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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: White men can jump, so …

May 16, 2002

Whatever happened to the white athlete?

That's the question Sports Illustrated posed in a provocative 1997 cover story. The magazine reported that the prominence — indeed, dominance — of black men in track and field, football, basketball and baseball has led whites to opt out of those sports and to question whether they even have what it takes to compete. Many have concluded they do not. According to a poll the magazine conducted, a third of white men feel they are just physically outclassed by black men.

I remembered that story the other day while watching an NBA playoff game. An interesting thing has happened to pro hoops in recent years. White stars are back. You've got Steve Nash, Eduardo Najera, Dirk Nowitzki, Pedrag Stojakovic, Andrei Kirilenko, rookie of the year Pau Gasol … white guys regularly touted by breathless announcers as among the next generation of superstars.

But the telling thing is that skin color isn't the only thing those guys have in common. There's also the fact that they're not from here. They're from Canada, Mexico, Germany, Yugoslavia, Russia, Spain … but not here.

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That is, I suspect, an important distinction. At the risk of over-simplifying, I'd wager that at least part of the reason those men have achieved success in a "black" sport is that they never realized they weren't supposed to. Coming from other places, it never occurred to them that whiteness was a bar to athletic excellence. They didn't know enough to be intimidated.

And take a gold star if you've guessed by now that the point of this column is not white kids and sports, but black kids and academics.

Year after year, I see them turn in dispiriting, subterranean test scores indicating a yawning achievement gap between them and their white counterparts. Year after year, I watch teachers, politicians and social activists wring their hands and search for solutions. And year after year, I find myself wondering if the primary obstacle faced by those black kids might not be as simple as a lack of self-confidence. As simple as feeling intimidated.

Black kids on a basketball court seem to want excellence more than white kids do, people told Sports Illustrated. Want it enough to run harder, jump higher, practice longer. It occurs to me that this reflects little more than the human tendency to reach hardest for those goals one deems most possible. And maybe, in a world where the scientist, the historian and the "Jeopardy!" champion are usually white, academic success does not always seem, to a black child, to be the most possible of goals.

A few years ago, Claude Steele, professor of psychology at Stanford University, did an interesting study illustrating the effects of negative self-images on academic achievement. He found that when black test takers were told beforehand that blacks and whites tended to perform equally well on the test, their scores were, indeed, equal to those of whites. But when they were told nothing, or were asked to check off their race on a form, the blacks turned in lower scores. The same thing happened with women.

The expectation of poor performance quickly becomes the reality. Until someone is bold enough to expect something more.

It's hard to believe now, but a hundred years ago, black athletic inferiority was taken for granted. No black man, it was authoritatively said, could best a white man. Then black boxer Jack Johnson — a man who was always bold enough — demolished "great white hope" Jim Jeffries. Stunned and disbelieving, white Americans rioted across the country.

Since then, we've seen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ken Griffey Jr., Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens and Florence Griffith-Joyner. And the question of whether black athletes are good enough to compete with white ones has come to seem unbearably quaint.

So quaint, in fact, that the sight of white athletes participating in elite competition now becomes a subtle but significant object lesson. A lesson in expectation and how it can be both freedom and fetters.

I hope a teacher, a politician or a social activist or two sees what I see. Maybe they'll begin to wonder how it is Dirk Nowitzki knows what too many black children do not.

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