Blacks, Sports and Lingering Racial Stereotypes: A Q&A with Sports Sociologist Ben Carrington
Why do people commonly assume African Americans dominate professional sports? How did golfer Tiger Woods and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams become pioneers in sports history? These are some of the questions cultural sociologist Ben Carrington grapples with in his new book “Race, Sport and Politics” (Sage, Sept. 2010).
Carrington, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin, presents a postcolonial overview of sport’s role in enforcing racial stereotypes, particularly about black athletes. Using past and present sports icons like boxers Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson as examples, Carrington argues that ideas of white intellectual supremacy and black degeneracy still remain deeply embedded in sports culture.
What is the major theme of your book?
I argue that the sociology of sport needs to go beyond some of the traditional ways of thinking about race and sport. Once you understand sport’s historical and contemporary role in shaping racial discourse, you not only see how race impacts sport, but also how sport itself changes ideas about races and racial identity in society as a whole.
How did the world of sports alter perceptions of race during the 20th century?
At the beginning of the 20th century, whites were considered to be superior to blacks, intellectually, aesthetically and even physically. By the 1930s, this logic begins to shift as blacks are viewed as potentially physically superior to whites in matters related to sports. Jack Johnson played a pivotal role in challenging these ideas of white supremacy when he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world, which is supposed to be the epitome of superior physical strength.
What role do you believe does politics play in sports?
Some people argue that sports work like a distorting mirror. It has an ideological effect that makes us believe we’re all happily a part of the same world. In the World Cup, one of the FIFA advertisements stated, ‘this is not about politics, war, religion or economics. It’s about football.’ That makes us feel like we’re all human beings that love the same sport. But in truth it’s all about politics when you see politicians in the stands promoting their countries and wearing their national colors. On one hand it’s an apolitical platform for games and entertainment, but on the other hand sport is deeply infused with political ideology.
Your book argues that the media continues to perpetuate fears of the black male athlete. Could you point out a recent example of this?
The April, 2008 cover of Vogue generated some controversy over how NBA star LeBron James is depicted with supermodel Gisele Bundchen. In the picture, LeBron has striking similarities to the classic ‘King Kong’ image carrying off Fay Wray, a racially loaded simian metaphor that draws upon white fears about black male hypersexuality and violence. The magazine cover metonymically plays with these deeply racist symbols in using one of the world’s most famous black men to portray a ferocious gorilla carrying off a white woman.
Looking back at the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, could you give me an example of racial bias among the sports media?
When the United States played Ghana in the World Cup, the Ghanaians were often described as both ‘athletic’ and ‘unpredictable.’ That notion implies they’re emotionally unstable, and that even they don’t know what they’re going to do next. But at the same time, they are somehow endowed with extraordinary physical strength and ability, as if the other players at the World Cup are somehow ‘unathletic.’ Their culture is attributed as unstable, so these racial attitudes, which are not just about Ghana but ultimately about all black people, are reproduced in sports. It’s what sociologists refer to as ‘racism without racists.’ Nobody aside from extremists admits to being racist anymore, but we often use ways of seeing the world that rely upon racial frameworks that end up producing racist effects and outcomes. This is what I refer to in the book, drawing on the work of the sociologist Joe Feagin, as the ‘white colonial frame.’ There are no objectively existing ‘races,’ only ways in which we see race, and sport plays a very important role in the production and reproduction of these ideas about race and racial difference.
You argue that black athletes are commonly seen as physically gifted and intellectually stunted. What do you mean by this?
You see this in the way that many people believe that black athletes are ‘naturally’ gifted for sports, implying that their success comes from within, that it is rooted in their biology. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there is a split between the physical and the intellectual. Just as we might admire an animal’s spectacular physicality, we don’t therefore assume that animals have our cognitive capabilities. So the praising of black athleticism often serves to reinforce notions of black intellectual inferiority.
How do you believe these stereotypes are perpetuated in the sports media?
White sports commentators and journalists used to be very explicit in comparing black athletes to monkeys and gorillas and cheetahs. Today they are more circumspect and instead tend to over-emphasize black players physical attributes – power, speed, strength and so on – and conversely tend to highlight the ‘intelligence’ and ability to ‘read the game’ of white athletes, who supposedly lack the ‘natural advantage’ of their black peers but can make up for it by their better play-making abilities. You often see this in how white basketball and football players are described, especially quarterbacks.
I would also add that college sports help to perpetuate these myths, especially given how committed big-time college sports programs are to winning conference and national titles using the labor of predominately black ‘student-athletes.’ At the same time, they demonstrate a lack of concern with actually graduating these students, most of whom will not go on to become professional athletes. Thus, these issues are really systemic, running through professional sports to the college level and even into high schools where we see similar patterns.
What kind of reaction do you hope to get from your fellow sociologists after your book is released in September?
The book challenges mainstream sociologists to take sport more seriously than they have done up until now and takes sociologists of sport to task too for not engaging critically enough with questions of race, so I’m hoping there will be a reaction of some kind. Better to be discussed and debated than ignored is my motto right now.