Thursday, June 13, 2013

Where Are The Black Runners?

Admittedly, I debated for quite a while about how to broach today's blog post.  It seems anytime you bring up questions involving race and skin color, you're immediately met with a variety of opinions, frustrations, ignorance, and misunderstanding.  So when I pose the following question, it's not an attempt to unlock some sociological mystery, or solve any of today's racial woes ... it's simply a fascinating topic of discussion to me.  When I stand at the starting line of a marathon, or any distance race for that matter, and turn and look back toward the field, for the most part all I see are white faces like mine staring back at me.  Which makes me wonder ... where are the black runners?

A quick look at the racial demographics of this country explains why this is so interesting to me.  According to the 2010 United  States Census Bureau, of the 315 million people living in the US, about 63% are White, 16% are Hispanic or Latino, 13% are Black or African American, and the remaining 8% are made up of Asian, American Indian and Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.

However, according to the Professional Athlete's Wellness Group, if you examine a breakdown of the percentages by race in the four major American sports ... football, basketball, baseball, and soccer ... you find with the exception of baseball, the ratio of black athletes in American professional sports is much higher than the ratio in the US general population.  Most notably, black athletes make up about 67% of the National Football League, and nearly 80% of the National Basketball Association.  (Sorry, I didn't breakdown hockey, it's Canadian)  In fact, despite making up only about 13% of the US general population, black athletes occupy about 43% of the overall sports population in the United States.

So with such an high ratio of black athletes in American sports, it would stand to reason that the same is true in the fastest growing American sport, distance running ... right?   Well, I searched every corner of the internet for racial demographics of marathons ... but they simply don't exist.  And I think it's obvious why there is no published data on it.  You only have to stand at the finish line of a few races in any city in America to realize that they're about 95% white, and 5% everyone else.

It's not that there are no black distance runners ... quite the contrary.  Frankly they dominate the Championship end of the sport.  22 out of the last 23 Boston Marathon male winners have been from Kenya or Ethiopia.  These two countries were also home to 10 out of the last 15 New York City Marathon male winners.  And 11 out of the last 12 Olympic medalist were also from East African Countries.  But what about the "Average Joe's" like you and me?  What about the folks who are "middle and back of the packers"?  Why is pretty much everyone else in a marathon white?

Awareness of this issue is beginning to create quite a ripple effect in the running community.  Runner's World wrote a great article in 2008 about the absence of African American runners in distance events, and another in 2011 titled "Why Is Running So White? Also, there are many local clubs forming throughout the country, as well as great national groups like the National Black Marathoners Association.   The NBMA is dedicated to creating life-long fitness goals, and providing scholarships to deserving high school distance runners in the black community.  And also, there's the wonderfully sassy and fashionable Black Girls Run!.  It's another national organization "created to combat the obesity epidemic among women in the African-American community and dispel the myth that black women do not run."

African Americans face a disproportionately high rate of obesity, blood pressure, and diabetes compared to the rest of the country according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.  And while these health concerns are at the forefront of the issue, the 2011 Runner's World article also eludes to other environmental reasons such as unsafe neighborhoods in urban areas as one of the main inhibitors to physical activity among African Americans.  But groups like the NBMA and Black Girls Run! are helping shed light on some of the socioeconomic, nutritional, and health issues that affect African Americans and ultimately hinder physical activity and running.  Basically, they're helping make running cool.

I can't begin to tell you how much running has enriched my life.  But as I look around the running landscape, sometimes it appears to be predominantly a sport for upper-middle class white people, like golf, or tennis ... or Frisbee.  It's like a club for suburban white women to melt off a little baby fat, or where middle-aged white men check one off the bucket list.  And that's wonderful if it gets people moving and improves their quality of life.  But hopefully as marathon enrollment continues to grow and running continues to gain popularity in this country, there will not only be white faces in the crowd when I scan the field, but more and more faces of color.
... be great today!


  1. I have heard that before, interesting. Not a lot of black people run races in Montana but then again we don't have a lot of them here.

  2. I'm sure part of it has to do with where you live. Being from Detroit(ok, suburbs of Detroit), I see black runners at almost every race I attend(the normal joes). What I typically see is a bit different that the white crowd. Mostly it's black women out there walking the race trying to lose weight. In regards to men, it's usually the really super fit, muscular guy. Just my observations. Regardless, I welcome anyone wanting to improve themselves through running. One of my good friends is a black woman that got inspired by my running and did the Detroit marathon - how awesome is that! She's going to walk Chicago this year.

  3. I'm along the thoughts of Jeff...There is black runners out at races here in the Chicago area but I have to admit it has increased tremendously imo since I started running only 4 years ago. Also closer to the city is when you see more at races. Further out at little town races you usually don't. There are two groups here, Elijah running club and of course Black Girls Run.

  4. New Orleans is ethnically diverse, and so are our races, but I have noticed that our distance training runs and groups are almost all white. On the other hand, the sprinters in this area are almost entirely African American. Underrepresented? The many creoles and Vietnamese of the city, whom I rarely see out at races or training.

  5. Geez Jim get a life! haha jk we don't even have black people in Utah so I'm shocked to hear that they actually run. :)

    Next on your docket can you please research the percentage of skirt versus short wearing runners and the difference in marathon finishing times? Now that would be entirely interesting!

  6. kiiiiller 800's the other day btw.

  7. The disparity regarding health is tied closely to socio-economic issues, regardless of where you live, or your ethnicity. I began running as a teen because all I needed was a pair of sneakers and some sweats, but ... I had a place to run, and the streets were somewhat safe. Any other suggestions on how to make this situation better?

  8. I'm pretty sure that running's the same over here. And I don't understand it because it's a sport that's accessible to anyone regardless of race or colour or income.

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  10. It's interesting you brought this up because my friend and I were talking about this very topic this past weekend.

  11. Great topic, Jim. I live in Anchorage, which is very diverse, yet most of the faces at the races are white, which is disappointing and bothersome. I think it has to do with economics, for one: If you're working a low-paying, menial job, it's tough to muster the energy to run 15 miles after being on your feet all day.
    I also think that it's cultural: Face it, America doesn't exactly toot the horn of distance runners as it does football and basketball players.
    Face it, distance running IS a middle-class luxury, and hopefully we all take the time every now and again to be thankful we're able to do it.
    And maybe I'll get a lot of snubs for this but I have to say, as someone whose partner has a very lovely and awesome black daughter, that Rachelle's comment was highly offensive:
    "Geez Jim get a life! haha jk we don't even have black people in Utah so I'm shocked to hear that they actually run. :)"
    Maybe that's funny to people in Utah but to people in Anchorage and other multi-racial cities, it's ugly and totally unnecessary. Hopefully someone will remove this comment or amend it. Put it this way: If I had never read this blog before and came across such a comment, I doubt I'd ever return to the site.
    Cheers and happy running.

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  14. I wrote a piece about this a few weeks ago in The Guardian (a British newspaper). There are some stats on running and ethnicity in America and African Americans make up 1.6% of serious runners (see my piece for more details

    Enjoying your blog as a fellow over 40 fighting back and denying the inevitability of decay and death one marathon at a time!


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