In Praise of Uncle Toms

A former collegiate basketball star has taken leave of his senses during March Madness.  In his ESPN documentary about the “Fab Five,” the renowned group of basketball standouts at Michigan in the early 1990s, Jalen Rose, a former NBA player who was among the highly-talented group, lashes out at his onetime black rivals from Duke, calling them Uncle Toms.

What prompts the outburst?  In his documentary, which aired ahead of college basketball’s annual March tournament, Rose explains: “For me, Duke was personal.  I hated Duke.  And I hated everything I felt Duke stood for.  Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me.  I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

Asked to elaborate, Rose, who was raised by a single mother in hardscrabble circumstances, added, “Well, certain schools recruit a typical kind of player whether the world admits it or not.  And Duke is one of those schools.  They recruit black players from polished families, accomplished families.  And that’s fine.  That’s okay.  But when you’re an inner-city kid playing in a public school league, you know that certain schools aren’t going to recruit you.”

The New York Times’ William Rhoden notes that Rose would have a stronger case if he and his African-American teammates had enrolled at a historically black college.  “The reality is that, by the strict standards of black empowerment, [neither Duke players of color] nor the Fab Five did the black community any favors,” he writes.  “[They] simply made a wealthy white institution wealthier.”  Rhoden’s right.  Michigan’s sports revenues, for example, tripled to $6 million during the Fab Five period in the early 1990s.  What’s wrong with that?  Nothing.  But the school’s poor record of educating some of its cash cows is an outrage: the graduation rate of its black basketball players, most of whom will not make the pros, is a paltry 33 percent, versus 100 percent for their white teammates.

Rose would also be better placed to cast aspersions but for a scandal that engulfed Michigan’s basketball program during the Fab Five era.  The episode, which involved massive illicit payments to players by a booster, cost Michigan’s basketball coach his job and led to a host of penalties against the school.  An official with the National Collegiate Athletic Association called it, “One of the three or four most egregious violations of NCAA bylaws in the history of the association.”

However, even though the Fab Five were not, pardon the expression, whiter than white, Rose may still have a point.  Duke might target blacks from relatively well-to-do families.  But so what?  This might simply reflect the sad reality that those black (and white) student-athletes best equipped to handle a rigorous curriculum at a top university that takes its scholastic responsibilities seriously may come from relatively affluent milieus.  That eighty-nine percent of Duke’s black male basketball players graduate suggests that the school is doing something right.

More interesting still, Rose’s critique singles out one Duke star in particular.  “I was jealous of Grant Hill,” he admits.  “He came from a great black family [with two successful parents].”  The blunt admission suggests that Rose’s indignation does not stem from Duke’s supposedly elitist recruiting policy alone.  It’s more complex.  Rose condemns the allegedly biased policy and the black sellouts that are its beneficiaries, and yet he also longs to be one of those rarified recruits that he calls Uncle Toms.

Doug Robinson of Deseret News spots in Rose’s observation a troubling dynamic.  “Rose’s statement reflects a division in black America,” he writes.  “Nearly 70 percent of black children live in single-parent families and apparently that has fomented resentment toward blacks who embrace traditional families, education and success.  To listen to Rose, it means they have done it to ingratiate themselves to whites.”  Robinson might add that to listen to Rose is to also hear the voice of envy—an envy undoubtedly fueling his resentment.

Rose’s choice of epithets rounds out this sordid story. The term he uses comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In the book, a noble black slave, Uncle Tom, is brutally killed by his sadistic master after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of two runaway slaves.

Beecher Stowe’s novel became a sensation.  Only the Bible outsold it in the 19th century.  One leading politician at the time even credited it for Lincoln’s election.  Inevitably, a backlash to such a powerful work by those committed to the ugly status quo ensued.  Thus, Uncle Tom, a Christ-like martyr, was recast as a credulous dupe.   Uncle Tom therefore became a term of derision, and eventually morphed into its even more pejorative present-day meaning, a black sellout who “acts white.”

Rose has bought into a similar racist canard, as he conflates positive values like polish and accomplishment with white skin, while characterizing blacks possessing those attributes as treacherously inauthentic.  What sort of person has such a miserable image of his own race?  A fake Uncle Tom, not one that Beecher Stowe would recognize.

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