Sport, Racism, and Ethnicity

Grant Jarvie. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

This chapter provides a review of some of the main currents of sociological thought which have informed a body of research in the area of sport, racism and ethnicity. It considers some of the main popular arguments about sport in discussions of race relations, black identity and black feminism and argues against the notion of any one body of thought being viewed as universally valid. The examples that people use may change but the underlying processes and social and political problems reflect not just traditions of social thought but also many voices of anger and frustration in a world that is left wanting on so many fronts. This chapter is critical of some European intellectual constructions of racism which have often been applied in a devastating manner in the field of sport studies.

Popular Opinions and Sociological Arguments

If popular arguments about sport, racism and ethnicity have contributed to a number of racist beliefs about different peoples’ sporting abilities, so too have a number of popular arguments contributed to particular explanations of race relations within the sociology of sport. Popular arguments have often suggested that sport itself:

  • Is inherently conservative and helps to consolidate patriotism, nationalism and racism;
  • Has some inherent property that makes it a possible instrument of integration and harmonious race relations;
  • As a form of cultural politics has been central to the processes of colonialism and imperialism in different parts of the world;
  • Has contributed to unique political struggles which have involved black and ethnic political mobilization and the struggle for equality of and for black peoples and other ethnic minority groups;
  • Has produced stereotypes, prejudices and myths about ethnic minority groups which have contributed both to discrimination against and an under-representation of ethnic minority peoples within certain sports; and
  • Is a vehicle for displays of black prowess, masculinity and forms of identity.

While such arguments are crucial facets of peoples’ experiences of sport, racism and ethnicity, none of the above-mentioned arguments can be singled out as identifying an underlying ‘cause.’ In many ways, each of these individual arguments places too much emphasis on factor a, b, c or d without really analysing the relationships or interconnecting strands which make up the complex social structures and processes that facilitate racism, not only in Europe and America, but in all corners of the globe. Indeed, this holds regarding all social formations where differences in the logics and levels of hatred, inferiorization, contempt, persecution, prejudice and mythology contribute to unique and particular expressions of racism and ethnicity.

To such popular arguments might be added a number of sociological arguments which have been rooted within particular traditions of social thought. Such explanations have contributed to a broader understanding of sport, racism and ethnicity in at least four ways. They have:

  • Researched racism and the politics of exclusion from sport;
  • Highlighted how institutional racism occurs through sport;
  • Deconstructed the theory and practice of many mythical equal opportunity policies which have operated for and against many sporting men and women of ‘colour’; and
  • Suggested that in particular sets of situations it is possible to identify a ‘unity of racism’ within and between sports (Wieviorka, 1995).

The sociology of sport has not been unlike other areas of sociology, black studies, or other arenas of social thought which have sought to explain both the complexity and the unity of racism and ethnicity within premodern, modern and postmodern societies. Yet even here certain traditions of social thought have both over- and under-emphasized particular facets of explanation. It might be argued that an over-determination of the degree of importance accorded to a particular or exclusive line of argument has meant that a reality-congruent body of knowledge on sport, racism and ethnicity has been slow to be forthcoming.

What follows is a short review of some of the ways in which racism and ethnicity have been approached in the sociology of sport arena. Yet it is necessary in the first instance to provide a short definitional discussion around the categories and experiences of race, racism and ethnicity.

Race, Racism, and Ethnicity as Explanatory Principles

It has to be said from the outset that the social sciences, and consequently certain elements within the sociology of sport and sports studies literature have contributed a great deal to the invention of racism. Although a body of work specifically within the social sciences was much later in coming, the idea of superior and inferior races, and particularly the idea that race shapes performance and athleticism, can be traced back to the Greeks of the Hellenic period if not at least to the Middle Ages. In Britain, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, drew on the notion of racial differences to promote debates within the Sociological Society of London (Galton, 1904). In Germany, Otto Ammon developed a body of ideas about racial chaos and the growing influence of Jews in commerce, law, literature and politics. The climate of ideas in the nineteenth century was still far from the ideology of Nazism, but ‘knowledge’ of race was supposed to provide a key to moral, cultural and social differences within an evolutionary explanation of humanity. It was an intellectual climate that was to culminate in Nazism which drew upon not just sociology but medicine, biology, chemistry, genetics, anthropology, ethnology, psychiatry, jurisprudence and demography in the classification of populations and the treatment of Jews, Gypsies and mental patients, who were also racialized (Wieviorka, 1995: 5).

Theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber did not always take up radical positions regarding race. Tocqueville did not really firmly decide one way or the other between slavery and American democracy. On the other hand, he did decidedly reject the false doctrines of racism which sought to legitimize the enslavement of ‘blacks’ on the grounds of their nature and behaviour. Tocqueville (1968: 443) offered an analysis of American anti-black racism, seeing it as rooted in a particular context, time and ideology. His reasoning only appears in outline in quotes such as the following:

the white northerners shun negroes with all the greater care the more legislation has abolished any legal distinction between them … in the North the white man afraid of mingling with the black is frightened by an imaginary danger. In the South, where the danger would be real, I do not think the fear would be less. (Tocqueville, 1968: 443).

For Max Weber (1978: 331), there was race only if there was a race consciousness anchored in a community identity which could lead to action, such as segregation or prejudice. These were not necessarily attributable to hereditary differences but to habitus. As Dunning (1996) points out, Weber used the term ‘caste’ to describe a racially divided society in which the caste relations are the ‘normal form in which ethnic communities live side by side in a societalized manner.’ The crucial point being made is that the experiences of caste, race and colour cannot be simply explained in terms of physical difference; rather, they represent a social structural figuration of some significance. The dynamics of such a process of racial stratification are but one source of social tension capable of producing forms of structural change.

Both Weber and Tocqueville used the term ‘race’ but it would seem that in terms of community identity or indeed communal identity, other types of community deserve to be mentioned. One of these is ‘ethnicity’ which, as a term, is often used in association with the term ‘race’ or ‘racism.’ The notion of ethnicity is often problematic in the sense that it is not often clear how, for example, it might be distinguished from the concept of nationality. Ethnicity, racism and race are so closely intermingled for many specialists that the terms are often found together, as for example in the titles of various books, the name of an important journal and the title of one of the research committees of the International Sociological Association (Jarvie, 1991). Because of the lack of clarity of the concept of ethnicity and its closeness to nationality, contributions to the sociology of sport have tended to refer to civic and ethnic forms of nationalism where the latter is closely related to racial group definitions (Bairner, 1998).

It is possible to identify at least three different ways in which the notion of ethnicity is referred to or used in the literature on race and racism. In the first case, the term ethnicity is closely associated with the concept of nationhood: an example is provided in the work of Anthony Smith (1996). Here the term ethnic nationalism refers to those groups and the related doctrines which, since the end of the eighteenth century, have claimed the status of nation and the right to self-determination and an independent state for every ethnic group. Secondly, as in the work of Stephen Steinberg, the objective is to enquire into the social relations that are concealed, either mythically or ideologically, by recourse to the notion of ethnicity (Steinberg, 1989). In the third case biological aspects have taken precedence over the social and the cultural. Even in the most recent writings of respected scholars of ethnicity such as Pierre Van den Berghe a form of bio-social theory of ethnic populations is proposed which ultimately explains more in terms of genetics than any other discipline (Van den Berghe, 1981).

The last point has a particular resonance within some of the sports literature and is worth commenting upon if only to critique the argument. Much of the early reasoning for black excellence in athletics and other sports has been misleadingly explained as if natural ability and genetics are key causal factors which explain black athletic excellence. The much-quoted work of Martin Kane (1971) provides an example in which the writer suggests that certain physical characteristics—for example, longer legs than whites, narrower hips—are some of the key physical features that have determined why blacks as a ‘race’ have excelled in sport. Kane concluded that blacks are innately different from whites and that such differences, being genetic in origin, can be passed from one generation to the next. As Cashmore (1996: 105) points out, Kane’s arguments border on being racist and at least absurd given that anthropologists have long since dismissed the concept of race as having any analytical value. There is no natural reason why blacks should not excel in all sports and yet the danger of the proposal contained in the work of Kane is that such beliefs are not only believed, by some, but are used to systematically deny access to certain sports. For instance, despite the fact that men and women of colour have held world swimming records, the myth of the poor black swimmer has been often used against various ‘coloured’ communities. On the other hand, the natural ability argument is often promoted either to marginalize certain racial groups within the ghetto of sports at the expense of other sectors of society, or to be selective about the sports that ethnic minority and black groups participate in or have access to. Since at least the 1970s sport has been a route to fame and fortune for numerous black sportsmen and women and yet for thousands of others it continues to conceal deep inequalities, racist beliefs, and to be a path to failure and disappointment.

