Jonathan Zimmerman: The Real March Madness: Duke, Uncle Tom, and Success as a "White" Value

Roundup: Historians' Take

[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.”]

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.”...

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?...

...[A]s 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.

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