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.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To receive Dr. Boyce commentary in your email, please click here.




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12 Responses to Dr. Boyce: Michael Johnson, Slavery and Sports – Why He’s on the Wrong Side of Being Right

  1. Larry Proctor July 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I am pleased whenever, I read about this topic I have grown so fund of discussing. Why? Because of the far reaching implications of the revelations revealed as a result of increasing one’s understanding of this underserved topic. Its like pealing a banana back layer by layer. As one comes to learn the implications of understanding each level there is to learn about, one becomes more and more able to see why we should be concerned about ths topic and how it can aid us in opening the eyes of our understanding regarding Sports as a microcosm of society.

    Whilel I applaud Johnson for making the statement, the person who responded to Johnson raised the bigger issues assosciated with the topic and that was good to know. That there are those of us who see the unseen forces behind both Black Athletic Success and Johnson’s remarks. What a dicotomy. It demonstrates what we are up against. Regards, LP

  2. Lisa McDowell July 8, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    interesting how someone with a phd would write an article based on his opinions and not facts!

    boyce, you used the 100m dash in the olympics to prove your suppostion…i didn’t know the 100m dash was the only event in the olympics..i guess in your world the entire games will end in 9.5 seconds if bolt wins again.

    wow..alot of money spent by advertisers for one event! thank god we don’t live in your world..the rest of us will be watching all of the events.

  3. Mina July 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Lisa, we apparently didn’t read the same commentary by Dr Boyce. I would suggest you RE-read what he said and try to GET IT!,,, But then again, if this is any indication of your level of intelligence, DON’T BOTHER. You’ll just be more confused any say something even more idiotic.

    • Lisa McDowell July 9, 2012 at 10:55 am

      birds of a feather flock together…from your blog, i’m not surprised it was so easy for boyce to manipulate your uneducated ass. maybe you should take a statistics and research class if you want to get off of the short bus.

      Everyone is entitled to be stupid but you are abusing the privilege.

      I will not waste my time because arguing with you is like running a race in the special olympics, you might win but in the end you are still a retard.

    • Iesha July 9, 2012 at 11:10 am


      i think you missed her point…dr. watkins did not use any research to justify his piece. do your homework, blacks do not dominate the medal count in the olmpics.

      therefore, for dr. watkins to use the 100m (out of all the other events in the olympics) to justify his claim that black athletes are more superior is purely anedoctal and disengenious from someone who earned his phd by providing factural research.

      no scientist will support his claim..enough said!

  4. GG July 8, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Ouch Mina, but I agree. Michael Johnson has now earned the title of dumb jock. My brother, you wear the crown.

  5. Lee Daniel July 9, 2012 at 2:29 am

    GG is correct Michael is a dumb jock who should not be discussing biology, genetics and physiology. First if slavery were an Olympic event it would be an endurance event and not a sprint. We were brought here for endurance and worked in the fields from sun up to sun down we had to work fast and long with emphasis on the amount of hours and volume of work. Michael would have been whipped for working 19 or 43 seconds and then cooling down. We dominate the world in all event where we participate with enthusiasm in great numbers. When we have a level playing field, know the rules, and participate in great numbers, such as on playgrounds and parks all over the nation we dominate. The

    otherother side of the coin Michael do

  6. Lee Daniel July 9, 2012 at 2:47 am

    The other side of the coin Michael did not mention, the opportunity gap that was created by law in schools. Using his analogy the reason we have more Black boys in the criminal justice system than colleges is that we were not allowed to read and non readers were breed with more non readers. Being a good student would actually be contrary to the slave masters wishes as was short bouts of work. We have some scientist who say we are not anatomically related to the east Africans who dominate the distance races. So that means Michael Johnson is closer related to Jeremy Warner than the Africans who run distances than require more aerobic capacity. Jeremy’sopoponiooopponion?

  7. Toni July 9, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    You Go Michael…You are one bad man…I am proud of you and you keep on doing what you are doing because obviously you are doing it right.

  8. Phillip Battle July 10, 2012 at 8:23 am

    The most crippling nevertheless the so called genetic physical superiority of the African American– is the inability of the African American as well as many other people of color – is to have the intelligence to create their own value system and standards of living – I.e. using the European as a yard stick as to measure their achievements. People of color seems not to have the love of self,nor value the great history of themselves. Yes we as Africans who where physically abused- yet psychologically manipulated to the degree of not being able to own and employ one and other. That said,with the allowing of the so called immigrants to enter the USA and dominate the labor force- and will not hire an African American- we need to focus on more important issues.

  9. Marquis Smalls July 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I agree with you that “black people benefitted from Slavery” is a stretch but I do understand and applaud Mr. johnson for making his comments. In any situation there are always positives AND negatives. ANY action creates an equal and opposite reaction. So state the laws of physics and history. Your three reasons for why Mr. Johnson’s comments may put him on the side of “wrong” are troubling however. It is time that we stop worrying about scaring white people, because it is only us here inside America who are afraid. The rest of the world does not fear “white people” like the native African-American. The “benefit” comment I see as a dangerous way of describing it but we must admit that a number of Africans, did benefit from slavery which is why we have a black elite class that still to this day only looks out for the survival of their own “families” and “networks” but fails to reach back and effectively incorporate programs that help uplift the many masses who could use their help. The third “problem” you bring up is really not a problem at all. Why do WE care what others think anymore? Why do we still try to appease the master in this country? Again, the rest of the world doesn’t shuck and jive for the white man anymore so why do you insist we still do? Who cares what THEY think? We need to learn to care what WE think. And that’s all. So maybe Mr. Johnson’s comments will not be considered so “wrong” by the coming generations, scholars, critics, and historians as we continue to move further and further away from Slavery. Both the negatives and positives.

  10. Marvin Blades August 8, 2012 at 12:08 am

    The fact that these comments came from a truly elite African-American athlete has reopened this discussion lends the topic credibility. I’d personally like to see black academics take the lead in bringing real science to this discussion; thus revealing the actual impact that the institution of slavery had on African descendant blacks the world over.

    I believe that slave merchants knew the economic benefits of selective breeding and used the practice to their benefit. These same men also knew that educating slaves would make these men and women who didn’t speak the language of the slavers more difficult to control. Educated and enlightened people cannot be successfully enslaved or controlled; therefore education of any type had to be limited or forbidden all together.

    Michael Johnson’s comments simply reflected the beliefs of many; both white and black. For years these same beliefs kept whites from allowing blacks to compete with them on an equal footage out of a fear of black physical superiority. This discussion needs to be had.


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