Review of ‘Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora’ by Ben Carrington

Race, Sport and Politics is an intense sociological engagement with the intersection of- as the title suggests- race, sport and politics in twentieth century Britain and USA. Ben Carrington is a well-established and well-respected author in the areas of sociological theory, ‘race’, culture and sport and this book reflects his passion for the study of ‘race’ and sport.

Race, Sport and Politics opens with a thrilling account of the black American boxer Jack Johnson who, in 1908, defeated the white Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney to become the World Heavyweight Champion. It was a pivotal moment in history. In 1908, at the peak of imperialism, social Darwinism, eugenics and ‘Muscular Christianity’, boxing epitomised all that was brave, courageous and physically strong in the white ‘race’. As a result, Johnson’s win greatly alarmed the white ruling elites around the world from his native USA to Australia where the epic event transpired (Carrington informs us that Johnson enjoyed the support of the Aborigines of Australia). Johnson’s win was seen as a potential trigger for a ‘black revolution’ having huge implications for imperialism which was based on a white supremacist ideology.

Taking this event as the starting point, Ben Carrington’s latest book, then, ‘is an account of the political meanings and the global impact of ‘the black athlete’ over the past century, the role of sport in the making and remaking of western ideas about racial difference, and the position of sport in the forging of gendered, national and racial identities within the broader African diaspora. …………….throughout the twentieth century and into the present there has been a continuous struggle over the meaning of ‘the black athlete’………….. The loss of political power, and the concomitant fears of sexual impotency, finds [sic] its corollary in the rise of the black athlete’.

Having established this, the book moves to a theoretical engagement with sport, ‘race’ and the human body in the wider social and political contexts of the day. Here Carrington engages with and invokes a broad range of social, cultural and literary theorists, among others, Gramsci on hegemony, Frantz Fanon, Césaire, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Allen Guttmann, John Hargreaves, Richard Gruneau, Anne McClintock, Paul Gilroy as well as a number of present-day writers on sport history and postcolonialism.

Contrary to Guttmann, Carrington posits that like citizenship, ‘sports were born out of and from classed, gendered and racial inequalities’. The black boxer Jack Johnson is an important diasporic figure for Carrington because like other African-Americans Tom Molineaux and Jackie Robinson, the fame and opportunities denied at home were found outside the USA. However, the opportunity to challenge Tommy Burns did not come easily to Jack Johnson. There was severe opposition from various quarters. Boxing was one of the few arenas where a display of violence and physical prowess was sanctioned. Therefore, victory for a black boxer suggested to the ruling elites, an unacceptable subversion of the racial hierarchy and a challenge to white physical superiority [1]. As accounts of Johnson’s reaction show, to him, a victory against a white boxer represented successful resistance and response to racist imperialism [2]. Following Fanon, Carrington notes, ‘The colonial subject’s dreams of muscular prowess……..imbue the category of sport with a form of physical release and symbolic power that resonates far beyond the playing fields and boxing rings from where they come. In this context we might suggest that sport becomes articulated with discourses of freedom and hope in the refiguring of the category of ‘the human’’.

Carrington goes on to discuss violence, sexuality and desire in the context of ‘the black athlete’. Discourses on ‘the black athlete’ underwent various transitions in the twentieth century. Leading black intellectuals and leaders saw Jack Johnson as too brash, promiscuous and aggressive to be the ideal figurehead for the black struggle for emancipation even though his contribution did much to help the cause. Carrington then examines two former heavyweight boxing champions, the Briton Frank Bruno and the American Mike Tyson, in terms of the colonial binary good black-bad black. The level of acceptance and image enjoyed by them are contrasted and examined, as is their own embrace of their black identity. The book finally moves to a review and discussion of the state of multiculturalism in Britain today- the publication and media, political and popular reception of the Parekh Report of 2000, the London Olympic bid for the 2012 Olympics [3], the terror attacks of 2005, shift of the label of ‘outsider’ and ‘enemy’ from blacks to the Asian Muslim today, the fortunes of black and Asian British sportsmen (in particular Lewis Hamilton and Monty Panesar), and the role of sport as a catalyst for and an indicator of popular attitudes towards diversity [4].

The conclusion ties together the main points of the book- complex relationships between race and sexual desire, race and gender, race and nationalism, all analysed through the prism of sport and ‘the black athlete’. What remains to be seen is if the discourse on ‘the black athlete’ changes in the ‘Age of Obama’.

In the first couple of chapters, Race, Sport and Politics takes the form of an intense theoretical engagement with the topics in what is clearly an expert and advanced sociological study. As the book progresses, it picks up narrative pace and is enlivened by illustrative examples, posters and revealing contemporary events.

Carrington aims to make several important points through this book. To studies of ‘race’ and politics, the book offers an analysis of the perception of ‘the black (male) athlete’ from the days of Social Darwinism and eugenics to the present day. To social theory, Carrington wishes to contribute, through such a study of sport, race and politics, theory generated by sport instead of passive application of existing social theory to sport. Carrington brings into focus the step-motherly treatment meted to the sub-field of sociology of sport. He highlights the role of sport in culture and society to counter the general perception of sport as a disorganised leisure activity with no meaningful contribution to society. Inspite of some brilliant and rigorous work by an increasing number of academics and academic journals in this area, ‘mainstream’ sociologists tend to either pay passing attention to sport or ignore its potential completely. Their engagement ends with the mention of the great CLR James. A cursory glance at the sociology and culture studies departments of leading British universities confirms this to the reader. This book is an important contribution towards redressing this grievance of sociologists of sport and indeed, historians of sport who are faced with a similar neglect!

Along with Paul Gilroy, John Solomos, Les Back, Ian McDonald and others, Carrington is undoubtedly one of the best-known names in the sociological sub-fields of sport, ‘race’ and culture.

Notes:

[1] On the other hand, the reader might recall that cricketers of Indian origin such as KS Ranjitsinhji (‘Ranji’) and his nephew KS Duleepsinhji have represented Oxbridge, MCC/England and Gentlemen (in the Gentlemen vs Players matches). Thus, while participation of non-white sportsmen in boxing was severely opposed, imperial cricket welcomed these non-white players (although their stories are not completely devoid of discrimination).

Unlike boxing, cricket- the epitome of all that was quintessentially English and artistic- was seen as an instrument of cultural imperialism and hence encouraged in the colonies. See the works of JA Mangan, Brian Stoddart, and various other writers on cricket and imperialism.

[2] See Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidadian Marxist writer CLR James for similar discourses on West Indian cricket victories over England.

[3] One might regard the successful London 2012 Olympic bid and the failed Football World Cup 2018 bid as particularly revealing. The 2018 bid contained contributions of inner-city children. Both bids used as their USP, the presentation of England and London as diverse and multicultural with emphasis on the ability of sport to contribute to social cohesion.

[4] Mike Marqusee’s iconoclastic book entitled Anyone but England is very highly recommended for a sharp and brilliant examination of British attitudes towards cricketers from ethnic minorities in Britain and non-white countries in the 20th century. His website carries what is probably the most important and telling chapter of the book, entitled ‘In Search of the Unequivocal Englishman’ (http://www.mikemarqusee.com/?p=69). It is an excellent study of the relationship between sport, ‘race’, ethnicity and nationalism.


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