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Commentary: Racial stereotypes always cause problems

A few words about black supremacy.

Such words seem necessary in light of a minor controversy now roiling the sports world after boxer Bernard Hopkins, who is black, declared that boxer Manny Pacquiao, who is Filipino, is scared to face an African-American fighter.

Pacquiao, considered by many the best fighter in the world, has fought — and dispatched — a black fighter from Ghana, but Hopkins stressed to the website that he’s speaking specifically of a black American boxer, such as Floyd Mayweather.

Mayweather, said Hopkins, represents “the kind of fighter Pacquiao has yet to face: A big guy with tremendous speed and quickness as well as punching power, defensive skill and a quality chin.” Pacquiao, he said, would be helpless against “the styles that African-American fighters [use] — and I mean, black fighters from the streets or the inner cities . . .”

“Listen, this ain’t a racial thing,” said Hopkins. “But then again, maybe it is.”

For the record, this kind of thing is hardly new in boxing. As a sport predicated on one man’s physical dominance of another, it has often served as a kind of surrogate warfare among races and tribes. From Jack Johnson to Joe Louis to Jake LaMotta to Muhammad Ali, boxers have always borne our various racial, ethnic and even national aspirations.

Indeed, Pacquiao himself, dubbed the “Mexicutioner” for his dominance of Mexican fighters, called his latest such victory “a testament that the Filipino race can rise above all odds and be the best in their chosen fields.”

All that duly noted, though, there is something discomfitting in Hopkins’ certitude that Pacquiao would meet his comeuppance at the hands of a black fighter. We live, after all, in a culture in which black athletic supremacy is frequently taken as a given.

Consider the old hit movie, White Men Can’t Jump. Consider Shaquille O’Neal once writing of how embarrassing it is to get dunked on by “a white boy.” Consider Vince Carter once reportedly telling an opposing player’s coach — Carter denied this — “You better get this white guy off me, or I’m going to score 40.”

Taken in that context, Hopkins’ assessment speaks less to harmless racial chauvinism than to enduring racial stereotype. Granted, he nods toward environmental factors (“. . . from the streets or the inner cities . . .”), but it’s still hard to escape a sense Hopkins thinks there is something in the very fact of being black that confers athletic superiority.

He would not be the only one. A 1997 Sports Illustrated poll found about one-third of young white males saying that blacks simply outclassed them as athletes, and a roughly similar number of blacks agreeing.

And while it’s understandable that many blacks would validate a flattering stereotype, what we fail to appreciate is that it is, nevertheless, a stereotype. And it is a short hop from a stereotype that says we are born athletes to those that say we are born criminals, malcontents, sluggards and academic incompetents. How do you embrace one without embracing them all? Why would you even try?

A stereotype — even a “good” one — imposes limitations upon the way we are seen by others and, more critically, the way we see ourselves.

I’ve spoken before thousands of school kids, and it has been my experience that when you ask a black boy what he wants to be when he grows up, you will most often get one of two answers: entertainer, athlete. Ask a white boy the same question and you’ll find they see themselves as writers, cops, shark experts, vets.

Something to remember next time someone says white men can’t jump. A child aims for goals he deems possible. When we embrace the stereotype of physical superiority, we as black people send our kids a clear message about what we deem possible for them.

And what we do not.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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