This summer, Howard University’s Dr. Edward Jones fielded a lot of phone calls and e-mails. People wanted to discuss why black people run faster than white people, and why white people swim better than black people. One particularly strange caller, he says, wanted to talk about this subject in connection with bellybuttons, as he had a theory that the majority of black people have outies, and that the protruding flesh helps them run faster.

“It was obviously quite a bit of attention,” says Jones.

The attention came after Jones published a paper with fellow academic Adrian Bejan, a teacher of mechanical engineering at Duke University. The paper, called “The Evolution of Speed in Athletics: Why the Fastest Runners are Black and Swimmers are White,” inspired numerous articles and an NPR story.

It seeks to explain why there’s such a high concentration of successful Olympic sprinters of West African descent, and Olympic swimmers of European descent. The answer, in the paper’s opinion, is due to body differences that allow the two groups to excel in their respective categories. “Body differences [are] related to structural density,” says Jones.  Many black runners, for instance, have a higher center of balance.

The hypothesis is both interesting and problematic. Theories that suggest racial determinism have almost always been a way to legitimize racist beliefs; it doesn’t take much to imagine Jones’ paper being used to justify skull measurements. But Jones says there are nuances to his work that put it in a completely different category than bigoted pseudo-science. For one thing, he offers that it’s possible that his paper isn’t actually, well, true: “It presents a logical explanation. But there could be alternative explanations.”

Jones also makes clear that the taxonomy of race is inherently flawed. Not all black people, or even all Africans, for that matter, have the build to be excellent sprinters. The body type he and his colleague believe may provide an advantage for short distance running is found in West Africa, specifically. “The risk  in over-interpreting the results is that there are so many factors,” he says. Which could lead to inaccurate stereotyping. Jones himself, who is African American, is an excellent swimmer and former lifeguard.

But nuanced or not, some are bound to have problems with his assertions. And Jones would seem to be in a position to learn firsthand what some of those problems are. He’s a relatively new teacher on a historically black campus that was once considered an epicenter of the black power movement. Decades ago, the election of a homecoming queen with an Afro inspired Howard students to break into the spontaneous chant: “Ungawa, Black Power,” and there have been plenty of rallies, sit-ins and building take-overs since then.

Jones isn’t worried, however, so far his colleagues have done nothing but congratulate him for writing something noteworthy. He knows he isn’t out of the woods yet, though. Once the students hear about the paper, “I anticipate there will be some future discussion.”

*Photo courtesy of Edward Jones