Concepts such as ‘nation,’ ‘race,’ ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’ group are not the only concepts that can provide key interdependent reference points for the analysis of racial figurations. Many others, such as the ‘sect,’ ‘tribe,’ ‘clan,’ ‘town’ or ‘region’ could be mentioned, too. But the key point is that, in many complex and different ways, such figurations, and others, form a kind of terrain in which the growth of racism is an observable facet of contemporary life for those groups who both promote and suffer from racist behaviour. While it is impossible in this chapter to provide an in-depth analysis and critique of all of the key sociological explanations of the relationship between sport, racism and ethnicity which have been proposed so far, it is possible to provide an insight and general overview of some of the central perspectives and traditions of social thought in this regard. The sporting examples that are used in each case are merely illustrative of deeper concerns and sociological issues.

Sport in an Emerging Sociology of Race Relations

As a field of social scientific enquiry and research, much of the early sociology of race relations originated in the work of American social theorists. Between 1920 and 1960, American studies of race concentrated upon the analysis of the social and economic inequalities suffered by a generic figuration invariably referred to as ‘negroes’ (as opposed to various ‘peoples of colour’ who may or may not have viewed their primary identity as being, for example, Spanish, Mexican, Italian or black Americans), their cultural and psychological make-up, family relations and political isolation. Following the work of Park, the dominant assumption seemed to be that race relations were types of social relations between different peoples (Park, 1950). In this early classical tradition one of the main features of such relations was a consciousness of racial difference. Functionalist theories assumed that an eventual assimilation of racially defined minorities into the majority host society would occur over time. Any conflict that might have emerged from insider and outsider relations was viewed as but a latent function that would lead ultimately to social equilibrium. Racial prejudice and discrimination were seen as temporary phenomena during a period of mutual adjustment. Ethnic minority groups were encouraged to abandon their own culture and way of life for that of the host culture. In the work of Park this cycle of assimilation consisted of four stages, namely contact, conflict, accommodation and assimilation.

In 1950s Britain, the emerging field of what was called at the time race studies was dominated by two main themes. First, was the issue of coloured immigrants and the racist reaction to them by white Britons. Most studies of this period concentrated on the interaction between specific groups of coloured immigrants and whites in local situations (Solomos, 1989). A second theme was the role played by colonial history and imperialism in determining popular conceptions of colour and race. By 1948, early Marxist theories of race had proposed that racism was but a ruling class ideology which developed under capitalism in order to divide—and hence control—black and white workers who shared a common and fundamental class identity (Cox, 1948). By 1948 apartheid in South Africa had also emerged. In much the same way, early Marxist accounts of South African race relations tended to argue that concepts such as race and class had a greater salience vis-à-vis other structural principles such as gender and religion. In the South African context race was viewed as class and class as race. Such arguments were criticized as being historically inaccurate, generalist, deterministic and irredeemably functionalist.

In South African race relations, the main critique of early Marxist writings was embodied in pluralism and in particular the work of Van den Berghe (Van den Berghe, 1969). A dominant theme within this work was that social class in the Marxian sense of determination by the relationship to the means of production was not a meaningful reality under apartheid since colour rather than ownership of land or capital was the most important criterion of status. Under apartheid, white academic pluralist analyses of South Africa were essentially polarized around several broad themes. As a society South Africa was seen as:

  • A ‘plural society’: apartheid was seen to be best explained in terms of segmentation into corporate groups often with different cultures;
  • Having a social structure compartmentalized into analogous, parallel, non-complementary and distinguishable sets of institutions;
  • Having a motor of development which was seen to be a form of ethnological determinism in which institutions were autonomous in relation to one another and functioned according to their own ‘inner logic’; and
  • Having a unique social formation which polarized into two components: a capitalist economic system which was harmonious, just and functional, and a system of racial domination, which was conducive to conflict, unjust and dysfunctional.

