Discourse / Letters / February 28, 2008

Letter to the Editor: Response to Rohlfing column

Due to the high volume of responses to last week’s column, “Racism? Nah, just some truth,” we have elected to print all Letters to the Editor in their entirety this week. As mentioned in Thoughts from the Embers, these letters have been edited only for grammar, not content, to illustrate the diversity of opinions regarding this issue.

I am writing to you in reference to the column entitled “Racism? Nah, just some truth” which appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of the TKS. After the column appeared several students asked me whether there is any biological basis to apparent racial differences in things like athletic ability. The simple answer is no, there is absolutely no biological basis for concluding that racial groups differ in things like athletic ability, intelligence, creativity or almost any other characteristic we care to measure.

People have been attempting to determine whether some groups of people differed in various abilities at least since the 17th century. Some people tried to determine whether differences in ability existed out of intellectual curiosity. Groups of people do differ in some superficial characteristics that are easily observed like skin color, eye color, hair color, hair texture, etc. and it seemed like a reasonable question to ask whether groups differed in other characteristics. Other people had more nefarious reasons for looking for differences among human groups as they wanted to demonstrate one group was superior to another.

Nearly four centuries of studies have allowed us to determine two things. First, humans are a tremendously diverse species and it is almost impossible to divide humans into meaningful racial groups based on physical characteristics. While members of groups in small geographic areas are similar to each other in appearance (for example there really are many more red-haired people in Ireland than we would expect by random chance), when we try to construct large racial groups we find there is as much variability within that large group (perhaps people of European descent) as there is within the entire human species. Second, because of the tremendous variability within human groups, we cannot find any evidence that some groups are better athletes, more intelligent or more creative than other groups. For a good explanation of the research into human races and how that research was interpreted prior to the development of modern molecular genetics you should read The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.

Modern molecular genetics has reinforced those earlier findings. We have learned all living members of our species are descended from a small population of people living in Africa within the last 200,000 years. We have also found that as we examine different groups of genes (known as haplogroups), people who share haplogroups are extremely diverse and often include people who would be put in different “races” based on traditional racial schemes. We have also found that people from a small geographic area who may be assumed to have common ancestry often have one set of genes from say haplogroup A and another set of genes from say haplogroup D — indicating considerable migration and mixing of genes over time. In fact the authors reporting on The Human Genome Project in 2001 wrote that “two random individuals from any one group are almost as different [genetically] as any two random individuals from the entire world.” So in the end, we can find absolutely no way to divide people into discrete racial groups and the smaller geographic groups we can identify are tremendously diverse genetically. Human groups are so diverse that within any one group we can find people of exceptional ability in any characteristic we care to measure.

I was saddened to see that a column in TKS perpetuated old myths and stereotypes about race. I hope readers of TKS realize that humans are really one vast, intermingled, diverse species with no clear boundaries or differences between groups.

– Stuart K. Allison, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Biology

Assuming Merritt Rohlfing’s remarks on African-American athletes (“Racism? Nah, just some truth,” TKS, Feb. 21, 2008) were not meant to be malicious, they nevertheless dramatize the need for a better public understanding of human population differences (a.k.a. “race”). To be sure, there is statistical variation among populations with regard to some genetic traits, but modern science has shown how elusive these differences can be. In fact, recent advances in anthropology and human genetics have posed profound challenges to colloquial concepts of “race.”

Advances in human genetics, archeology, linguistics and paleoanthropology overwhelmingly support the conclusion that all humans have a common origin in Africa less than a hundred thousand years ago, and that the genetic variations in our species are astoundingly superficial. There is less variation within the entire human species than one might find in a small troop of wild chimpanzees, and the vast majority of that minor variation occurs within local populations rather than between them.

It also turns out there is more genetic variation within Africa than in rest of the world combined, since the within-Africa populations had more than a hundred thousand years to diverge genetically before a small group of them set out to colonize Asia and Europe some sixty-thousand years ago. It so happens that, contrary to Mr. Rohlfing’s supposition, the Nilotic peoples of Eastern Africa, who tend to be taller than their neighbors, are scarcely represented at all in the American population (Barack Obama being a notable exception). The majority of African-Americans are descended from West Africans who, at the time of their first arrival in the United States, were typically shorter and smaller than most of us today.

This last point brings us to one of the more salient features of human difference: its plasticity. Physical and behavioral differences attributed to “race” often evaporate in rigorous studies where non-racial, variables are controlled for. The genetic differences among human groups are, it seems, far less profound than the differences that stem from diversity of circumstance or change across generations.

