Making any blanket statements about matters of race is generally a bad idea, particularly for a public figure.
ESPN analyst Jalen Rose proved this again while revealing his contempt for the Duke men’s basketball program in ESPN’s documentary about the Fab Five, Michigan’s famed 1991 freshman basketball class of which Rose was a part. In the movie he produced, which premieres Sunday, Rose said he believed the only African American players Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski recruited were “Uncle Toms.”
In discussing the movie since its production, Rose explained his thinking has changed with maturity, but he seemed to hold firm to his flawed belief that the experiences of some African Americans are “more black” than those of others. The premise, misguided as it is, asserts that academic achievement, professional accomplishment and affluence somehow reduces or eliminates a person’s “blackness.”
Rose isn’t the first to express such thoughts. There has been a long, ongoing debate among black folk about the issues he raised.
As for Rose’s accusations about Duke, he appears to use “Uncle Tom” to refer to Duke players from economically successful two-parent families rather than blacks who act subserviently to whites — the latter being the term’s most offensive and common meaning. I got to know several former Duke players during my time as a NBA beat writer, and none fit the the latter description.
But this is about more than Rose’s inaccurate generalization, which he could not possibly support without knowing the background of every African-American player Krzyzewski has recruited during his more than three decades at the school. Rose’s comments stirred thought on a much bigger issue: What constitutes a “true” black experience?
While covering the 2004 Major League Baseball playoffs, I was involved in a locker-room altercation after former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley called me an Uncle Tom.
Bradley, who also is black, was upset about my interview questions and attacked me personally with the worst two words one black man can direct at another. I had to be restrained.
The situation still angers me because Bradley essentially was saying I was “less black” than he because of his perception about my educational background and job. Presumably, I would have been more black to Bradley if I hadn’t worked hard to excel in school and earned a job at the top of my field.
As in every community, some African Americans don’t place as much value on education as others. Comedian Chris Rock tackled the sensitive issue in his groundbreaking 1996 HBO television special, “Chris Rock: Bring the Pain.” In it, Rock does a bit about how some blacks have more respect for people who return home from prison than those who earn master’s degrees.
Obviously, Rock was using hyperbole to get laughs. But he made a valid point about the need for greater emphasis on academic achievement in some segments of black society.
If no one in your family has attended college, the benefit of an education is harder to appreciate.
The urban-suburban argument also continues to drive the discussion. I’ve seen it from both sides. I grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and South Central Los Angeles. I live in the suburbs now.
However, my wife and I didn’t make the move to flee from “being black.” People make decisions about where they prefer to raise their families, and this is where we wound up.
I’m happy my son and daughter live in a two-parent home and that we’re able to provide for them. I take comfort in knowing I have a partner who shares my views on the educational foundation we’re laying for our kids together.
I don’t think that makes me any “less black,” though, than I was when I watched in amazement at how hard my mom worked as a single parent to send three sons to college. I still feel as black as I did when I lived next door to abandoned buildings and held my brothers at night when they were scared by gunfire.
My children won’t have those experiences. But to imply that because of that, their racial identity is somehow compromised is insulting — not only to them but to all of us who know how our skin color has shaped our lives.
Rose certainly knows what that means, but so does Grant Hill and Elton Brand. Each lived very different lives, but the experience of being black in America is what they — and all African Americans — have in common. It’s not a measuring stick to tell them apart.