Black People Better Runners, White People Better Swimmers: Race, Science, and Athletics

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

American swimmer Michael Phelps competes in the men's medley 200 m final of the Paris' Swimming Open on June 27, 2010 in Paris. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty)

Biomechanical researchers analyzed 100 years of athletes' heights, weights and running and swimming records, and demonstrated how the placement of one's center of gravity affects one's athletic performance. No big deal, right? People got jumpy, however, when the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics published the paper: “The Evolution of Speed in Athletics: Why the Fastest Runners are Black and Swimmers are White.”

We talk with two of the scientists behind the study: Dr. Adrian Bejan of Duke University and Edward Jones, of Howard University, about why their team embarked on this project, the science enlisted in their research, and the specifics of the study’s outcomes.

We also talk with Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.com about why these sorts of studies make so many people squeamish, and whether, in a post-racial society, it makes sense to conduct studies on groups of people based on shared physical characteristics. Peterson says that this research can fuel racism. "There's a lot of ambiguity. There's a lower-level understanding from people who haven't done a lot of research, and the data can be interpreted completely different and applied completely differently than people who work in anti-racism or people who work in science would want it to be applied," she says.

What's your take? Are race-based studies inherently racist?

Guests:

Adrian Bejan, Edward Jones and Latoya Peterson

Comments [33]

Mary from USA

Gee, I always identified as white. My ancestors all appear white. But, I must be wrong...because I SINK LIKE A STONE in water. :)

Nov. 25 2014 02:59 PM
Anon from Unknown

I think it depends. I don't think you should just say 'white people are better at' and 'black people are better at' you should say 'white people tend to be better at' and 'black people tend to be better at' seeing as there have been black people who were really good at swimming and white people who were really good at running.

Sep. 30 2014 04:12 PM
John from Canada

I think black people can run faster because they have longer legs and whites can swim
better because they have longer torsos - better buoyancy.

Jun. 28 2014 06:07 PM
beachkyss from New Jersey

TRUTHFUL ANSWER:

Basically, 400 years of American blacks being bred for slavery screwed them because as a result they now have such tight and dense muscle tissue.
which is great for basketball and track, but VERY bad for ballet, swimming, volleyball, diving, archery, fencing, skiing, gymnastics etc.

White people have don't have that condensed muscle tissue. Not having that provides whites with better buoyancy, agility and balance.

At one point in history, whites and blacks generally had the same bodies. This is why black Africans are build like whites. Thin and lean and flexible. Black Americans are all brawn and brute strength.

If you don't believe me, go to youtube and watch white people swim or do gymnastics, then go watch white people play rugby.

...then go watch a football or basketball game.

Sorry if that stings, but it is true.

Nov. 04 2013 08:36 AM
beachkyss from New Jersey

TRUTHFUL ANSWER:

Basically, 400 years of American blacks being bred for slavery screwed them because as a result they now have such tight and dense muscle tissue.
which is great for basketball and track, but VERY bad for ballet, swimming, volleyball, diving, archery, fencing, skiing, gymnastics etc.

White people have don't have that condensed muscle tissue, which provides better buoyancy, agility and balance.

At one point in history, whites and blacks generally had the same bodies. This is why black Africans are build like whites. Thin and lean and flexible. Black Americans are all brawn and brute strength.

If you don't believe me, go to youtube and watch white people swim or do gymnastics, then go watch white people play rugby.

...then go watch a football or basketball game.

Sorry if that stings, but it is true.

buoyancy

Nov. 04 2013 08:32 AM
Heather

It's because during the slavery times in the US owners picked out the best and strongest slaves that can work on their plantations. So over 400 years of slave breeding it resulted in African males and female that created stronger and faster African slaves.

Sep. 30 2013 04:15 AM
Nephelle from New Jersey

The olnly reason why whites are better swimmers is because there are no pools in the hood!

May. 21 2013 10:45 PM
TJ from new jersey

i live one block from the beach in a town that has alot of black people. i see joggers, runners and swimmers every day, so i can say from 35 years of experience that black can run faster MOST of the time, but whites can swim better ALL the time. trust me.

Sep. 22 2012 09:59 PM
Nick from London

It will be a long time before we can openly talk about such facts without attributing any racial prejudice to such things even by those who study such things.We can all see that black people are obviously better at track and field and white people at swimming.Very fascinating from a scientific point of view of why these differences exist.Long time before people just see it this way I fear those who react at such statements obviously not very mature yet and I wonder what they fear,they must be inner racists.

