Dr. Boyce: Michael Johnson, Slavery and Sports – Why He’s on the Wrong Side of Being Right
by Dr. Boyce Watkins, KultureKritic.com
This week, former Olympic superstar Michael Johnson brought up “the S word” when referencing African American athletes. Johnson argued that slavery is one of the reasons that black athletes from the US and the Carribean are able to dominate at certain sports. Of course Johnson’s remarks raised eyebrows and got international attention, since his comments can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Possible evidence in support of Johnson’s assertion is not hard to find. The finals of the men’s 100 meter dash in the Olympics is almost always 100% black. Track and Field purists understand that, even though it takes a great deal of hard work to run that fast, a sprinter can’t make the Olympic finals of the 100 meters if he doesn’t possess the speed genes necessary to do so. When you consider football and basketball, we notice that there is no white male equivalent to the strength, quickness and leaping ability of LeBron James, Shaquille O’neal and Kobe Bryant.
These disparities don’t just exist because white guys don’t play sports. White men around the world love sports as much as we do and many perform at the highest levels. But anyone who follows sports knows that there is something special about the black athlete that doesn’t just come from hard work at the gym (although all professional athletes must be incredibly disciplined to get the most from their talents).
What’s funny to me is that we seem to think that you can force a group of people to do back-breaking work under extreme conditions for hundreds of years, while breeding the strongest slaves with one another and not have some kind of genetically unique outcome as a result. Black people were treated like animals during slavery, and a powerful testament to our collective strength is the fact that we survived all that was done to us. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, we know this to be a fact.
The problem with Michael Johnson’s comments might be three fold. First, people don’t like to talk about slavery, especially white people. Some want to believe that you can erase 400 years of history by simply not mentioning it. They don’t realize that the aftermath of slavery is all around us, especially as it pertains to imbalanced economic systems, educational systems and systems of mass incarceration. Many would rather believe that whites own everything because they are just smarter and harder working than we are, and that they make better decisions. Further evidence of this forced silence is the fact that even the first black president is afraid to say the words “African American” in almost any public forum.
The second problem with Johnson’s remarks is that he has no business attempting to argue that we somehow “benefit” from slavery, as if we should be glad that our slave masters beat, castrated, raped and murdered our families for hundreds of years. If that was Johnson’s intention, then his remarks are every bit as misguided as the rapper Soulja Boy, who said that he “wanted to give big ups to the slave masters,” without whom he wouldn’t be in the US “Getting all this gold and ice and stuff.”
To say that black Americans “benefited” from slavery is like saying that a woman should thank her rapist for making her a stronger person by trying to kill her. While she may choose to acknowledge that her challenges made her into a stronger human being, she would never say that she was glad to have been raped. There is almost no benefit from slavery that should make us happy to have experienced the Great American Holocaust for which we still have not yet received reparations.
The final problem with Johnson’s remarks is that some might interpret these comments to imply that black athletes don’t work as hard as white ones. Nothing could be further from the truth. Black athletes don’t succeed just because they are genetically gifted. Instead, they succeed because they work as hard as they can to get the most out of their genetic gifts. So, while there is not a white man in the history of the world who can sprint as fast as Jamaica’s Usaine Bolt, it would be an insult to presume that Bolt simply gets out of bed and breaks world records. Discipline, training, diet and technique are necessary to be the best in the world at anything, no matter how talented you might be.
Johnson’s remarks open up a dialogue that is necessary and should never be taboo. The impact of slavery is all around us, and the last thing we should do is pretend like it never happened. Sports is not the only thing that reminds us that we were slaves. Racial inequality, as a result of slavery, is extraordinarily pervasive.
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