When sport was viewed within this pluralist approach it was seen in itself to be functionally supportive and integral to a multiracial South African society in which a plurality of groups competed within the framework of apartheid. A core part of the pluralist thesis on sport under apartheid was that South Africa experienced more domestic and international pressure than any other nation at the time because its case was deemed not simply to be unjust and racist, but also ideological. The political ideology of apartheid mediated sporting participation and provision in South Africa (Jarvie, 1985). The argument, put simply, was that sport, while having a degree of relative autonomy, was best explained in terms of racial segregation and racial discrimination. For pluralist writers on South African sport, sporting freedom and the dismantling of apartheid would be brought about through external pressures being brought to bear on South Africa. Such pressures themselves were viewed as being functional.

Other attempts were made during the 1960s and 1970s to develop a generalized sociological framework for the analysis of race, racism and race relations (Cashmore, 1996). Amore sophisticated approach, built upon Weberian premises, was most clearly illustrated in the work of John Rex (Rex, 1983). What Rex called race relations situations involving a particular type of inter-group conflict resulted in racially categorized groups being distinctively located within an overall system of social stratification. In Britain, Rex used this framework to analyse differences in black and white life-chances and concluded that race and racial discrimination resulted in blacks being located at the bottom of and outside the main white class structure. Insofar as this created a distinctive form of consciousness and political action then the process of forging a black underclass was seen to be in the making.

Neo-Marxist and Post-Marxist Traditions

A considerable number of neo-Marxist and post-Marxist approaches have subsequently been developed. Some have looked to provide a less deterministic account of the relationship between race, class and capitalism (Robinson, 1981). At least three concerns are flushed out in the work of such writers as William Dubois, C.L.R. James, Richard Wright, Angela Davis and many other black radical writers:

  • That the whole basis of Marxism as a Western construction is a conceptualization of human affairs and human development which has been drawn from the experiences of European peoples and as such it loses much of its explanatory power when faced with non-Western evidence;
  • Even allowing for Marxist-Leninist terms such as imperialism and colonialism or even a view of world development based upon a materialist understanding of history, Marxism failed to consider or question the existence of modern slavery or specific forms of exploitation born out of, for example, black poverty in America or black reserve armies of labour in numerous social formations (it has also been suggested that classical Marxism itself paid insufficient attention to slavery as a key phase in the materialist analysis of history;
  • That Marxism paid little attention to the way in which racism mediated the organization of labour, or itself, as an expression of alienation, made a specific contribution to revolutionary or reformist change born out of the struggle of, for example, African peoples (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994).

American writers such as Harry Edwards (1970, 1973) have written extensively on the events surrounding the political events witnessed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The ‘Black Power’ demonstrations by American athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos were explained in the following terms (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 101):

For years we have participated in the Olympic Games carrying the USA on our backs with our victories and race relations are worse than ever. We are not trying to lose the Olympics for America, what happens is immaterial. But it is time for the black people of the world to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilised as performance animals in return for a little extra dog food.

As a Marxist-informed analysis of racism and race relations in American sport the work of Edwards (1970) was sympathetic to many of the central themes that would be included in the political economy of sport. Certainly some or all of the following questions were central to developing a political economy of black sport: How has wealth been produced from the exploitation of the black athlete? How have black sporting struggles affected the emancipation of black people? Why in the ‘land of the free’ (the USA) was it not until 1932 that Tydie Pickett and Louise Stokes became the first African American women to participate in the Olympic Games? Who profits from the play and display of black athletic talent? How are black people represented within positions of power and influence in the world of sport or leisure? To what extent are terms such as alienation, racial capitalism, imperialism and colonialism useful in explaining the development of black sporting experiences?

Of the black Marxist/black radical writers who have commented upon sport, pride of place belongs to C.L.R. James. Beyond a Boundary remains a classic statement on the relationship between cricket and Caribbean society during the 1950s and early 1960s (James, 1963). In it, James recognized that an almost fanatical obsession with organized games was not merely an innocent social activity but also a potential signifier of oppression and liberation. He provided a statement about not only an expanded conception of humanity but also the necessity to break out from the colonial legacy which had affected the development of the West Indies. In placing cricket centre stage, James attempted to transcend the division between high and popular art. The cricketer in the 1960s was seen as a modern expression of an individual personality pushing against the limits imposed upon his or her full development by society (class/colonial/nation/periphery). Non-white cricket came first to challenge then overthrow the domination of West Indian cricket by members of the white plantocracy. By the 1980s some writers had argued that the transformation of West Indian cricket had come full circle from being a symbol of cultural imperialism to being a symbol of Creole nationalism (Burton, 1991).

