I used to play basketball in Bavaria with a man born in the Ivory Coast. He had been adopted at the age of four by a white middle-class couple in Munich, both doctors. We fell in with each other naturally as a matter of class—we spoke the same kind of German (hoch) among other things, unlike the Croats, Slavs, Americans, Argentinians and small-town Bavarians who made up the rest of the squad. His schooldays were crazy, he said, on account of his mixed background. He used to get beaten up all the time for being black, except at basketball, where the colour of his skin was hip, and classmates clamoured to play on his team. The part sport played in integrating his school was both concrete and of questionable value.

John Hoberman takes up that question on a number of levels. His book, Darwin’s Athletes, is subtitled: ‘How sport has damaged black America and preserved the myth of race’. There is nothing new about the claim of course, just as the opposite assertions are equally familiar. Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball in 1946–47, and is generally held up as a pioneer of racial equality, especially by the African–American athletes who followed him to riches. Nearly thirty years later, Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth’s career mark for home runs. His memoir, I Had A Hammer, records the racial threats that plagued his joyless quest to eclipse the great white Yankee, and describes the moment he knocked the record-breaking ball out of the park and trotted round the bases. A white fan leaped from the stands as he rounded second—to congratulate him as it turned out, though Aaron’s flinch was visible, his shoulder hunched against an assault—and he didn’t look round again as he came home. Since then in almost every American sport, including golf and tennis, black athletes have become marketable cultural figures: Tiger Woods is now worth $330 million, Michael Jordan $500 million. Black success, the argument goes, has been accepted in the ballpark at least.

Hoberman, who is white, contends that African–Americans’ investment in athletic achievement has ‘amount[ed] to a fixation that almost precludes criticism of its effects’, and that the ‘cult of the black athlete’ has ‘exacerbated the disastrous spread of anti-intellectual attitudes among African–American youth facing life in a knowledge-based society.’ He writes: ‘While it is assumed that sport has made an important contribution to racial integration, this has been counterbalanced by the merger of the athlete, the gangster rapper, and the criminal into a single black male persona that the sports industry, the music industry, and the advertising industry have made into the predominant image of black masculinity in the United States and around the world.’ He calls his book ‘a place to begin’ any discussion of this development, rather than a solution to it. His aims are mainly historical rather than scientific. They are threefold: to explore ‘the origins of the African-American preoccupation with athletic achievement’, which ‘has subverted more productive developmental strategies founded on academic and professional’ success; to examine the ‘past century of sport as an arena of racial competition’, in which ‘the ascendancy of the black athlete and the growing belief in his biological superiority’ have reversed the historical roles of Western and African encounters and contributed to a ‘more comprehensive racial folklore’; and finally, to open the door for a ‘postliberal’ investigation into ‘biomedical racial difference’.

Hoberman argues that ‘traumatic aspects of the African–American experience have prompted black people to regard athletic proficiency as a comprehensive representation of all proficiencies, including intellectual skills.’ Part of the bleakness of the book lies in its occasional suggestions that his account might have taken a different course. ‘The special preoccupation with athletics that characterizes African–American life today did not exist a century ago.’ Around the turn of the last century, the black mathematician Kelly Miller ‘found it necessary to refute the widespread idea that the black race was physically deteriorating’; and W. E. B. Du Bois lamented ‘the poor physical fitness of Negro youth’ in 1897. Du Bois also deplored Booker T. Washington’s advocacy of an ‘industrial education’ for African–Americans over more independent disciplines: ‘There is among educated and thoughtful coloured men in all parts of the land a feeling of deep regret, sorrow, and apprehension at the wide currency and ascendance which some of Mr. Washington’s theories have gained.’ Three decades later a black professor from Virginia, Arthur Davis complained in the naacp’s magazine The Crisis, of the ‘shibboleth of practicality’ that ‘circumscribed’ the mind of the Negro student, and denounced ‘the “pragmatic” field of educational pyschology’ as a ‘pseudo-discipline’ as ‘pernicious as the old “trade-school” conception of Negro education’. Hoberman quotes Ralph Ellison’s belief that ‘the pre-individualistic black community discourages individuality out of self-defence. Having learned through experience that the whole group is punished for the actions of the single member, it has worked out efficient techniques of behaviour control.’ And he cites the ethnologist Carl Husemoller Nightingale’s claim that ‘experts on inner-city family life have sometimes been tempted to understate the importance of corporal punishment in poor African–American families, often for understandable reasons.’ In response to the continuing exclusion of African–Americans from other realms of achievement, black intellectuals have emphasized the physical creativity and originality of the athletes. As Joe Louis once said, ‘I do all my talking with my two fists’.

Hoberman’s synthetic account argues that conflicting historical versions of black physicality belong to a single phenomenon in its various mutations, rather than to opposing sides of an ongoing argument being won by increasing egalitarianism. He traces these contradictory responses back to the first colonial encounters with African men who were alternately seen as weak, strong; primitive, unnaturally developed; cowardly, fearless; cunning, stupid. There is an old joke about what to call a white man surrounded by five blacks—Coach. The point is obvious: racist institutions find new and often subtler means of perpetuating their racist distinctions. Once black athletes had been admitted to the playing field, their equality was denied in other ways. Isiah Thomas, a black point guard for the Detroit Pistons, complained that the success of the white Larry Bird was used to perpetuate black stereotypes:

When Bird makes a great play, it’s due to his thinking, and his work habits. It’s all planned out by him. It’s not the case for blacks. All we do is run and jump. We never practise or give a thought to how we play. It’s like I came dribbling out of my mother’s womb.

Similar prejudices, or rather their corollaries—that the ‘natural’ athleticism of blacks compensates for their intellectual inferiority, a notion inherited from colonial estimations of African character and discipline—have kept black sportsmen out of athletic leadership roles: the quarterback position in American football, the midfield in soccer.