Defending Jalen Rose (Sort of)

There’s been a bit of an uproar and an ensuing series of television interviews and editorials written over the last week about Jalen Rose’s “Uncle Toms” statement in the documentary “The Fab Five.” I’ve been following this topic not only as a basketball fan, but as a person who attended Michigan at the same time as Jalen Rose and the Fab Five. I copied the quote here as they have stated it in a Forbes article:

“I hated everything I felt Duke stood for,” Rose said in the documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler. “Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

Rose’s use of the derogatory phrase Uncle Tom to describe a whole generation of black basketball players at Duke has caused widespread outrage, as it should. Grant Hill, one of the Duke players of the Fab 5 era, blasted back with an editorial of his own, and others such as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon have responded as well. I think these two quotes sum up the response:

“The notion that there is one definition of “Blackness” is insidious and dangerous and too often promotes the notion that athletic achievement is “black” and academic achievement is “white.” – Michael Wilbon

“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” – Grant Hill

Let me be very clear on my personal opinion here: Jalen Rose was wrong for referring to anyone as an Uncle Tom, this is a loaded and derogatory term that no one should use to refer to anyone. There should also be no doubt in anyone’s mind (and I would guess Jalen Rose feels this way as well) – that looking down on academic achievement is stupid and counter-productive. This topic is not new in the media or in the African American community, and it’s an important dialogue that needs to continue. But there’s an important issue that’s being overlooked in the national discussion and I want to examine it a bit more.

The title of Michael Wilbon’s article is “Grant Hill and Jalen Rose ‘Ain’t all that Different.” The article goes on in the article to tell about the many similarities between the two, and there truly are many. But let me ask this question, if you had asked 100 people in 1991, if Grant Hill or Jalen Rose were more likely to be an executive producer and a TV analyst, how many of them do you think would have answered Jalen Rose? I My point here is that people often jump to conclusions based on superficial information that just are not right. Unfortunately, in life, many important outcomes are often heavily influenced by such superficial judgments.

I think what’s getting lost in the shuffle here is what may be Jalen Rose’s deeper underlying point. Grant Hill would have gone on to a successful life in some field if he weren’t a talented basketball player. He might not be as wealthy or famous as he is now, but his capabilities, intelligence and motivation, along probably with the financial support he would get from his parents if needed, would have landed him somewhere. But what about Jalen Rose? With his single-parent upbringing and Detroit Public Schools education, how would he have fared without basketball? In a way, Duke’s choice of Grant Hill instead of Jalen Rose is important in Jalen Rose’s mind because it’s a metaphor. If Grant Hill – as an African-American – already had an uphill battle to climb, Jalen Rose had a steeper one.

This issue of racial relations and fairness is something that has been in the background of my life since I was a kid. I grew up part of my childhood in Benton Harbor, MI and part in St. Joseph, the two towns featured in Alex Kotlowitz’s “The Other Side of the River,” a book that is mostly about race relations between one town that is almost all white and affluent (St. Joseph) and another which is almost entirely Black and poor (Benton Harbor). Today I live in Oak Park, IL, probably one of the most racially integrated places in the entire country; but my house is just 1 block from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, which is almost entirely African American, with high rates of unemployment and poverty. As I drive through Austin to work, I’m reminded on a daily basis of this uphill battle that kids who come from places like Jalen Rose face.

The fact that Grant Hill and Jalen Rose ARE so similar today should be a very important lesson to us all: you can’t judge a book by its cover. The intrinsic capabilities, motivation and intelligence of a person are not just about how many parents they have and how much money they had growing up. If Duke only recruits African-American players with a certain profile (I will let the reader judge this), then Jalen Rose certainly has every right to call them out on it – not because Duke is placing too much value on the profile it does recruit but too little on the profile it doesn’t. More importantly, whether the point about Duke is true or not, there can be no doubt that the type of discrimination Jalen Rose is pointing out exists beyond the hallowed halls of Durham, NC.

I wish Rose had found a better way to make this point than referring to anyone as an “Uncle Tom.” I seriously doubt that Jalen Rose has a problem with Grant Hill or any of the other fine African-American basketball players that have come out of Duke over the last 20 years. If he had made his point in a better way, we would probably be having a different discussion.

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