To the extent that “race” plays a significant role in human affairs, it does so primarily through our cultural construction of “racial” groupings and their attributes, along with the social practices that stem from these beliefs. Well into the twentieth century, many white Americans clung to the notion that African-Americans were inherently too weak to make good athletes (or good soldiers). Today’s African-Americans, on the contrary, labor under the popular notion that they are best suited to such roles — that their “racial” attributes somehow suit them especially to a range of activities as diverse as basketball, football, track, baseball and perhaps even tennis and golf (but not, for some reason, professional wrestling, rodeo, or NASCAR). The notion of Blacks as “natural” athletes downplays the risk, hard work and self-discipline involved in athletic success, and at the same time it subtly implies that white Americans (and more specifically, white males) might also be inherently suited for the roles of economic and political power they so disproportionately occupy. It would seem that the plasticity of human variation is exceeded only by the plasticity of our attempts to justify hierarchies of privilege.

The recent TKS episode should serve as a reminder of the volatility of the subject of “race” and the perils of approaching it lightly — whether with good intent or bad. Easy talk of genetic “superiority,” the suggestion that slavery might have been somehow beneficial to African-Americans, or images of selective “breeding” that implicitly call to mind comparisons with livestock — such notions cannot be tossed innocently into the American discourse of “race” because they resonate all too well with some of our most destructive social legacies.

– Jon Wagner, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Anthropology/Sociology

Last week’s article by Merritt Rohlfing, “Racism? Nah, just some truth” shows that action must be taken against the editors and persons involved. The lack of professionalism this paper has shown needs to be accounted for. An article of this nature getting published is atrocious and insulting to anyone who associates themselves with this college. TKS has published racist commentary in the opinion section for the past two years, but an article in the sports section that claims slaves, “who died on the trip over were inferior, genetically, and those who were stronger survived the trip” is disgusting.

– Jeff Sundquist, ‘09

Recently a current Knox student brought an article in The Knox Student to my attention that I found alarming. The article titled “Racism? Nah, just some truth” by Merritt Rohlfing I found under the sports section as offensive as a Knox alumna and an American Black woman. This article supports the comments one student made during a class discussion “that African-Americans are predisposed to being successful in sports, and in general, being more athletic” as fact lacks any foundation. The student writer, Rohlfing, then goes on to support his argument by utilizing his opinions of the physical appearance of two popular NBA players as fact and misrepresents the experience of our ancestors during Middle Passage and slavery is irresponsible. Rohlfing crossed the line by commenting that those African slaves who did not survive the Middle Passage to America were inferior rather than the environment that they were held in against their will was inferior. His comments are thoughtless, unfounded, and ignorant of American and world history. Regardless of whether his intent was to pay a compliment to Black American men in sports, the consequences of his article are disrespectful to an entire group of Americans who have accomplished so much more than “physical prowess.” As a woman I’m even further insulted because the article goes on to suggest that there are no women athletes that seem worth mentioning.

I am offended that Knox would allow this one individual’s personal opinion of a class discussion he was not a part of to be printed as fact in a circulated publication that represents Knox College. It shows poor judgment on not only the student writer’s part but also that of the editor and the faculty member that supports the paper. This is Black History Month and it is sad that this article is the only article that was printed to my knowledge acknowledging black history. It was a poor and misguided effort to acknowledge Black Americans’ contribution to this country and to the world. I do believe in the first amendment right of freedom of speech. However, I found that this article lacks journalistic integrity and responsibility of representing all sides of the discussion and citing sources specifically. I also found it concerning that a classroom discussion was taken out of context and placed in a broad forum. What about the students who disagreed with this opinion and don’t have access to the same forum equally?

While this is part of the student body’s publications, I believe strongly as an alumna that Knox touts its role in diversity as a feature of this community and thus it should be respected and nurtured as a community. It is not only current students’ role to nurture the Knox environment but also each faculty member, staff, alumni, and parent because we are all part of the Knox Community past, present, and future. I welcome a discussion with the Dean of Students, Xavier Romano, and anyone else that would like to speak with me on how it will be addressed in the near future.

– Kandra J. Ellis, ‘04

In an e-mail that was sent out to the entire Knox Campus, the Editor-in-Chief of The Knox Student apologized for a column he called “racist”, “inappropriate”, and “horrible”. The column, written by TKS writer Merritt Rohlfing, discussed African-Americans’ predisposition to success in sports.

If you call someone or something racist, you need to be darn sure that is really the case. The Editor-in-Chief was dead wrong.

A racist is a person who displays hatred or intolerance of another race or other races. Merritt Rohlfing is not a racist. I live three doors away from Merritt Rohlfing, and have spent plenty of time getting to know him. In our suite, we have Latinos, African Americans, Jews, and Asians (myself included). I can guarantee that all of us would vouch for Merritt’s character.

