Why Are There So Many Black Athletes?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The statistics don’t lie, but they might surprise you.

Generic image Thinkstock Photos

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 89: Why are there so many black people playing professional sports in the United States?

The short answer: There aren’t!  

When I was growing up in the 1950s, we were taught that we had a much better chance of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, a dentist or a teacher or a preacher than a professional athlete. In fact, I’d venture to say that the “blackest” thing a black child could aspire to be in the ’50s and early ’60s was a doctor or a lawyer, not a baseball, basketball or football player. Educated black women and men were the heroes of the race, along with the brilliant black athletes who were knocking down the barriers of segregation in professional sports. But even though we all admired and cheered on those pioneers in sport, few of us thought of these as viable career options for the “average” African American. I worry that, in terms of the career goals for which our children now aim, that outlook has changed—and changed for the worse—with potentially disastrous consequences.

As we suit up for the return to work tomorrow, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of African Americans, like all Americans, go to ordinary jobs and, in them, do extraordinary things. I say this both to honor working men and women everywhere this Labor Day and to challenge the belief among all too many of our children that the dream to aim for is a sports scholarship or being drafted by a professional basketball or football team.   

Which Are More Numerous: Black Pro-Ballers or Neurologists?

I root for my favorite teams and players with as much passion and devotion as anyone. Yet I fear the distorted belief held by some of our young people that it is easier to make it into the pros than to get into college can too often lead to the harmful internalization of one-dimensional stereotypes, not to mention massive, widespread disappointment for those who fall short of obtaining long-term wealth through sports or for those who suffer a career-ending injury. Being overly focused on sports as a viable career option denies our young people a broader array of successful role models to inspire their ambition and study, starting with grade school, and their advancement through the school system onto college.

With this top of mind, I dug into the numbers on contemporary African-American occupations. What I found may surprise you; I know it astonished me. My main hope, though, is that these statistics will stimulate more informed career conversations when our young people seeking advice about the future come knocking on your door.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey,” last year African Americans were represented in a broad range of occupations. I encourage you to check out the full list, but below are the jobs that caught my eye, including both the raw numbers and percentages (in parentheses) of black workers within each job category. For reference, the 16.1 million African Americans working in 2013 made up 11.2 percent of all employed U.S. workers and were approximately 13.2 percent of the population as a whole.

  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officers: 98,974 (14.2 percent of all police and sheriff’s patrol officers)
  • Post-secondary teachers: 89,284 (6.8 percent of all post-secondary teachers)
  • Physicians and surgeons: 59,776 (6.4 percent of all physicians and surgeons)
  • Chefs: 58,225 (13.7 percent of all chefs)
  • Lawyers: 45,864 (4.2 percent of all lawyers)
  • Clergy: 37,310 (9.1 percent of all clergy)
  • Civil engineers: 23,040 (6.4 percent of all civil engineers)
  • Pharmacists: 14,958 (5.4 percent of all pharmacists)
  • Writers and authors: 10,032 (4.8 percent of all writers and authors)
  • Dentists: 8,601 (4.7 percent of all dentists, including my brother, Dr. Paul Gates)
  • Psychologists: 6,696 (3.6 percent of all psychologists)
  • Architects: 3,088 (1.6 percent of all architects)