Aug. 06 2012 06:25 AM

Obviously sports are best done by those most physically and mentally capable of performing. Those factors are controlled by genetics and since we do have several races that are physically different from each other, it stands to reason that there is going to be a prevalence of beneficial genetic factors within each race. None of that means we won't find people who excel in a particular sport coming from any race, because we will, but it is likely that certain races are more likely to produce people with the genetic advantages for a certain sport than other races are to produce those folks.

On the other hand, we still have the issues of opportunity, which are far more based on socio-economic factors which also, unfortunately, appear to have race based advantages and disadvantages, part of which may also be genetic for the same reasons.

Jul. 31 2012 09:23 AM
Daniel from Uk

I am British but I grew up on army camps in the far east and India. The schools I went consisted of mainly British, American, French and Africans but there was kids from all over the world and of all races. As a army brat we did a lot of running, swimming and sports. There was never any noticeable difference between races or cultures in anything we did except swimming. It was commonly accepted that whites were much better swimmers. It did nt matter if they was from Uk, Us or European. The White kids even the small weak ones would always beat the black kids and asians. I was a very good swimmer and 6 foot by 13 but my best friend who was a black American as big as me and just as fit would really struggle with swimming. I can honestly say there was a real difference in race with swimming no matter size and strength White kids would finish first then the asians then the blacks. I dont know if is true but I was told it was due to bone density and that White people had more air in there bones.

Jul. 03 2012 02:18 PM
momo from KFC

what a bunch of pussies, seriously!
crying over a question in fear of offending or being offended? lol

grow up people, and accept that NOT ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL

Mar. 08 2011 08:02 PM
Bowwy from Isle of Sheppey, England

There were studies made on who is more intelligent, men or women?
Bout no-one labelled this research as sexist, so why should studies between races be labelled as racist?

Jan. 18 2011 01:17 PM
Gina

John is right......(John Reseska from Huntington NY
This is part of the problem - no white person can talk about any aspect of anything dealing with black people without the threat of being labled "racist". ) I am a middle-aged black (African American if you will) and I can not have a conversation with SOME other blacks without them becoming angry, hostile and unable to articulate their feelings without "going too far......" - Every incident that goes wrong between a white and black is nt racially motivated!!!!! Some people are just jerks !!!. Who cares what made a great athlete great????

Jul. 30 2010 02:33 PM

I question if this difference is physical or is it accessability to facilities? Also wouldn't cultural support for this type of activity also work into this theory? Studies also indicate that a lot of Black people drown because they cannot swim.

It is not unreasonable to think that if a person trained to swim the body would adapt itself to meet the demands of swimming? Wouldn't that be true for running as well?

Jul. 30 2010 09:49 AM
Bandolio from Florida

L's comment suffers from the same problem that the authors of this study had in presenting the evidence in this radio piece, inaccurately broad social definition for Human phenotypes that do not fit within those social definitions. Case and point L asserts that "black Africans tend to outperform black African-Americans" but which Africans is he talking about and in what sports? North Africans, who are Mediterranean in appearance and East Africans, like his example from Eritrea, dominate in long distance running, but African Americans, Afro-Carribbean, and others of African descent from the North and South America, who are also part European and Native American, dominate the short distance running events. However, how many West Africans do you see winning either long distance running events or short distance, though they have done better in short distance, but not nearly to the extent of Caribbean or North American athletes categorized narrowly and overly simply as "black", nor have they had the success of East Africans such as Eritreans and Ethiopians or Moroccans in long distance running. Note that Eritreans are a hub of Human migration being a corridor between the Middle East and Africa and their features features show that both culturally and physically. L assumes that "if social and sport trends were to become so that more blacks go into the sport of hockey, there is a likelihood that they would dominate too" but based on the lack of accurate definitions and a tendency to use oversimplified social terminology, these studies reveal little or nothing. Perhaps more revealing is the cultural supremacy of certain sporting activities in certain countries and population communities. For example, in Jamaica short distance track, soccer, and cricket take precedence over all other sporting activities is it a surprise they are a presence in those sports? In Brazil soccer takes priority over everything else, yet their "Michael Jordan" is a guy named Hans Schmidt, a Brazilian of German, among other, descent. Is it a surprise more Brazilians, a nation of 200 million, aren't present in track and field. Interestingly enough the USSR and East Germany's ever presence in short and long distance track and field, as a well as a decent amount of victories, also counter many of these assumptions, but the USSR is also a country that spanned two continents from northeastern Europe to East and Central Asia. Therefore, the authors of this study are correct that this reveals nothing about "race" as a social construct only about Human bodies in motion, but they should have more accurately defined the specifics of the Human phenotypes they were studying instead of confusing us with social labels.

