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Most people hear this in one form or another at some point in their life, especially those kids who play basketball.

Even videos of white guys who have excellent jumping ability stress the fact that they are white — "A true white kid that can jump" (YouTube).

So is it really true? Scientifically speaking, on a bell curve of the vertical of all black people and all white people, would the peak of the curve be higher for black people than for white people?

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What are you talking about I got mad UPsss!!!! ...[no I don't] –  Mark Rogers Mar 28 '11 at 4:27
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Pssh. I can do a 360 dunk, easy. (Maybe someday I'll raise the goal to eight feet and try it there, but what's the rush?) –  mmyers Mar 28 '11 at 21:44
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Not bell-curve, but outliers - current high jump WR holders: men (black); women (white). –  user2466 Jun 15 '11 at 9:56
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This is key: given the evidence that West African elite athletes and their relations in the Americas seem to be better sprinters and jumpers and that East African elite athletes (particularly from mountain regions) better long distance runners, it seems that both genetics and environment affect performance in different events but that it is not specifically linked to skin-colour. –  Henry Jun 15 '11 at 12:53
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although there's nothing wrong with it scientifically wrong with it, scientifically, is the distinction of 2 colors - white and black - which doesn't fit. People aren't black, and less so white. –  user unknown Jun 15 '11 at 23:34

3 Answers 3

Yes.

There have been a couple of studies on this, most of which are paywalled, but there is a very interesting Master's thesis "Force-velocity Characteristics of the Leg Muscles and Anaerobic Performance in African-American and Caucasian College-aged Males" (PDF) which studies ~50 college-age males of similar levels of fitness and body composition, and found:

African-American males jumped 8 cm higher on average than the Caucasian males. The results of this study coincide with the findings of several other studies - Barker et al. compared vertical jump performance in college football players and found that African-Americans jumped 7.5 cm higher on average than Caucasians. They also found that the African-Americans had a significantly lower percentage of body fat and were significantly shorter than Caucasians...

We chose to control for body fat percentage due to the significant effect of body fat percentage on vertical jump performance revealed by MANCOVA. Because there was no difference in body composition between the two groups, it is unlikely that this explains the racial difference in vertical jump performance.

There are a few possible reasons for the difference in vertical jump performance. African-Americans may have a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers and higher glycolytic enzyme activities, both of which would enhance anaerobic performance. However, these variables were not measured in this study. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that muscle fiber type or enzyme activity are the reasons for the differences in performance shown here. Another possibility is greater leg length among African- Americans, which has been found to significantly correlate with vertical jump performance. Leg length was not measured in this study, but other studies have reported that African-Americans have greater leg lengths than Caucasians.

There are a great many interesting citations in that paper which corroborate the findings. This 1988 study on 12-14 year olds also found that African-Americans had a higher average vertical leap than Caucasians, with the effect being more pronounced with boys than with girls (where it was still statistically significant).

Another study with similar findings is this one, "A comparison of anaerobic power between black and white adolescent males" from 1988 which studied ~130 high school students (age ~16).

enter image description here

I can't find any meta-analyses on this, but from my searching it looks like black males consistently leap higher than white males - I haven't found a single study where white males jumped higher.

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This is a poor study. There is no info, for instance, on the social origin of the studied group. The number of participants is ridiculously low as well "The participants were 23 African-American and 27 Caucasian males". Really, this isn't serious. –  on_my_way_out Jun 15 '11 at 11:57
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@Roubachof I have added results from another study with ~130 participants. I can't find anything done on a larger scale, but then I can't find anything that contradicts these results either. –  jozzas Jun 15 '11 at 22:42
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I assumed that the question was asked from an America-centric point of view, which I think is a reasonable based on context, the specific mention of basketball, the movie "White Men Can't Jump" and the origins of the myth (though it would have been helpful if the questioner stated as such). All studies in my answer were conducted in America, on Americans. The studies in my answer were conducted on African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans, and "black" Americans and "white" Americans, respectively. –  jozzas Jun 16 '11 at 1:12
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@Roubachof Do you have evidence to support your "social class" theory? –  DJClayworth Jun 28 '11 at 16:53
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@DJ This is not a theory, this is weakness in the study. For instance, if the study was serious, it would have referenced for each participant, its most practiced sport. And it could have shown, that people playing basket-ball jump higher than people playing tennis. You cannot just take arbitrary x people you consider to be black and y to be white and make them jump: it is silly. –  on_my_way_out Jun 28 '11 at 23:38

This is a great article that goes through the truths & myths regarding African American athletes and their domination of many sports including football, basketball and more. It can be found on page 183 of the book "African Americans in sport: contemporary themes" By Gary Alan Sailes

Summary:

The African-American Athlete: Social Myths and Stereotypes by Gary A. Sailes, Indiana University

This essay notes the domination of African American athletes and discusses the attempts to explain the successes that have resulted in racial myths and stereotypes.

Again, the author reviews the history of African American participation in sport, this time adding the history of the “dumb jock” stereotype. The author also reviews two distinct stereotypes that have emerged regarding African American males—the “brute” and the “sambo.” The brute depicts the African American male as primitive, temperamental, overreactive, uncontrollable, violent and sexually powerful, intentionally separating the African American from intellectualism and mental abilities. The sambo depicts the African American male as benign, childish, immature, lazy, comical, fun-loving, impulsive, good-humored, inferior and loveable, a stereotype that the author says has its roots in American slavery. The author notes that the Harlem Globetrotters were criticized in the late 1970s for perpetuating the sambo stereotype.

The author discusses the belief, which was quite popular in mainstream media in the late 1980s, that African American athletes are physically superior to white athletes. The theory says that this superiority is genetic, giving Blacks an advantage over their white counterparts. The author then reviewed the common theories, dispelling each one as myth.

(emphasis added, source)

http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=SAa_GairhY8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA183&dq=african+americans+foot+muscle+jump&ots=tc34wBQ5Xe&sig=vlJFNCHnp9qZqlwqe1MSFrWh_Go#v=onepage&q&f=false

Google Book result in above link may or may not be available

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-1: I don't really see nothing about jumping. Just a very general "author then reviewed the common theories, dispelling each one as myth." which may or may not include this question. Your answer is interesting but it doesn't really answer the question. –  user288 May 18 '11 at 18:08

The TV show The Nature of Things on CBC this week talked about man's (homo sapiens) evolutionary adaptations, which make us long-distance runners (able to run down animals until they have to stop from heat exhaustion - suggested we ought to be called 'homo cursor', "running man", instead).

Part of that show mentioned the first Ethiopian who won an Olympic gold medal for running: barefoot.

The show then took us to modern Ethiopia.

The people who do well (as runners) there come from similar backgrounds: really really poor (and, motivated). The fact that children of poor farmers don't wear shoes was asserted to be one of the reasons why they're stronger runners as adults.

If nature (e.g. 'black' or 'white' skin) might be a part of it, so might nurture.

Also this program wasn't talking about "the average": it was talking about athletes, and elite athletes at that.

This doesn't answer your question, which is explicitly about the average: but maybe that's the wrong question. "White men can't jump" might be more of a statement about elite athletes (e.g. the NBA) than about the average.

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