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 racial 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 pointed discussion about racial violence in America, just as 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.
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 for papers like the NYT. But whoever wrote that headline at the Times made it seem like the running community, (jogging) excluded black people proactively, by design.
Fact, the so-called “running community” is made up of thousands of independent clubs, races, and organizations and millions of individuals who share either an appreciation of the health benefits of running and/or a love of the sport of racing. There is no central guiding hand, no monolithic overseer. This diffusion has been both the strength of the activity while being a hindrance to running ever establishing a truly professional wing.
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 ( even more true today), 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 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.
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 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, you can be sure they would be celebrated, as well. The fact that this hasn’t happened yet is 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 or poor while 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 exposed to running, or seen a hero who inspires them to begin. Accordingly, to date, there is an under representation of African-Americans in the running community – with neither side considering the other in a harsh or negative light due to that circumstance.
And here’s the funny thing about it all. In the middle of a run, factors that generally define and separate people, things like race, or age, or height, or political affiliation, or nationality all fade away. In the throes of a run, runners are reduced to the act itself, no more, no less. That’s the beauty of the game and why runners proselytize the sport so passionately as true believers.
But distance running isn’t something you can give to another person. It has to be wanted, because becoming a runner who is fit enough to experience its transcendent qualities is hard. It hurts for the first three months or so while you’re developing fitness. And during that difficult initiation period there is very little joy in Mudville. In fact, speaking of culture, running has always been used as a punishment in other sports. That is why it helps immensely to have a group to help support you through that difficult opening.
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.