Black Feminism, Identity Politics, and Sport

Sojourner Truth’s famous question ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ was asked in the middle of the nineteenth century, and yet it remains a pertinent question that might be asked of many feminist writings on sport and leisure—although the forthcoming intervention by Professor Jennifer Hargreaves will alter this position. There is simply no black feminist intervention in sport or leisure equivalent to that made by C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary and yet black feminist thought has yielded a radical critique of both the sociology of sport and white European feminism (Mathewson, 1996; Plowden, 1995). The existence of athletes such as Anna Quirot, Esther Kiplagat, Lydia Cheromei, Derartu Tulu, Merlynne Ottey, Phyllis Watt, Jennifer Stoute and Hassiba Boulmerka could help to open up the history and experiences of black women athletes in Cuba, Kenya, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Great Britain and Algeria. Such case studies would be capable of not only opening up a broader understanding of identity politics but also of the role of sport in black communities.

For example, the case of Hassiba Boulmerka may be illustrative of a much-loved Arab African sporting woman forced at a particular moment in her athletic career to leave Algeria for France in order to escape a backlash from Muslim zealots (The Independent, 12 August 1991). Winner of the women’s 1500 metres final at the World athletic championships in 1991, Boulmerka became the first Algerian, the first Arab and the first African woman to win a gold medal at any World athletic championships. On her return to Algeria, the then President Chadli Benjedid greeted her as a national heroine. But Muslim zealots denounced her from the pulpit for baring her most intimate parts (her legs) before millions of television viewers. Furthermore, President Benjedid was himself publicly denounced for embracing a woman in public. The row underscored the clash between modernity and Islamic traditionalism, the fastest growing social and political force in Algeria. It was a clash which was all the more surprising given Algeria’s position in the Arab world as the torchbearer of modernism, socialism and successful struggle for independence from colonial rule.

Women were emancipated early in Algeria’s national struggle. They were obliged to carry out many tasks their husbands were unable to fulfil because they were dead, imprisoned or fighting against France. Since then, however, the progress made by Algerian women has been under threat. At the time there had been only two women ministers in the government, and parliament refused to pass a law to end the traditional practice of men voting by proxy for their womenfolk. Women in the mid-1990s made up less than a fifth of the paid workforce; 800,000 in a population of 25 million. Hassiba Boulmerka moved to France and the Islamicists lost an opportunity to promote national unity in Algeria. For if ever there was a modern popular figure in Algeria—one who had taken on the world and won—it was Hassiba Boulmerka.

All subjugated knowledges, such as black women’s sporting history and biography, develop in cultural contexts. Dominant groups often aim to replace subjugated knowledge with their own specialized thought because they realize that gaining control over this dimension of the lives of members of subordinate groups simplifies control (Hill-Collins, 1990). While efforts to influence this dimension of oppressed groups’ experiences can be partially successful, this level is more difficult to control than dominant groups would have us believe. For example, adhering to externally derived standards of beauty leads many African American women to dislike their skin colour or hair texture. Similarly, internalizing Eurocentric gender ideology leads some black men to abuse black women. These may be seen as a successful infusion of a dominant group’s specialized thought into the everyday cultural context of African Americans. But the longstanding existence of a black women’s blues tradition, and the voices of contemporary African American women writers all attest to the difficulty of eliminating the cultural contexts as fundamental sites of resistance.

Certainly the development of a tradition of black feminist writing on sport would help to challenge Eurocentric, masculinist and feminist thought which has at times pervaded the sociology of sport. Empowerment in sport has often meant black women rejecting existing personal, cultural and institutional structures that have historically supported racism. The practice of black feminist thinkers during the late 1980s and early 1990s necessitated an understanding of the relations between personal sporting biography and the history of sporting relations in various countries. Many of the personal troubles that black sportswomen in Britain, America and Africa experienced were in fact related to broader structural dynamics and meanings such as those that have been articulated through racism. Angela Davis wrote more forcefully on this issue when she argued that there is something in the nature of racism’s role in society that permits those who have come through the ranks of struggles against it to have a clearer comprehension of the totality of oppression (Davis, 1989), the analogy being that white women must learn to acknowledge this as a potential starting point for not only understanding black women’s experiences of sport but also oppression in general.

