Uncle Tom & Black America

Two well known basketball players stand at the center of a debate which raced through the nation’s media last week.  The first is Jalen Rose, forever remembered as one of Michigan University’s “Fab Five” freshmen who took the college basketball world by storm in 1991.  The other is Grant Hill, former Duke University standout and current Phoenix Suns player in the NBA.

Rose prompted the debate with comments made during the recent ESPN special, The Fab Five.

Jalen Rose - former member of Michigan's Fab Five

“Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me.  I felt that they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms. … I was jealous of Grant Hill. He came from a great black family. Congratulations. Your mom went to college and was roommates with Hillary Clinton. Your dad played in the NFL as a very well-spoken and successful man. I was upset and bitter that my mom had to bust her hump for 20-plus years. I was bitter that I had a professional athlete that was my father that I didn’t know. I resented that, more so than I resented him. I looked at it as they are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates.”

Upon hearing himself compared to Uncle Tom, Grant Hill responded immediately.

“To hint that those who grew up in a household with a mother and father are somehow less black than those who did not is beyond ridiculous… I caution my fabulous five friends to avoid stereotyping me and others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger. I wish for you the restoration of the bond that made you friends, brothers and icons.

I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five.”

Grant Hill, current player for the NBA's Phoenix Suns

I am probably the last person who should comment on an argument between two black men, with the Uncle Tom slur sitting at the middle.  I am a white man from Middle America.  But I believe the intensity of the debate, which now transcends Rose and Hill – critical commentary has appeared in such leading media outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, leading periodicals such a Forbes, online fora such as Slate and leading news outlets such as MSNBC – reveals two problems plaguing America, ones that must be addressed.

First, a little history on Uncle Tom.  Sadly, Uncle Tom barely tickles most white people’s memories from high school history or literature classes.  According to Wikipedia, “Uncle Tom is a derogatory term for a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people.  The term comes from the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

From what I have been told, calling a black man an Uncle Tom is the worst thing you could say to him.  The term dredges up atrocious memories of slavery.  It suggests that a black man is ashamed of his people and race; he is willing to grovel before a white man to be accepted in his world.

I can’t “feel” the effect of this slur; I can only imagine it.  And what is almost unimaginable is being owned by another human being, having no rights as a person, no promise of a family, no protection under a nation’s laws, etc.  Given the atrocities of slavery, I doubt a white American can feel what Black America feels.  But understanding pride and dignity, I can at least imagine hearing my own people throw a label upon me which suggests I am a coward and sell-out.  I can also imagine the pride which would lead Black Americans to resent people who appear spineless and ashamed of their own race.

Jalen Rose invoked the Uncle Tom slur against Grant Hill, a black man who grew up in a home of affluence and privilege – worlds apart from

Jalen Rose guarding Grant Hill in a college match up

Rose’s inner city upbringing.  Let’s be honest; nothing about Jalen Rose would make his exit from the ghetto and his entrance into the safer, more prosperous world easy.  He faced the world every day with a black, inner city face.  Whether we admit it or not, he stumbled into prejudice before he even had a chance to introduce himself or prove his value as a human being.

Rose’s environment would have taught him how to dress, talk, walk, and view the outside world.  He would have formed his own reverse prejudices, carried them with him, and perhaps, as a result, slammed shut some of his own doors of opportunity.  Surely these factors contributed to his emotional feelings toward elite schools such as Duke and the black athletes who play there.

But my point is not to play armchair sociologist with either Rose or Hill; rather, I would like to address two plaguing problems I believe their Uncle Tom riff displays.  The first is the American media’s tendency to mischaracterize a person, portraying them in a negative light far removed from truth.

In the wake of Jalen Rose’s Uncle Tom comment and Grant Hill’s prickly response, the media whipped the issue into a frenzy, ultimately painting Rose as a rash, angry black man and Hill as a wise, refined gentleman.  Casual viewers or readers were steered toward the conclusion that Rose is impulsive and reactionary, that he unfairly attacked the respectable Hill.  I believe the average person’s opinion of Jalen Rose, upon following the media’s portrayal, would be negative.

The news media carries enormous influence, particularly when its audience has no other source for obtaining the facts of the matter.  This is how the media shapes culture, public opinion, even behavior.  I believe the media painted Jalen Rose in a color that does not resemble the truth.  In fact, having personally watched ESPN’s The Fab Five – in which Rose made the comment – I wonder whether the media pontificators even watched the show.  What appears more likely is that they heard the Uncle Tom sound bite out of context and rushed to judgment.