In the column, Rohlfing does not in any way imply that any racial group is deficient in character, morals, or ideals. He simply delves into the question of why there are differences in athletic ability between different races. Rohlfing isn’t shooting craps here either — he backs up his statements with scientific studies. His brief discussion of the quasi-‘natural selection’ of slavery is factual.

One of the ‘controversial’ statements made in the column was:

“This was the first real wave of truly dominant African-Americans, and they made the game what it is today, taking it from its beginnings of a bunch of white boys tossing a ball into a peach basket. This is what I am talking about, you don’t see Caucasian-Americans doing this — all they can do is set shots and the like. It’s the African-American guys that make the game changing plays. They’re the ones we care about.”

Here, Rohlfing is simply illustrating the point that, in the modern NBA (circa the ABA-NBA split in 1976), the vast majority of game-changing stars have been African American. Even one of the prominent exceptions, Larry Bird (a white NBA star who played from 1979-92), was one of Rohlfing’s prototypical set shooters – not a high-flying scorer like Julius Erving nor a flashy playmaker like Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson, both of whom are black and played in the same era as Bird.

Here’s some real injustice for you: you can trash the character of a person or group — George W. Bush, the gay community, or even elderly people for instance — and get kudos for it. Suddenly, you’re witty, funny, and observant. You comment that blacks are more athletically gifted than whites, and you’re thrown to the wolves — branded as a racist, a bigot, and a shame to society.

Part of the process of ending racism is learning that we aren’t the same. We are born with different talents and abilities. Don’t label Rohlfing as a racist for simply pointing this out.

– David Kurian, ‘10

The response TKS itself gave to “Racism? Nah, Just Some Truth” was rash and out of order. I see no overt racism in this piece. The author was giving his opinion on a matter and he backed up his opinion with more-or-less valid arguments. There is no denying it — people of different races generally have different physical features, which are more than just “skin deep”. Whether or not African-Americans are more athletic than their Caucasian or Hispanic or Asian counterparts has yet to be proven, certainly not by the author of the article at least. But this is an opinion column, and the writer has a right to voice his thoughts, although he supported his opinions with arguments that were generally lacking. Of course, the cogency of his article is not the issue at hand here. What is racist in this article, really? Are you offended that he is suggesting people of differing races and nationalities are different? We are different! Are you offended he is suggesting that black people are more inherently disposed to athleticism than some other peoples? Who is to say that isn’t true? Certainly not every black individual in the world is going to be more athletic than every other individual, but in a general sense in regards to race the idea is not out of the question. It seems as though TKS, in fear of public backlash, hastily released an admonishment of the sports article in order to distance itself from controversy instead of thoughtfully considering the validity of the claims of racism held against the article. One is reminded of Oprah viciously berating James Frey, the Million Little Pieces guy. The problem here is a rash liberalism gone too far. This sort of political correctness is nauseating. I would argue that in the ethics of racism, as one specific example, intention has as much weight as effect. Would you find a study that hypothesized that a central Asian race developed, say, weak leg muscles due to some evolutionary factor? What about a study that attempted to show a lack of some cognitive ability in a certain race? As long as these studies were conducted purely with the purpose of advancing scientific knowledge and not to discredit a race in some way, I wouldn’t believe them to be racist. Let us not let this taboo intimidate us into avoiding any area of exploration for benevolent purposes. Here, another issue arises over the freedom of speech and press. Even if I thought this article was inherently racist, I would still advocate its publication. TKS can disagree with the author if they want, but it was out of line to make the claim that his article was “horrible” or that it should not have been published. Of course, newspapers as private organizations have every right to pick and choose what articles they want to publish, but at Knox I would like to advocate a total freedom of speech. The only basis for deciding whether or not an article should be published should be the relevance and cogency of the article, not any bias towards the content. We all have dissenting opinions, and they should be heard. If you don’t like what a certain article is propagating then write a response to it; let your voice be heard, but do not censor others. Liberalism of this sort and the proponents of “political correctness” have the effect of limiting what is most dear to us liberals and Americans as a whole — free speech.

– Shuye Chen, ‘09

I don’t know who gave this newspaper the green light to write that fucked up article of yours about Black NBA players and sports, but I’m putting that shit to an end. The racist myth of the dominant sports players has no scientific evidence to it. It works to perpetuate the worst stereotypes, undermining the careers of Black professional athletes in general. It also fuels the racist perception that Black people are predisposed to excel physically, while whites are intellectual. Stupidity causes people to point to the high proportion of Black people in the NBA as scientific proof that we are genetically gifted basketball players, oblivious to the fact that the basketball powerhouses are found in Eastern Europe, such as Lithuania and Croatia.