Established-Outsider Relations

One of the most sophisticated approaches to the study of race relations is to be found in work emanating from the sociology of Norbert Elias (Elias and Scotson, 1965/1994). At least two key principles dominated the sociological thought of Norbert Elias. First, he was concerned to understand the process of civilization which he defined as a process in which the balance between external restraints on behaviour and internal moral regulation changes in favour of the latter. Secondly, he criticized functionalism and structuralism for their tendency to reify social processes, and argued instead for a figurational or processual approach to sociology, that is, a conceptualization and testing of the constant and endless processual flux of all social relationships. With specific reference to the field of race relations it is the notion of established-outsider relations which is most pertinent to the discussion at hand (Elias and Scotson, 1965/1994). Drawing on Elias, Mennell raises the issue of the very terms race or ethnic relations perhaps being symptomatic of an action in ideological avoidance (Mennell, 1992). Their use serves to single out for attention peripheral aspects of these specific relations such as differences of skin colour and fails to recognize that which is central to an adequate understanding of race relations, namely differences of power—that is, race relations are simply established-outsider relations of a particular type and, as such, are characterized by differential power chances and the exclusion of less powerful groups from positions with a higher power potential.

Four particular features of the established-outsider figuration located in the work of Elias and Scotson (1965/1994) are worth special mention:

  • The tendency of members of established groups to perceive outsiders as law breakers and status violators or, as Dunning (1996: 13) points out ‘in Elias’s terms as anomic’;
  • The tendency for the established to judge outsiders in terms of the minority of the worst, that is, in terms of the minority of outsiders who actually do break the law and violate standards;
  • The tendency for outsiders to accept the established group’s stigmatization of them, that is to internalize the group charisma of the dominant group and their own group disgrace;
  • The tendency for the established to view outsiders as in some way unclean.

Under specific circumstances race relations may take on some or all of the above characteristics and as such it follows that such features may be part of certain sporting relations that involve established-outsider relations. Some of these relations may involve some or all of the above features. One of the many strengths of Eliasian research into sport, racism and race relations is that it rejects universal, law-like relationships as forming the key to explaining the balance of power between social groups.

Racial, gender and class bonds of interdependence may in fact be relatively determining, yet the degree of determination is flexible and specific to any particular form of development. The complex interaction of race and class dynamics in South Africa has often concealed other multifaceted forms of bonding, not least of which have been religious and national lines of interdependence between different groups. To apply the notion of established-outsider theory to race relations shows how the relations between different racial groups can be studied in the same way as relations between many other groups with unequal power chances. Thus, the main weight of any explanation of racial inequality, like any other social inequality, must rest on how groups come to impinge upon and have power over each other. Elias’s theory of established-outsider relations has, for example, recently been utilized in laying the foundation of a figurational/process sociological understanding of the part played by sport in the development of race relations in the United States of America (Dunning, 1999). Such an analysis has involved, first, the conceptualization of race relations as involving fundamentally a question of power, and secondly, an exploration of the social conditions under which sporting prowess can become an embodied power resource, part of a habitus that has been used to offset disadvantages of racial inequality.

A New Politics of Race and Racism: A Black Critique

Mention must also be made of what came to be termed in the early 1990s ‘the new politics of race and racism.’ Underlying this new politics is a deep ambivalence amongst certain groups of social and political activists about the traditional categories that have been used to defend racist practices and policy. These identifications, it has been suggested, have been grounded in notions of the superiority of whites, Eurocentric discourses and the politics of ‘otherness’ (Gilroy, 1995; Giroux and McLaren, 1994). Within this genre of writing, the relationship between identity and being ‘black’ is seen as neither fixed nor secure in the sense that people take on different, changing identities and points of reference. It is an approach which challenges ‘whiteness’ as the universal norm. At stake here is an attempt to create a different kind of vocabulary for representing racism, race and border relations, that is, relationships that cross national boundaries. Central to this approach is the recognition that central concepts such as ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity’ and ‘black’ should always appear historically in articulation with other categories and divisions such as class and gender.

