OP-EDS HAVE SOMETIMES EXCLUDED BROADER PERSPECTIVES

If Bob Dylan was right that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, then you don’t need a white history professor (or blogger like me) to know what the state of integration is in the American distance running community. Yeah, we know, it’s as obvious as white on rice.

But the racial makeup of running in America does not in any way reflect a purposeful exclusion of black people, as was inferred in a widely read New York Times op-ed piece this week.  Nor does it contribute to the overall lowering of race relations in the broader American community. In fact, there has been a wide embrace of black runners in America, though many don’t happen to be African American, just African.

The tragic killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia this past February 23rd – when the 25-year-old African American runner was pursued then shot to death by a white father and son claiming Arbery resembled a suspected burglar – has catalyzed yet another broad discussion of racial violence in America – like every mass shooting catalyzes a debate on gun control. But this week the circumstances of Arbery’s death brought into question the state of racial integration within the U.S. running community via a New York Times op-ed entitled Jogging Has Always Excluded Black People, written by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a college prof from The New School in New York City.

Professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Dr. Petrzela is a marathon runner and the author of a soon to be released book FIT Nation.  In her May 12th NYT op-ed, she declared “the most apparently egalitarian exercise of all, running, is anything but, especially when it comes to race.”

Just so you know, people who write articles or op-eds don’t pen their own headlines. But whoever wrote that headline at the Times made it seem like the running community (jogging) excluded black people proactively, by design. And for her part, Professor Petrzela went through a litany of incidences of violence perpetrated by whites against blacks (though none by actual runners), and then wrote that “running has been a pastime marketed primarily to white people ever since the “jogging craze” was born in the lily-white Oregon track and field world of the late 1960s.”

To which I and many others in the running community say, BULLSHIT!

Yes, there are not very many African American distance runners. As Professor Petrzela rightly pointed out, “Running USA found under 10% of frequent runners identify as African American.”

But just because that’s the case, doesn’t mean there was purpose behind it. So what might have led to this imbalance? Ask yourself, how do people get involved in any sport in the first place?

1) through school or church programs,

2) through hero-worship, or perhaps

3) through a mid-life epiphany as they discover something new to help change their path of life.

So let’s dig into those elements regarding running.

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a belief that American children were not fit enough for military service, so the government pushed for more physical education in schools through the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Unfortunately, there was a major decline in phys ed programs between 1980 and 1990 due to economic concerns and poor curricula, leading to tremendous growth in childhood obesity. So an introduction to running through school involvement, generally speaking, dried up, especially in less affluent inner city schools.

Then, there is the fact that he sport of distance running in the U.S. throughout the first seven decades of the 20th century centered almost entirely in the Northeast, in New England and New York specifically. And all the winners of the distance races were white, most famously Frank Shorter, a Yale University grad who kicked off the Running Boom by winning the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich. As a rule, skinny white guys from Ivy League schools rarely have their posters pinned to inner-city bedroom walls.

And though there have been African Americans like Ted Corbitt who have distinguished themselves in the sport – Ted co-founded the RRCA and was a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic Marathon team – distance running was seen as a quirky pastime back then and had yet to be lionized in the press. That translated into no black distance running stars until Abebe Bikila won the 1960 and ‘64 Olympic Marathons, and Kipchoge Keino rose to stardom in Mexico City 1968 when he beat Jim Ryun in the Olympic 1500 meters.

But Bikila was Ethiopian and Keino was Kenyan. Both became known as the Fathers of their nations’ respective running dynasties, which continue to dominate the sport to this day. But they did not inspire African American kids to run. The black sports heroes in America when Shorter became running’s first hero were men like Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell, members of city-based pro sports teams.

Wilma Rudolph winning Olympic Gold in Rome

Wilma Rudolph was the first American superstar track Olympian of the TV era when she won three gold medals in Rome 1960. And the magnificent Rafer Johnson won the Olympic decathlon. But they weren’t distance runners. The African American stars in track and field were mostly sprinters, hurdlers, middle-distance types and field eventers, not 5000 or 10,000 meter-men, or marathon runners.

As for mid-life epiphanies bringing new advocates to the sport, leisure time and disposable income are among the necessities required for going out to run and to sign up for races. Income disparity, then, was another barrier to low-income people of any race getting involved in distance running.

*
Running didn’t start off to be mostly white, it’s just organically evolved that way, just like hockey, golf, curling, and chess. That’s who was attracted to the activity well before marketing efforts by shoe companies or the Running Boom ever hit.

Yes, racial discrimination extends into the running world, because, guess what, the running world, like the rest of the world, is populated by human beings. But cherry-picking incidences of racial violence against black runners by whites (like Ahmaud Arbery), or against white runners by blacks (like the Central Park jogger), doesn’t make for a persuasive argument that running is anti-black when Dr. Petrzela doesn’t acknowledge the broader cultural landscape.

In speaking to one female African American distance runner who grew up as a middle-class black girl in Philadelphia, one learns “I did not think of going running. I only discovered running at Field Day at school and that was in short sprints. Distance running was just not organic in black neighborhoods.”

*

The op-ed also talked about how the USA is only now sending black female marathoners to the Olympics in Tokyo 2021. But even that assertion is misleading.  Nobody “sends” anybody in the U.S. Trials system. Two black female runners who grew up in Kenya then became naturalized U.S. citizens “earned” spots on the 2021 U.S. Olympic Marathon team.

Bix 7 Road Race champions: Aliphine Tuliamuck with Davenport, Iowa Assumption High School star Joy Ripslinger

Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego both came to the United States to attend college, Sally in 2005, Aliphine in 2009. Sally even represented Kenya in the 2012 London Olympics.  And God bless them, the (white) running community in America loves them both and embraces them widely because they are lovely people and great athletes.  Their color is incidental.