The most fucked up part of this article was when slavery was brought up. Slavery never “weeded” out any “genetic inferiors.” This justifies slavery, ignoring that it was a racial genocide used to destroy an entire continent’s intellectual, economic, and social progress. It makes the horrors on the slave ship appear as if there was a positive to throwing Black people overboard when they happened to become ill by circumstance of disease and sickness on the ship, not because of any genetic inferiority. It also makes Black people seem like animals who can easily be “bred” by racist oppression to become athletes for the sick enjoyment of whites. Who the hell runs this newspaper and why didn’t they read this thoroughly on something so blatantly racist?

– Shanna Collins, ‘10

I appreciated the front page and “Thoughts from the Embers” last week. Repeatedly seeing those faces on copies of the paper around campus and reading that article prevented me from defensively avoiding dealing with reality, and helped me to better grasp the NIU tragedy.

You should also know that reading Merritt Rohlfing’s “Racism?…” was the most insulting experience I have ever had at Knox. How could you publish that? Did editors look at the article? Had they read it, would they have still let it through?

Please explain how this poor decision was made, and what can and will be done to ensure that it will never happen again.

As for the article itself: Mr. Rohlfing, I don’t think you are a “bad person”, but I am disappointed in you as a journalist.

A few weeks ago, ironically, TKS quoted President Roger Taylor quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Your article was a slap in the face to anyone who has ever believed in that wonderful dream, and proof that there is much more work to do before it becomes reality.

I’ll cite one example of prejudice and extreme irresponsibility, and leave the large remainder to other outraged colleagues of ours. “[Sudanese refugees in an Ethiopian refugee camp] already have the genes to be taller, more dominant athletically; they only need the right environment, i.e., living in America.” That sentence made me scream.

First, this statement completely denies that many people in the United States will never realize their full potential due to the malnourishment, poverty, and inequality of opportunity that so many experience in this country. A dramatic example of this national tragedy is the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but that is only one of millions.

Some may argue “free speech”, but I’ll respond that we have responsibilities for our actions and that I am free to speak out against the destructive impact you have had on our community.

Your sloppy use of evolution to explain a racist principle was not only a repugnant offense to people in general, but to anyone who takes seriously the study of biology or history. Please justify your claims in the future, rather than hurtfully speculating.

Knox College, our community is an organism. That article is a starkly embarrassing symptom of racism and prejudice, the contagious diseases that have long infected our community.

We need to cure ourselves.

We must avoid blaming a few individuals, and then telling ourselves the problem is solved. Instead, we must grapple, as individuals and a community, with the complex issues rooted in centuries of prejudice in our nation and worldwide. We must recognize and confront the strong influence this legacy has on our perceptions and actions so that prejudice can be overcome. These issues affect all of us.

– Joey Firman ‘09

Reading Merritt Rohlfing’s editorial “Racism? Nah, just some truth” in the February 21, 2008 edition of The Knox Student pointed out to me not only the wholesale slaughter of English grammar, but also the grotesque misunderstanding that the columnist has of a very complex issue. Rohlfing’s argument is one that has been around for hundreds of years, that Black people are genetically different from Whites and because of this they are better suited for physical (rather than intellectual) activity, such as forced labor, physical comedy, dancing, and organized sports. His two attempts at citing supporting evidence come from examples in East Africa, whereas the overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas came from West Africa. He concludes this section with the extremely insulting (and uncomfortably similar stance as was used to defend slavery) statement that the “natural” athletes of East Africa he has mentioned would achieve their true athletic destiny if they were in the “right environment, i.e. living in America.”

Next, the author insultingly posits the transatlantic slave trade as an ultimate benefit to the genetic pool of Black Americans in an argument overflowing with methodological and historical errors. The author goes on to state that the enslaved African’s “owners would breed those who worked hardest.” Forgiving the insulting and debasing connotation of this statement, the author has neglected to realize that “breeding” occurred most often when White men would rape Black women, often those Black women who were working in the house, often times the younger and more “effeminate” rather than muscular “field hands.”

But the most blatant and undermining aspect of the argument is the assumption that race is a tangible reality. African-Americans are not a singular homogeneous group. The vast majority of Black people in America whose descendents were slaves have a mixture of a multitude of European, American Indian, and African groups in their ancestry. Race distinctions based on skin color has absolutely no scientific foundation.

