Blacks, Sports and Lingering Racial Stereotypes: A Q&A with Sports Sociologist Ben Carrington

b.carringtonWhy 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. 30143_9781412901031

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.

New to the Shelf: Fall 2010 Sneak Preview

In just a few short weeks summer will be over. Time to say goodbye to the extra daylight, daytrips to the coast and weekend barbecue parties. But alas, all good things must come to an end. Why not escape from those end-of-summer blues with a good book? Here’s a sneak peek at some forthcoming reads that will be hitting the shelves this fall.

“American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900”
(Doubleday, Oct. 2010)
By H.W. Brands, the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Government

During the 30 years following the end of the Civil War, America as we know it began to take shape. The population boomed, consumption grew rapidly and the national economy soared. In “American Colossus” Brands provides a historical account of America’s transformation into a land of consumerism and massive industry. Chronicling the efforts of such tycoons as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, Brands describes how early American capitalists altered the shape of America’s economic landscape.

“The Endurance of National Constitutions”
(Cambridge University Press, Oct. 2009)
By Zachary Elkins, assistant professor of government, Tom Ginsburg, James Melton.

Why do some constitutions last for generations while others fail quickly? In “The Endurance of National Constitutions,” Elkins and Ginsburg describe the key components constitutions need to survive. Their research reveals that constitutions generally endure if they have flexible amendment systems, are drafted with highly participatory processes, and are extensive and precise. The authors joined several other constitutional scholars to advise the Kenyan leaders who recently drafted a new national constitution in August.

ben“Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora” (Sage, Sept. 2010)
By Benjamin Carrington, assistant professor of sociology

Why do people commonly assume African Americans dominate professional sports? How did golf pro Tiger Woods and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams become pioneers in sports history? These are some of the questions Carrington grapples with in his new book “Race, Sport and Politics.” Presenting a postcolonial overview of sport’s role in enforcing racial stereotypes, Carrington shows how the industry of sport changes ideas about race and racial identity.

troubled“The Troubled Union: Expansionist Imperatives in Post-Reconstruction American Novels” (Ohio State University Press, Sept. 30 2010)
By John Morán González, associate professor of English

In “The Troubled Union,” González presents a historical account of post-Reconstruction novels. Combining a literary analysis with cultural studies, González highlights the importance of the domestic novel form, with its emphasis on women’s self-representation, and the revolutionary plot of courtship and marriage. The book includes dramatic narratives from such authors as Henry James, Helen Hunt Jackson and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton.

Sociologist Wins Best Book Award

giving_backMarc Musick, associate professor of sociology and College of Liberal Arts associate dean for student affairs, won the Best Book Award for “Volunteers: A Social Profile” (Indiana University Press, 2007) from the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organization and Voluntary Action.

Musick and John Wilson, co-author of the book and professor of sociology at Duke University, accepted the award on Nov. 19 at the organization’s national conference.

In “Volunteers: A Social Profile,” Musick and Wilson cover a broad range of topics, including volunteer motivation, historical trends and social influences, providing insight into the causes and consequences of volunteering.

Sociologist Analyzes the Business of Toys

As millions of Americans brave shopping malls this holiday season, they will inevitably come across a migraine-inducing temper tantrum in the toy aisle, or perhaps a belligerent argument between a customer and a cashier.

Why are these scenarios ubiquitous in retail stores throughout America?

This is one of many questions about mall culture Christine Williams, professor of sociology, explores in “Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping and Social Inequality” (University of California Press, 2005), which reveals the unsavory realities of race, gender and class in a minimum-wage work environment.

During research leave from the university, Williams spent two six-month stints working as a cashier, stocker and sales associate at two big box toy stores: “The Diamond,” a unionized high-end shop full of brand-name children’s apparel and $100 stuffed animals; and “Toy Warehouse,” a discount outlet store located on the outskirts of town.

Despite the differences in clientele and atmosphere, the sociologist found disquieting similarities between the two stores: gender and racial profiling among supervisors, clerks and customers.

In one example, she describes how she was assigned to work as a cashier with all the other white and light-skinned females, while her African-American co-worker was confined to stockroom duties.

Through her fly-on-the-wall observations of the retail work environment, Williams examines how the political economy of shopping impacts American culture, and the ways consumption patterns contribute to the disintegration of workers rights.

Will our nation’s shopping culture ever change?

Post-Election Reading Roundup

As our nation’s new President-Elect Barack Obama prepares to make his transition to the White House, millions of Americans wait in anticipation to see how he will turn the weakening economy around and make good on his promise for “a new dawn of American leadership.”

Three books by professors from the College of Liberal Arts, offer keen insight into the challenges our new president will face. From scandals in the White House to party polarization to the issue of race in political campaigns, these books provide timely perspectives into hot-button issues facing the nation in 2009.

“Race, Republicans, and the Return of the Party of Lincoln”

Is it possible for a political party to successfully revamp its image without changing its political platform? How do voters respond to these seemingly promising campaigns?

Tasha Philpot, assistant professor of government and African and African American Studies, examines these questions in her book “Race, Republicans, and the Return of the Party of Lincoln” (The University of Michigan Press, 2007).

Using the 2000 Republican National Convention as a case study, she analyzes how parties rebrand themselves to reach out to minority voters. Philpot examines experiments, focus groups, national surveys and newspaper articles to explore how voters perceive changes in political parties.

As the U.S. electorate becomes more racially diverse, how will political parties rebrand themselves in the future? Add your insights in the comments section.

“Party Polarization in Congress”

What propelled the rise in polarization among party lines? To put it simply, why can’t Democrats and Republicans just get along?

Examining more than 30 years of congressional history, Sean Theriault, associate professor of government, explores the “Right vs. Left” phenomenon in his book “Party Polarization in Congress” (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Theriault defines the building blocks for party polarization in the U.S. Congress by examining the increasing homogony in congressional districts and the evolution of legislative procedures. His studies on redistricting and political extremism reveal how both parties have grown more ideologically polarized and less diverse.

With the landslide win of Democrats in both the Senate and the House, will they reach across the divide to their Republican counterparts in 2009?

“On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics and Art”

From Bill Clinton’s nationally publicized indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky, to Richard Nixon’s infamous Watergate scandal, moral transgressions in the political arena generate overwhelming amounts of media buzz.

These are just two of several case studies Ari Adut, assistant professor of sociology, examines in his book “On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics and Art” (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

From a sociological perspective, Adut analyzes a broad range of case studies, including the vulnerabilities of presidents, the rise in sexual politics and reactions to controversial content in modern art. He reveals the conditions that cause scandals, while others slip under the radar.

What do you think has been one of the most visible but irrelevant political scandals in American history?

“Forbidden Fruit” in The New Yorker

Why do so many evangelical teens become pregnant? This week’s New Yorker tackles this question in the story “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” which draws upon research from the book “Forbidden Fruit” by UT sociologist Mark Regnerus.

Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers,” published last year by Oxford University Press, tells the story of the sexual values and practices of American teenagers, paying particular attention to how participating in organized religion shapes sexual decision making.

Watch Regenerus discuss the book in this Take 5 video. Or check out the story and tell us what you think.