'Uncle Tom' remark exposes pain in black community

By Jesse Washington

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kenny Osakwe, a black Duke student, did not disagree, but suggested Duke players should not be tarred merely because they are fortunate. "I'm friendly with a lot of the team, and it's true, most of them do come from relatively affluent families," he said. "That's the culture here at Duke. And you never hear of any recruiting scandals, everything is done the right way.

"Duke didn't have their Final Fours reneged," Osakwe said — an allusion to the games Michigan forfeited after it was revealed that some players, including Fab Five center Chris Webber, had accepted money from a Michigan booster.

But by operating in that fashion, the school is open to claims that it is elitist — and that the players it recruits are merely black genetically.

"Why doesn't it seem like Duke ever takes a chance on a guy from a background like Jalen's, instead of giving an opportunity to someone who was born on third base?" asked Reginald C. Dennis, a black journalist and basketball fan.

He remembers being angered by sports columns in the late '80s and early '90s, when hip-hop was merging with sports culture, that disparaged swashbuckling players like Rose.

"Grant was the one they liked," said Dennis, who was raised by married parents in a New York City housing project. "They always want to separate the good negro from the bad negro. Grant was used as the example."

Dennis once owned dozens of hats featuring the names of various college teams. "I didn't have a Duke hat," he said. "I never even saw a black person with Duke anything. I wore my Michigan hat until the M fell off."

"Black people have been saying for 20 years what Jalen Rose said. This is just the first time it was done so publicly," said Dennis. "It shocked white people who didn't know the conversation was happening."

"That's what this is all about," agrees Ron Miller, author of "SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch." "There's an ongoing discussion in the black community about what constitutes authentic blackness."

Miller, a black conservative, describes the meaning of the term Uncle Tom as "a boot-licking apologist for white people, someone used by white people who is subservient to their whims and desires."

He notes that although the term originated with Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic anti-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the book's character was a heroic figure who refused to divulge the location of escaped slaves. White minstrel shows then changed him into a lackey often played by whites in blackface, Miller said.

He said he does not know any real-life Uncle Toms. "Most of the people I know who have had that label cast upon them are simply trying to play by the rules," Miller said.

"Rather than trying to force an entire race to conform to a single model, we should celebrate the variety and energy that comes from people across the spectrum."

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at jwashington(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/jessewashington.

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