The Grant Hill Jalen Rose debacle captivated black bloggers all last week. I was out of town at the time the Fab Five special produced by Jalen Rose aired on ESPN, and out of my normal all internet/ no TV routine, so I actually saw parts of the show while channel surfing. I don’t know if was serendipity, or happenstance, but I obviously flipped channels during all of the most controversial statements Rose made on the program, because I was surprised this week to see so many comments at so many places on the web about this. The Grant Hill op-ed in the New York Times last Thursday was an eye opener on so many levels. Saturday’s response by Jalen Rose in the Wall Street Journal, by contrast, sounds a lot like those apologies politicians make after they make controversial statements.

The dispute between Rose and Hill, two former NCAA basketball stars, revisited some age-old grievances within the black community and raised questions about the recruitment practices of private schools like Duke versus the recruitment practices of less academically selective universities.

For a small town boy like me, who arrived at Emory University in 1984 with a fairly provincial view of the world, it wasn’t really much of a stretch back when I was seventeen years old to actually believe that it could be the “Harvard of the South”. To many of the black “Dukies” I met during my undergraduate years, however, Emory didn’t really rate as much more than an up and coming school who was trying to follow in the legendary Tobacco Road school’s footsteps. I guess if I had been a sports fan during my youth, I would have been more likely to have considered applying to Duke, but at that time, the overriding image in my mind was of a college that had literally been purchased by the wealth of one man and remade in his image. Ironically enough, Emory University had just begun a massive building campaign after receiving an enormous gift from Robert Woodruff of several hundred million dollars.   

Selective colleges all love to admit students who can pay their own way, whatever color or ethnicity they are. In the twenty five years since I attended Emory University, the number of upper middle class African Americans of both the domestic or immigrant variety has increased dramatically, giving admissions directors at these kinds of institutions the ability to admit a lot more African American students who are less likely to drop out for financial reasons. Even in the 80’s, though, there were enough affluent blacks sending their children to schools like Vanderbilt and Duke to make you wonder, if you came from a family of more modest means, who are these people?   

Overall, Duke students come from relatively privileged family backgrounds, across all racial ethnic groups. About 95 percent of white students and more than 75 percent of black students have at least one parent with a college degree. The average precollege annual household incomes for white students ($229,600) and for black students ($118,700) fall beyond the 95th and 90th percentiles, respectively, of the US household income distribution (DeNavas-Walt and Cleveland 2002)  The average socioeconomic status score for mothers and fathers in the CLL is more than one standard deviation above the national mean (Hauser and Warren 1997).

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Social Class and Elite University Education: A Bourdieusian Analysis         Nathan Douglas Martin

Put the stark reality of these kinds of facts together with an athletic program that has made a commitment to the “student” in the sobriquet “student athlete”, and if you are a thin skinned player at a hoops factory type of school, you are very likely to be confused by the disconnect between the Great Gatsby image the school has been selling to its prospective students and its alumni and the mental and physical toughness of its ball players. 

Compound the conundrum of regularly fielding a competitive basketball program at an elite university with the fact that coach Mike Krzyzewski, the face of Duke basketball for decades, is a product of Chicago’s Polish immigrant neighborhoods, which in many ways were as tough as anything Jalen Rose grew up around in Detroit, and you have to wonder –“who’s zooming who here?” Grant Hill, the guy whose childhood made the Cosby Show look like the cheap seats, the guy who has always exhibited the kind of reticence you often see in the offspring of very dominant parents with outsized personalities, seems to have been called to write a public response to the ESPN special mostly because Rose impugned his family for doing the things black families are supposed to be doing.

As Danielle Belton of The Black Snob blog puts it:

 This fight that's not really a fight between Hill and Rose is just about wanting to be accepted for who you are. For wanting your experience to be respected as authentic. To be recognized that whether you are poor and from a single parent home or middle class and from a two parent home, your life is respected. Your family is respected. Your history is respected. You aren't treated as you are less than what you are for being different or not having as much. You want your voice to be heard when you feel that it's constantly being stifled. You want your story to be treated as an authentic story. This is the cry of everyone who is different, who has felt marginalized in our society, who has felt neglected or who feels their existence is always reduced to stereotype no matter what you do. We always say we're not a monolith, yet within our ranks people push monolithic beliefs upon us, telling us we have to get into a box and if we don't fit into that box, we aren't real people. But we are. 

But the $64,000 question at the crux of the matter—does Duke really prefer recruiting suburban black basketball players over black inner city players—is one that doesn’t seem to addressed by most of the commentary surrounding this debacle.  What sounds like a simple question is complicated by the multiple layers of internecine infighting between the have and have not camps that still haunts black America the same way it does mainstream America.