Inner city Detroit

Watching the program personally, I heard Rose’s comment in context.  He was remarkably honest and well spoken.  He was reflecting back – a man now in his 40s – trying to recall his thoughts and feelings as a teenage boy.  Who can blame him for feeling like Duke University would never have embraced an inner city boy from Detroit?  They probably would not have.  Grant Hill, the cultured son of privileged black parents, was much easier to embrace.  Had I been Jalen Rose, I would have felt the same way.

The point is that the media did not accurately report Rose’s comment in context.  They made it sound as if he is angry right now in the same way he was as a teenager, which may be true, but that is not at all how Rose spoke.  Their reporting left audiences with the understanding that Rose is an angry reactionary whose mouth stirred up trouble that does not need stirred.

Had members of the media actually watched the show, or watched it disinterestedly – without bias – they would have seen a far different Jalen Rose than the one they misrepresented.  What is abundantly clear, hearing Steve Fisher – Rose’s Michigan coach – and his former teammates speak, is that Rose is an extremely caring person.

Take, for instance, the infamous conclusion of the 1992 NCAA championship game, which pitted Michigan’s Fab Five against the North Carolina Tar Hills.  In the game’s closing seconds, Michigan’s Chris Webber snagged a rebound, dribbled the length of the court, and called a timeout.  Apparently, someone from the Michigan bench screamed, “Timeout!”  Hearing their cry, Webber instinctively made the call – coaches often stop the game in the closing seconds so they can craft a final play to win a close game.

Webber's infamous timeout call

Regrettably, Michigan’s coach did not call for timeout, because his team had already used its allotted number.  Like many young athletes, Webber had forgotten or had not kept count of timeouts, and he reacted impulsively rather than rationally.  His mistake cost his team the game.  Calling a timeout when your team does not have one is considered a technical foul, which gives the opposing team free throw attempts as well as possession of the ball.  Michigan never got the ball back.  The game ended moments later.  Chris Webber was devastated.  In video footage of him leaving the court, he appears to be a walking zombie.

Flashing forward to the present, to The Fab Five television special, the viewer sees Coach Fisher and the team remembering the loss.  What you hear is the selfless, compassionate concern of Jalen Rose for his childhood friend, Webber, and for his devastated coach, Steve Fisher.

Rose admits his own pain of loss, but he says that he caught a glimpse of Webber, walking as if dead from the court.  He then saw Coach Fisher, whom the media had portrayed as an average coach at best, successful only because of his star players.  Rose’s heart broke for these men.

Each Michigan player had long since left the court, where the Tar Heels and fans were celebrating, but Rose remained, waiting for his coach, who was politely congratulating the opposing coaches and players.  Coach Fisher tells of how Jalen Rose approached him, hugged him, and draped his arm across his shoulders as they walked together to the losing locker room.  Rose apologized to his coach, told him he was sorry they didn’t win the championship for him, and tried his best to console him.

Rose with Coach Fisher - a special relationship (note the black socks & shoes and baggy shorts which the Fab Five made famous

I ask you; is this typical behavior for a nineteen year old kid whom the media had turned into a national star?  Not at all.  Rose showed remarkable depth of maturity in caring more for the needs of his friends than himself.  He knew he would soon find his friend, Chris Webber, devastated in the locker room.  He knew his beloved coach would face further ridicule from the harsh media.  His heart went out to them.

For those who watched the ESPN special, I believe they could not help but come away with admiration for the man, Jalen Rose.  I for one would relish the blessing of calling him friend.  We all need friends such as Rose, people who honestly care for us – even above themselves.  So to see the national media – which trumpets its own fairness and non-bias – portray Rose as something he is not is aggravating…and revealing.  The media carries immense powers of persuasion in culture; regrettably, its reporting is not always factual and trustworthy.  Read or watch with discerning caution.

Finally, The Fab Five story inadvertently showcased a problem plaguing American society: the rapid imploding of Black American culture.

To portray the five young men who became the Fab Five, the producers understandably drew from the cultural influences which shaped them.  Rap music artists were cited or interviewed, for instance – those whose lyrics glamorize unlawful behavior.  The Fab Five themselves spoke of hating things which the typical American sees as good and virtuous.