Dyson has suggested that while the physical prowess of the black body has in the 1990s been acknowledged and exploited as a fertile zone of profit within mainstream American athletic society, the symbolic dangers of black sporting excellence also need to be highlighted (Dyson, 1994). Because of its marginalized status within the overall sphere of American sports, black athletic activity, argues Dyson, has often acquired a social significance that transcends the internal dimensions of the game, sport and skill. Black sport becomes an arena for testing the limits of physical endurance and forms of athletic excellence—while at the same time repudiating or symbolizing the American ideals (often mythical) of justice, goodness, truth and beauty. It also becomes a way of ritualizing racial achievement against socially or economically imposed barriers to sporting performance (Dyson, 1994). That is to say that American athletes might have all been equal on the starting line but the social, economic, political and emotional struggles that any given athlete has to overcome to reach the starting line are far from equal.

Black sportspersons in America have often acquired the celebrity status of a heroine or hero, as viewed in the careers of people such as Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Mohammed Ali, Arthur Ashe, Carl Lewis, Michael Jordan, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Evelyn Ashford, Florence Griffith-Joyner and, more recently, Tiger Woods. Such black sporting heroes and heroines have transcended the narrow boundaries of specific sports activities and have gained importance as icons of cultural excellence. Such people became symbolic figures who embodied the celebrity possibilities of success that were often denied other people of colour. They also captured and catalysed a black cultural fetishism for sport as a means of expressing a particular form of black cultural style and identity (Dyson, 1994). Sport was viewed as a vehicle for valorizing black power, sporting skills as a means of marking racial self-expression and sporting profit as a means of pursuing social and economic mobility.

The danger of valorizing a black sports industry or black culture industry is clearly spelled out in works by Cashmore (1997) and Hoberman (1997). More specifically, the question that is posed is can there be such a thing as authentic black culture when the industry, including the sports industry, that produces it is controlled by white-owned corporations? In developing a history of black culture in the West from the post-emancipation period to the present, Cashmore (1997: 172-81) argues that inflating the value of a commodified black culture may actually work against the interests of racial justice. Cashmore asserts that black entrepreneurs, when they have reached the top of the industry, have tended to act in much the same manner as their white counterparts in similar circumstances. They failed to destabilize the racial hierarchy and yet remained part of an African American elite.

Concluding Remarks

Any theoretical discussion within the postmodernist era is likely to end up in a discursive quagmire, a kind of epistemological equivalent of quicksand or a Scottish bog. Attempts to cling to theoretical or substantive realism or the interdependence between the two in the eclectic world of the twenty-first century remains difficult and yet, in conclusion, three observations can be made. First, that while anti-historical or non-developmental forms of explanation may supply useful insights into certain social experiences, including those that manifest themselves within racist and anti-pacifist contexts, they are a perilous guide to action. The practice of racism in sport is no modern phenomenon that has just emerged but has in fact resulted from a number of intended and unintended processes all of which have had a much longer development than many modern writers on the subject would seem to allow. Indeed not all social or historical problems may be sociological problems, but sociology and history certainly have something to say about sport, racism, ethnicity, anti-racist movements, black power, black feminism, racial prejudice, anti-semitism and a black perspective (Sammons, 1994; Wiggins, 1995).

Secondly, the danger of universalism is a very real one. This is not to deny different theories of race relations their travel but to caution against their universality as a way of explaining different situations throughout the globe. Perhaps a strong distinction needs to be made between the claims of any one explanation of racial tension, racism, or sport and its travelling authority as a blank generic imprimatur. Edward Said (1994) is worth listening to when he asks: ‘Why is it that Islam and postmodernism or ethnicity and postmodernism are either mutually exclusive or irrelevant?’ Why should such constituencies update themselves in the name of a postmodern epistemology or condition? If the historical and substantive irrelevance of the subject matter to the constituencies of postmodernism is demonstrable, why should, for example, Islamic fundamentalists find room for such a theory within their internal structures? Why should any anti-racist or black power movement hitch their interests to an alien body of knowledge and risk solidarity among themselves?

Finally, it might be suggested that racism is not merely an expression of particularism, or the way in which different racial and ethnic groups reject and accept modernity at different rates. Many postmodernists have argued for the unity of racism in the sense that it combines the two basic logics of inferiorization and differentiation and also the disjunction between universalist and particularist values. Such an argument is rejected in this chapter on the grounds that the specific, substantive and developmental analysis of sport, racism and ethnicity will take us much further forward than broad generalizations, which have been the main focus of the specific overview provided here.