Nothing get's the conversation going among Black men like calling someone an Uncle Tom. I don't know that from personal experience but I say with some confidence that if someone got the word "Tom" halfway out of their mouth talking about me, a conversation would be had. Enter: Jalen Rose. In an ESPN documentary on The Fab 5, Michigan University's 1991 men's basketball team, Rose commented on his rivalry with Grant Hill and Hill's then team Duke. Rose, who was an executive producer on the project said,
"I hated Duke and I hated everything Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms."
It was the slur hear 'round the world.
Hill responded very eloquently in a letter/essay toThe New York Times, where he deconstructed Rose's "garbled but sweeping" statement with the clarity of a social scientist.
Rose has stood behind his comments, partly he says, because they were an expression of his feeling at that time.
The nature of this debate is complex and I think the most obvious impediment to having it is a lack of precise language around the space where Black identity and socioeconomic status converge. It seems that is more or less Grant Hill's conclusion, that Rose had misused a very "vitriolic" term to describe his middle class upbringing. As a result, Rose has contributed to the notion that Black success along traditional American lines is un-Black or even treasonous to the race. That is certainly not the case and most likely not what he meant. To Rose's credit he continued with more thoughtful and nuances comments in the documentary saying,
I can't say that considering the conflict in college and professional sports over what players wear, how they conduct themselves and speak, that Rose isn't on to something. Mike Vick is a great example of how racial and class animosity can make its way into analysis of Black athletes. So in a culture that expects Black Americans to forgo a Black identity for an American one, I can see where the terms - and the debate- get muddled.
Take Tiger Woods for example. Woods had a squeaky clean image very similar to Hill's for the most part of his career. He was recruited to Stanford, a prestigious private institution, much like Hill was to Duke. As Rose suggests, there is some correlation to the all-American appeal of both men and the schools that pursued them. While that appeal doesn't make them Uncle Tom[s], it can create resentment from members of the Black community who suspect a part of that appeal to be performed for White peers and patrons. In Woods' case, there was a public rejection of a Black identity in favor of a mixed one - one probably more preferred to some of his fans and business interests.
This conflict between Black Americans that have and those who don't goes back as long as our lives and livelihoods have been dependent on White support so it's no surprise that the issue has come up in a conversation around professional sports. The conflict and, as Rose described it, the "resentment" that ensues can turn people who are often in the same position against each other. The truth is that both men were and are beholden to a White power structure. They made careers off of entertaining and creating wealth for those that run the sports industry.
Ultimately, just because someone has the benefit of privilege doesn't make them compromised. The resentment that often girds such a suspicion is misplaced. Conversely, there's some truth in what both men have to say. The demand of a white-friendly appearance does put pressure on Black Americans to compromise their racial identity to succeed. Some relent. Both are sad realities and a the result of a system of exploitation that pits Black men against each other.