While I personally see offense in anti-societal song lyrics, and while I acknowledge the pointlessness of railing against virtues, I have no problem with honesty.  The players were merely revealing their thoughts, feelings, and influences leading up to and including their stardom as the Fab Five.  Had I grown up in a poor, predominantly black, inner city neighborhood, I too would have carried some angst against society.  I suppose the challenge would be whether I could overcome my personal pain and memories in favor of helping those who still find themselves locked in that world.

Three of the Fab Five went on to lengthy, lucrative careers in the NBA – Juwan Howard still plays for the Miami Heat.  Each man is a multimillionaire, light years away from his childhood existence.  I would not suggest for a moment that they do not care for the people of their former neighborhoods and cities; in fact, Jalen Rose is actively involved in inner city Detroit.

Heidelberg Project - Detroit, MI

Watching the ESPN special, however; hearing the players’ comments – including the Uncle Tom reference – I could not help but notice that they missed a golden opportunity to send positive messages back into the cultures of their upbringing.  Intentionally or not, they sent (perhaps reinforced is the better word choice) two messages: professional sports represent the door of escape from the ghetto and, secondly, the “us” verses “them” distinction is still valid and important.

Taking the first message, there is no doubt that becoming a professional athlete provides the means of escape from a poor childhood.  Regrettably, this career path is limited to a minuscule percentage of inner city children.  Professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) hire only hundreds of players, whereas America is populated by close to three hundred million people.  While dreaming of and working toward an NBA career is a worthy endeavor, a child better have a backup plan, because the odds are stacked significantly against him.  Two of the Fab Five, as great as they were in high school and college, were not good enough to play in the NBA.  Each had to settle for something less than his dream.

While The Fab Five special did not glamorize professional sports at the expense of a “normal” job, I believe the men missed a chance to send an incredibly powerful message – given their influence – to kids in the inner city: be good; get an education; obey laws; work; prepare yourself for responsible adulthood.  Sounds boring, but these are the tried-and-true means of becoming productive members of society, responsible parents, and loving providers.

The nuclear family (mom, dad, and kids) is all but dying in Black America.  Teen pregnancy is soaring.  Abortion runs rampant.  Since 1973, over 14.5 million black babies have been killed by abortion.  Every single day, 1,200 black babies are put to death in abortion facilities, making abortion the leading cause of death among African Americans!  Nearly half of all black babies conceived die in abortion chambers today.

Walter Hoy, one of the great African American leaders of our day, says this means that a black child is safer on the streets of the worst neighborhoods in America than in his mother’s womb.  Hoy notes that between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 blacks were lynched by the Ku Klux Klan.  Today, abortion kills more black Americans in less than three days than the Klan killed in 86 years!  American blacks make up twelve percent of the U.S. population, yet thirty-seven percent of all abortions are performed on black women.

The statistics are staggering.  This article’s focus does not allow a full coverage of the many other issues driving a death nail into Black America – fatherless families, gangs, drugs, violence, school dropouts, poor health, and joblessness are among the culprits killing a proud culture.

Jalen Rose and his Fab Five teammates missed a wonderful opportunity to send powerful messages back into the inner city, messages showing that these things must stop for the good of black people.  Instead, they limited their focus and allowed the long-held angst against the world to continue; in fact, I believe they encouraged, legitimized, and incited it by referencing the angst without qualifying their comments.

That the Fab Five teammates felt anger and resentment as youth is understandable.  What would have been great is if they had used their two hours on the national stage – a special watched by millions of inner city children – to speak back into their culture, sending realistic messages of how to take charge of one’s life and community.  Instead, I fear they merely stoked the burning embers of hate and resentment by referencing the problems without giving advice on how to rise above them.

The Fab Five with Coach Fisher - a strong bond which exists to this day

Watching Jalen Rose during the ESPN special and having heard him deliver basketball commentary as part of his current job, I cannot help but notice his engaging personality.  He is one who God fashioned to command attention and lead charges.  He is an astute observer, an articulate responder, and a visionary suggester – one wants to be a part of Jalen Rose’s cause.

Clearly, Rose must be harnessing these God-given traits in inner city Detroit – as part of his foundation – but I believe he could have cast a powerful, positive, culture-enriching message before millions more had he allowed his natural gift – selflessness – to rise above the spotlight of a nationally televised special.  Had he turned his charm, wisdom, and charisma to disadvantaged youth – who were hanging on his every word – he could have lobbed a pass to them that represents the potential for and path forward to real change.