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.

A few summers ago, I took my daughter and a few of her friends to see the rapper Lil Wayne in concert. He bounded onto the stage in a blaze of blinking lights, then served up the usual menu of songs about gangsters, hustlers, and pimps.

And the mostly white audience cheered.

Why? There were many reasons, I’m sure, but here’s the most troubling one: The images in the songs confirmed white listeners’ lowly view of black people. That put me into a deep funk, which continued long after the concert was over.

Now I’m in a funk again, thanks to remarks about Duke University basketball by Jalen Rose. In a new ESPN documentary about the so-called “Fab Five” hoops team at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, Mr. Rose (a member of the Fab Five) says that he and the other African-Americans on the Michigan squad believed that Duke “only recruited black players who were Uncle Toms.”

Rose singled out the former Duke standout Grant Hill, noting that Mr. Hill grew up in a two-parent household and that his mother and father had both attended college. The comment drew a calm but pointed rebuke last week from Hill, who cautioned Rose against “stereotyping” black people.

Meanwhile, Internet chat rooms lit up with debate about Rose’s comments. Was he just “keepin’ it real,” describing the way young black males from hardscrabble circumstances view the world? Or did the comments signal something more sinister in the black community, which too often stigmatizes successful African-Americans as somehow less than black?

Are 'real' blacks uneducated with single-parents?

These are all good questions, but they ignore the role of the white community in this scenario. And that’s too bad, because Rose’s comments – like many rap songs – reinforce every anti-black prejudice in the white mind.

If African-Americans with two-parent families and formal education are somehow sellouts or Uncle Toms, after all, that means “real” or authentic blacks are uneducated people who live in single-parent homes. If you were a white person who openly despised African-Americans, wouldn’t that be sweet music to your ears?

And it’s not just outright racists who groove to the tune. It finds a different kind of audience among well-meaning liberals in the academy, who frequently describe the kinds of virtues exemplified by Hill’s family – hard work, marital stability, and an emphasis upon education – as “white middle-class values.” In this argument, low rates of education and higher rates of single-parenthood are part of African-American culture; so any effort to change them reflects an imposition of “white” values upon black people.

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.

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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