. Any fool, the network must have decided, should know that such things may be spoken in the privacy of the locker-room in an all-white club, but not into a microphone and before a camera. Of course, Jimmy the Greek lays no claim to being educated or well informed. Before he was hired to keep audiences entertained during the slack moments of televised sports events, he was famous as a bookie. He claims expert knowledge about odds and point spreads, not about history, biology or human genetics. But those claiming to be educated—and employed on that basis—have proved to be just as superstitious as Jimmy the Greek. Belief in the biological reality of race outranks even astrology, the superstition closest to it in the competition for dupes among the ostensibly educated. Richard Cohen, the house liberal of the Washington Post, wrote a column defending the underlying assumption of Jimmy the Greek’s remark, if not its specific content. According to Cohen, Jimmy the Greek was wrong for overestimating what can be accomplished by the deliberate breeding of human beings, not for believing in physical race. ‘Back in my college days,’ Cohen began, ‘I dabbled in anthropology. In physical anthropology we had to do something called “racing and sexing” of skulls. That entailed looking at a skull and determining whether it was once a man or a woman—and which race.’ The circular logic of first defining certain characteristics as ‘racial’, then offering differences in those same characteristics as proof that the ‘races’ differ, did not trouble him, even in retrospect. In matters of virtually religious faith, logic carries no weight. Cohen capped that shameful display with a tag that ought to have warned him of the intellectual quagmire into which he had strayed: ‘Yes, Virginia, the races are physically different.’ [1] Richard Coven, ‘The Greek’s Offense’, Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 25–31 January 1988.

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Barbara Jeanne Fields, ‘Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America’, NLR I/181: £3
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