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The real March Madness: Duke, Uncle Tom, and success as a 'white' value

Former Michigan basketball star Jalen Rose sparked controversy over his comment that Duke 'only recruited black players who were Uncle Toms.' This damaging stereotype – that education, marriage, and financial stability are 'white' – is perpetuated by black and white communities alike.

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Give the rising black middle class credit

That’s a slur against the Hills and the millions of other African-Americans who have risen into the black middle class over the past half-century. More African-Americans now live in suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland than in Washington D.C. And they got there just like other Americans did: through strong families, individual persistence, and – yes – formal education.

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Given all the obstacles in their way, indeed, black people have probably needed more of these qualities than anybody else. By calling such values “white,” then, we diminish African-Americans’ remarkable triumph in the face of massive bigotry.

Worst of all, we aid and abet the same prejudice. And prejudice is prejudice, whether it comes from an avowed white racist or from a sympathetic white liberal. One thinks that blacks are too lazy and unintelligent to make it in the world, while the other thinks “white” standards of achievement unfairly penalize African-Americans. But both arguments discount the deep traditions of determination and accomplishment at the heart of African-American life.

To his credit, Rose has emphasized that he no longer thinks educated African-Americans are Uncle Toms. And Rose has put his money where his mouth his, donating millions to a charter school in his native Detroit.

Consciously (or unconsciously) applauding stereotypes

Last Sunday, as fate would have it, Michigan squared off against Duke in the NCAA tournament. Commentators billed it as a rematch of the 1992 national championship, in which the Blue Devils thumped Rose and the “Fab Five.”

Duke came out on top again this time, led by Nolan Smith’s 24 points. The product of a single-parent black household, Mr. Smith is graduating in the spring with a degree in African-American Studies. An Uncle Tom? Please.

But as this sad episode has demonstrated, plenty of black people still think that an educated and successful African-American is just “acting white.” The “real” blacks are down in the “hood,” immersed in drugs and crime and irresponsible sex.

And, lest we forget, plenty of white people agree. You can see them at any rap concert, shucking and jiving to the most bigoted stereotypes in the American racial lexicon. Every time an African-American indulges in these images, a white person consciously – or unconsciously – applauds. And that might be the most upsetting image of all.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author most recently of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”


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