Jul. 29 2010 04:49 PM
SMOKIN from DC

Angel from MIAMI is the smartest on this here blog.

Jul. 29 2010 01:53 PM

First I will post by saying that there was a book written a while back called "TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and why We're Afraid to Ask" by Jon Entine.

This won't be popular.

It is unfortunate that some people use this kind of discussion in political rather than sceintific ways. But those of us whom can deal with the topic without emotion or undue fault-finding, must do so for the sake of science and facts themselves.

I actually agree that a lot of research does not properly define or include or catagorize certain elements and what any one research project "finds" may be due to (intentionally or not) searching for certain answers.

Yet, it's true that, let's say, geographical heritage and history has a lot to do with it as some of you already stated.

Not being near lakes or rivers will mean that certain groups of people won't be inclined to swim particularly well or much.

There are few black hockey players, but if social and sport trends were to become so that more blacks go into the sport of hockey, there is a likelihood that they would dominate too.

I would like to state that with female athletes, it can be less obvious or more questionable as to whether race is a factor to better performance. Since women of all races tend not to go into careers, it also includes sport careers. African females now have a dominance in the sport of long-distance running but they became prominent in very recent years as compared to men. Top African female runners do not come about as often as top African male runners because in African culture, women are not as encouraged to go into any career including in sports. Greta Weitz and Paula Radcliffe seem to be a contradiction, but it probably has to do with the fact that African women have to struggle harder for social acceptance outside of the role of wife and mother.

Yes, there has also been a merging of black and white races so that there are not significant differneces, but black Africans tend to outperform black African-Americans. Meb Keflezighi became the first "American" to win the NYC Marathon in a few decades but he was originally from Eritrea.

Jul. 29 2010 10:20 AM
Ed from Larchmont

If we respect each person as a human being first and all of equal dignity, would there be a problem in finding different strengths in different races?

Jul. 29 2010 08:18 AM
Bandolio from Florida

Latoya Peterson makes an extremely valid point when she questions who the studies authors are categorizing as "black". In response Edward Jones notes that they observe top sprinters being from the Caribbean, Canada, and other parts of the Western hemisphere such as Brazil, but from reading other reports of this study, of West African descent. However, there is a nuance not discussed here and it is that many, many of these individuals from the geographic regions named by Edward Jones are not simply West African in their descent but also part European and in the case of many African Americans and Afro-Brazilians, part Native American. Tiger Woods, an example put forth by Mr. Jones in talking of exceptions when social circumstances are equal, is also half Asian. Eastern Europe straddles the corridor between Europe and Asia possibly affecting their phenotypic qualities, yet the study groups all Europeans together. These nuances demonstrate Ms. Peterson's point that the authors of the study did not properly define the groups they studied and despite agreeing that race is a social construct, they used social labels for the phenotypes studied, at least in this presentation.

Jul. 28 2010 07:19 PM
Rick von Brooklyn from Brooklyn,NY

I wanted to add my voice to the discussion on the Vietnam War and folks who claim to have been in the military. Why would anybody be proud of service in the America’s most disgraceful, pointless and disastrous wars? I would think you would be embarrassed to have been sucker by Uncle Sam to risk your neck in a futile effort. We had our heads handed to us by tough wiry men in black pajamas and they took their country back brushing our vaulted Army like cleaning crumbs from a table.
Fifty five thousand young American’s died for nothing and millions of Vietnamese died defending their home. The only thing that was accomplished was the America was torn in shreds and whatever little confidence we had in our government was undermined for the foreseeable future . Unlike the current wiki leaks embarrassment, the Pentagon papers show that there was real wrong doing by Washington [ and not general incompetence]: The deliberate over throw of the freely elected Diem regime as well as the fabrication of the Gulf of Tomkin incident as an excuse to escalate the war…etc.
There seems to be an attempt to re-write history by some groups. The current fiasco just shows how desperate government and the military are in bamboozling the public so they will support stupid futile foreign entanglements. How would a family feel if the Army said: “sorry your son died for nothing but we need cannon fodder to justify our military budget.”