Why are the author’s statements so damaging? Why would a seemingly genetically based dominance in athletic ability not be a compliment? The long history and legacy of seeing Black people as bodies and not minds, as laborers and not intellectuals, as athletes and not students, etc. demonstrates the danger of such an assumption. Already society and the media tell Black children that their path to success is not through business, school, etc. but through sports and entertainment. An article such as this only works to further destructive notions of racial difference as well as trivialize serious societal issues in regards to opportunity and socialization.

– Chris Guthrie, ‘08

After the column entitled “Racism? Nah, just some truth” written by Merritt Rohlfing, was published in the February 21st edition, all of the discussions I have heard consist of people blaming the editors for publishing the column. I too was outraged by Rohlfing’s conclusions. The jumps he makes and the vagueness of his statement do not help his argument, but I do not blame the editors.

First, it was a column and not an article. According to wikipedia.org, a column contains an opinion or point of view. TKS is a student newspaper so no opinions should be left out, even if they are racist, because that impedes on one’s freedom of speech. If TKS had not printed this column they would not be truthfully representing the opinion of some members of the Knox community. It is a newspaper for students to have a forum to state their opinions. If an article had reported in a racist matter then I too would have written a letter of disgust to TKS about the poor job they are doing with allowing racism to infiltrate into the campus news, but it was not written in an article. It was a column. He was stating his opinion- he was practicing his basic right of freedom of speech.

I see the issue here as something bigger; why do students at Knox have this opinion? How can we, as a campus, stop this way of thinking? This is a bigger issue than one column; we need to address this both academically and socially at Knox.

– Angharad Hollingworth, ‘08

Recently an article was published claiming that due to evolution (the weakest slaves dying on the slave ships) Black people are genetically more prone to athleticism than other races. This hate speech has no place in a newspaper, but especially not in a student newspaper on a campus that prides itself on being diverse, and especially not during Black History Month. I am outraged and I hope that you will issue some form of apology for this thinly-cloaked racism masquerading as truth.

– Devan Bennett, ‘11

The following letters were mistakenly left out of the print edition for this week. They will appear in next week’s issue. We apologize to the authors.

I have spent the last week explaining/discussing in various meetings my feelings on problems with the sports column that the paper decided to publish last week, as well as the fact that that entire column was entirely inaccurate and in full support of subliminal and overt white supremacist ideologies. Implicitly that piece suggested that there was something good that came out of slavery (all of those wonderful “athletic juggernauts” leaving us in awe of their “physical prowess”), when there is, in fact, nothing good that came out of that heinous institution. It also gives a nod to slave owners for such an ‘intelligent’ idea, taking away from the hard work and dedication of black athletes by insinuating that they are only successful because white people breed them to be that way. In the wake of this insanity, I am writing this letter to publicly express my full support for the paper’s decision to keep the piece up on the website. The column should NEVER have been published in The Knox Student, given that Knox College markets itself as a progressive school where progressive thought flourishes (and that column was anything but). However the existence of that piece as part of the Knox community is something that cannot and should not be discarded or erased. The article was not some fluke in the “liberal paradise” of Knox College. That article is Knox. Yes, I said it, there is a significant number of students on campus who support this kind of philosophy and the existence of that piece as an artifact refuses to let us forget that. As far as I am concerned it should be framed so that the community here stops being deluded and apathetic about how ugly we truly are.

– Angela Bailey, ’08

Dear TKS, I read your apology letter before the actual article it refers to (since I rarely read the sports section of any paper). I applaud you for taking quick action.

Merritt Rohlfing needs to take a few more writing course at Knox and some lessons on reasoning and argumentation. Anecdotal evidence is never enough to support any theory, much less an over-arching theory about genetics and performance in sports.

Icelandic men have dominated the ¨Worlds Strongest Man¨ contest. It would require the most fantastical of imaginations to come up with a theory about how the Icelanders have become more genetically muscular,

perhaps due to their survival in hostile weather? What a bunch of nonsense! Rohlfing has also thrown history out the window. In the 20´s and 30´s Jewish men dominated in U.S. basketball. At that time, racist

theories surfaced again about ¨sharper eyes¨ ¨scheming minds and trickiness¨. Do your research not by watching TV or based on your own limited observations, but by utilizing the resources before you: the

library. Read the fascinating research carried out by Associate Professor Louis Harrison on precisely this topic: racial stereotyping in sports, perceived African-American athletic superiority and college-student beliefs of such superiority. I’ll drop some copies in your campus mail.

– Robin Ragan, Associate Professor of Modern Languages

Letters policy

Letters to the editor can be sent to Box K-240 or tks@knox.edu. All signed letters will be printed, but those exceeding 250 words may be edited for space, but not content, following contact with the author if possible.

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