But that’s not the same as if two American-born black girls had come of age and organically been attracted to distance running and then went on to earn Olympic Marathon berths. But that’s not because the white running community didn’t want such a circumstance to occur or tried to socially engineer away from it.  It’s because endurance running hasn’t historically been a part of the black American culture.

But that cultural attraction pertains to anyone and any sport, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

I didn’t start running until I moved to Boston in my mid-20s and was exposed to the culture of running that was embedded there. Turned out I took to the sport quickly. But if I had stayed in my hometown of St. Louis, which had a heritage as a great baseball town, but no such tradition in running, I might never have tried the sport. That’s how cultural influences work.

It’s like in the classic 1950s Marlon Brando movie The Wild One. In one memorable exchange, a girl asks Brando’s character, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando replies, “What’ve you got?”

*

And it’s not like the American running community isn’t aware that there is a diversity issue in its ranks. Knowing that the benefits of a running can be life-changing, many organizations today have established outreach programs that focus on previously under-served communities.

The New York Road Runners has an extensive, no-cost outreach program called Rising New York Road Runners that serves 250,000 youth across the country at more than 1300 sites. And Students Run LA (SRLA) is an exceptional three-decade-old program linked to the Los Angeles Marathon focusing on at-risk schools that has impacted tens of thousands of young lives and their families as well. There are numerous others.  But the fact that there needed to be an outreach program tells you that distance running wasn’t organic or self-generating within the black or Hispanic communities.

That’s why I believe it is a mischaracterization to say African Americans have been excluded  from running. It’s more a case that African Americans either haven’t been attracted to it or chose not to join the running community, with neither side considering the other in a harsh or negative light for making that choice.

All that being said, Running While Black in America still presents dangers not experienced when Running While White.  But it is disingenuous to suggest that the so-called running community promotes what is an admittedly imbalanced culture of endurance running in the USA.  At least, that’s which way the wind is blowing from this weather station.

END

20 thoughts on “OP-EDS HAVE SOMETIMES EXCLUDED BROADER PERSPECTIVES

  1. My friend Allieu Massaquoi, who represented Sierra Leone in the 10K race in the 1968 Olympics, was one of the top distance runners in New England in the early 1970’s. Sadly, he was brutally attacked while running around Jamaica Pond a few years later.

  2. My friend Allieu Massaquoi, who represented Sierra Leone in the 10K race in the 1968 Olympics, was one of the top distance runners in New England in the early 1970’s. Sadly, he was brutally attacked while running around Jamaica Pond a few years later.

  3. In the early 1970’s there were 2 African Americans in my running club (Cambridge Sports Union). Lou (Bubba ) Paul was an outstanding distance runner. Fred Young was a very good Masters runner. In the early 1950’s, from the 14-mile vantage point in Wellesley, my childhood friends and I were always fascinated to watch perrenial 11th place finisher Ted Corbitt run by. Slight of build, he had phenomenally developed muscles. In the 1972 Brockton Marathon, with the temperature near 100*, my CSU friend Jay and I decided to run with Ted, as we knew he would keep a sensible pace. He was wonderfully gracious to us. At 8 miles, he suddenly took off. Watching his extraordinary grace was a mystical experience for me. At age 53, he won the race in 2:49.

  4. Toni, you probably know a lot about every person on this list who you don’t know personally, and I’m sure I’m forgetting many others. Is the African American population proportionally underrepresented? With this many at the national level (or above) at 1500m and up, it doesn’t seem like the pyramid’s base can be as small as is being claimed.

    Herm Atkins
    Darlene Beckford
    Donovan Brazier
    Kevin Castille
    Ted Corbitt
    Elva Dryer
    Kim Gallagher
    Darrell General
    Dick Gregory (yes, that Dick Gregory)
    Howard Hall
    Marielle Hall
    Alisa Harvey Hill
    Fred Hichborn (Hart)
    Terrance Herrington
    Steve Holman
    Regina Jacobs
    Robert Earl Johnson
    Deacon Jones
    Earl Jones
    David Krummenacker
    Seneca Lassiter
    Nnenna Lynch
    Shola Lynch
    Reggie McAfee
    Jordan McNamara
    Oscar Moore
    Treniere Moser
    Aisha Praught-Leer
    Jon Rankin
    Fred Ritcherson
    Lou Scott
    Ben Tucker
    De’Sean Turner
    Jerome Walters
    Ted Wheeler
    Lou White
    Mal Whitfield

    Thanks for the article. It’s as sincere, informed, and impassioned as you typically are.

    1. Thanks for that impressive list, Stuart. Race will always be a difficult issue in the U.S. due to our compromised (to say the least) start. What your list contains is a lot of 1500m runners, which we might argue tops the middle distance chart, but isn’t true distance like 5K, 10K, and Marathon. On top of which, none broke out into the wider culture like Frank or Bill or now Meb. So it’s a tough sell, evidently to draw new converts. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. All the best. TR

  5. How many American coaches has recruited African-America male/female runners?
    Michele Bush run for Columbia University while going to school! Why can’t we have more of M.B in America?
    Colleges are NOT fond of African- American distance runners because they know they will get real Africans who will give them less problems.
    It’s disparity by choice !!

  6. Thanks, Toni, for writing this. When this op-ed came out and folks agreed with it on Facebook, I said they were wrong, too. I’ve been running competitively for 46 years now and your observations are correct.

  7. Should we also examine specialized areas of sport such as polevaulting, racewalking, punting and field goal kicking as well. Correlation is NOT causation. A little knowledge is dangerous.

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