Jul. 28 2010 01:34 PM
Irene from Miami

This segment was purely offensive. Athletics is not about race, it's about people striving to be the best through endurance, skill, and committment. Maybe you missed what fans love most about sports.

Jul. 28 2010 10:27 AM
Barb from Boston

It's interesting about such findings and I don't find it surprising that "whites" dominate in swimming, winter olympic events, ice skating and such. Regions sometimes also dictate sometimes what sports people get interested in. Kenyan runners come from literally just two tribes of the 42 in Kenya, perhaps a thin margin of white swimmers have certain characteristics about them that make them prevail in the sport. I'd be happier to hear about this more than just a reason to do with the centre of gravity.

Jul. 28 2010 10:22 AM
Angel from Miami, FL

You can study this all you want but it really has to do with culture. If you live in a tropical region you don't need to be a great swimmer and if you live on the coast you don't need to be a fast runner. Golden retriever vs. greyhound. Humans just adapt to specific geographical environments. We're a primate template at the core wrapped in a geo-variable shell.

The definition of the word "race" only applies if a higher lifeform bred humans for different tasks and environments. Much like we do to dogs.

Jul. 28 2010 10:07 AM
Larry from Atlanta

If this is your attempt to have a conversation on race, you have sadly missed the boat.

Whatever post-racial is,it aint about athletics.

Jul. 28 2010 08:04 AM
D.E. from Brooklyn

What we're really talking about are differences in structure and mechanics, and laws of physics.
The act of running is done more efficiently by bodies with proportionally longer legs and arms, and shorter torsos.
A swimming body moves more efficiently through water with proportionately longer torso and arms, and shorter legs, and a specific bone density-to-body fat ratio.

Because of the way humans have evolved and distributed across the globe, some of these basic skeletal characteristics have concentrated in different regional populations- as have relative concentrations of melanin in the skin: referred to (inaccurately) in shorthand as R-A-C-E.
But we are not produced from cookie-cutters. Anyone who embodies the most efficient structural characteristics has an equal chance to excel in their field, no matter what their regional origins.

Jul. 28 2010 07:31 AM
r from nyc

this is why I hate this show!

Jul. 28 2010 07:03 AM
Matt2

I'm worried about any definition of race that goes beyond the social realm, as biological studies such as this would hope to do in their conclusions. That is, "Black" does not suggest much about shared biology other than skin--that's already been shown by science. Especially here in the U.S. where there has been so much racial mixing, it seems erroneous to assume that Blacks would vary significantly from Whites, when the line is a lot more blurry than our eyes might fool us into thinking. So who counts as Black and who as White?

Obviously science is influential to how we think about race, so it would worry me to think that because some study probably done on faulty assertions like this would add to stereotypes that can be harmful.

Jul. 28 2010 07:00 AM
John Reseska from Huntington NY

This is part of the problem - no white person can talk about any aspect of anything dealing with black people without the threat of being labled "racist". Your program would do us (white people) a service by rebutting this presumption but I really don't expect that from NPR.
Thank you
John Reseska

Jul. 27 2010 04:56 PM
S. L. Greene from NYC

Why is this question (about racial differences in athletic ability) important? What difference would the answer--any answer--make?

Jul. 27 2010 02:34 PM
S. L. Greene from NYC

The real question isn't whether the conclusion is racist, but whether it's scientifically valid.

Jul. 27 2010 02:26 PM
S. L. Greene from NYC

Ms. Headlee,

This morning (7/27/10), in your promo for this upcoming segment, you asked whether black & white human bodies are "designed" differently. The answer is No, not because there aren't average differences between black & white bodies, but because human bodies are not designed. They *evolve.* That's Darwin 101.

Secondly, the average differences in biological traits between blacks & whites--or any other comparable human demographic groups, including males & females--are relatively insignificant compared to the specific differences between individuals. This is often readily apparent from observing the differences between biological siblings.

Jul. 27 2010 02:23 PM
Laura from Fargo, North Dakota

While I believe that studies like these would be valuable, the undertaking of this research in universities would be politically impossible.

Jul. 27 2010 01:45 PM

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