Grant Hill, Jalen Rose, and race and class

ESPN recently aired the documentary The Fab Five which earned the network its highest ratings for a documentary (though its unclear how this stacks up against their typical Sunday night programming). One part of the documentary that has drawn attention are the comments Jalen Rose made regarding Grant Hill, Duke, and race. Here is what Rose said in a short segment:

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 … 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. And your dad played in the NFL — a very well-spoken and successful man. I was upset and bitter 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 than I resented him. I looked at it as they are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates.

Hill responded to Rose’s comment on the New York Times website. Here are a few relevant points:

In his garbled but sweeping comment that Duke recruits only “black players that were ‘Uncle Toms,’ ” Jalen seems to change the usual meaning of those very vitriolic words into his own meaning, i.e., blacks from two-parent, middle-class families. He leaves us all guessing exactly what he believes today…

This is part of our great tradition as black Americans. We aspire for the best or better for our children and work hard to make that happen for them. Jalen’s mother is part of our great black tradition and made the same sacrifices for him…

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. All of us are extremely proud of the current Duke team, especially Nolan Smith. He was raised by his mother, plays in memory of his late father and carries himself with the pride and confidence that they instilled in him…

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.

While this appears to be a conversation about race, I wonder how much of this might be about social class. While Rose used terms that invoked race (particularly the reference to “Uncle Toms”), what also might have been describing differences in social class: Grant Hill grew up in more of an upper-class family where his dad was a known athlete and his mom had connections. Rose did not have the same opportunities that Hill’s family provided and felt bitter about Duke, a private school known for its wealth (according to the National Association of of College and University Business Officers, Duke is #15 in its 2010 endowment with over $4.8 billion).

In the long run, both men have done well for themselves: Hill is still playing in the NBA while Rose is an analyst for ESPN and also played 13 years in the NBA. But these discussions about opportunities and race and class are ongoing in sociology: is it race that is the primary issue or is it social class? A sociologist like William Julius Wilson has written about this, most recently here, invoking a lot of discussion over the last few decades. How this particular discussion ends up between  Rose and Hill remains to be seen but there will be plenty of ongoing talk about these larger issues.

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