Here we go again. Just two months after ESPN's The Fab Five documentary sparked a controversy involving Jalen Rose and Grant Hill, we've suffered another instance of black athletes sorting our dirty laundry in public. This time it's boxer Bernard Hopkins, who claims in a recent Philadelphia Daily News article that Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb isn't black enough.
"He's got a suntan. That's all," said the boxer during press day at his gym. Hopkins further implied that McNabb's privileged upbringing set him up for a rude awakening when the Philadelphia Eagles traded him to the Washington Redskins last year. "Why do you think McNabb felt he was betrayed? Because McNabb is the guy in the house, while everybody else is on the field. He's the one who got the extra coat. The extra servings. 'You're our boy,' " Hopkins said, patting a reporter on the back to illustrate his point. "He thought he was one of them."
We've gone from Rose calling Hill an Uncle Tom, to Hopkins calling McNabb a house slave. How long before someone brings Oreos and handkerchiefs into play?
Always viewed as a classy, consummate professional, McNabb hasn't dignified the comments with a response. But in a statement, McNabb's agent, Fletcher N. Smith III, called Hopkins' remarks "ill informed," "dangerous" and "irresponsible," saying they perpetuate "a maliciously inaccurate stereotype that insinuates those African Americans who have access to a wider variety of resources are somehow culturally different than their brethren."
Actually, McNabb and Hopkins are culturally different. The former was raised in Chicago's suburbs, excelled at an all-boys Catholic school and went on to play football and basketball at Syracuse University. The latter was raised in a rough section of Philadelphia, turned to a life of crime at 13 and was a convicted felon by 17, leading him to spend nearly five years in prison.
But it's not a problem that their backgrounds and formative experiences are starkly dissimilar, because plenty of blacks with unfavorable upbringings have overcome and worked toward enlightened views. The problem is Hopkins' holding on to the mind-set that equates "blackness" with high levels of crime, poverty and dysfunction, and low levels of education, prosperity and normalcy.
This isn't a new development within our race, where divisions based on class are long-standing. The discussions are generally uncomfortable when they're played out in mainstream media, but we're more accustomed to the participants being scholars and sociologists, not ballers and boxers.
Just like Rose's comments in the documentary, Hopkins' remarks sparked a wave of coverage. The topic was all over ESPN's TV stations. It dominated sports-radio segments. It blew up in the blogosphere and Twitterverse. It made me cringe at times as white writers and broadcasters debated the merits of a "blackness" scale.
Not surprisingly, commentators were near unanimous in ripping Hopkins, especially black journalists on ESPN. Michael Wilbon said that Hopkins sounds like a "moron" and an "idiot," adding that anybody who thinks "blackness is defined by lawlessness should be shouted down." Bomani Jones noted that "Hopkins gets hit in the face for a living." Michael Smith said that Hopkins holds "a twisted view that has plagued our history for the last 500 years." J.A. Adande asked, "Why are we still having these discussions?"
I had the same question initially, wondering why the media lavished so much attention on Hopkins-McNabb after gorging on Rose-Hill not that long ago. But a line at the end of the press release from McNabb's agent made me reconsider my objection: "It is vital that we extinguish this brand of willful ignorance and instill in the minds of African-American youth regardless of the parental makeup of your household they can become anything they wish if they work hard and make the right decisions in life."
I'm not convinced that the mind-set referred to there is always "willful ignorance." I think it's often "unintentional ignorance," fueled by stereotype-driven messages that bombard the minds of Hopkins and his ilk. And since most of those messages are delivered through the media, what better vehicle to counteract them?
African-American athletes are among our most visible symbols of black life. Consequently, they have the best ability to influence a large audience — certainly audiences larger than the numbers who tune in to the likes of scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. (The Root's editor-in-chief), Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson when they appear on TV.
So whenever a Hopkins, a Rose or some other high-profile athlete or entertainer utters nonsense about the definition of blackness, we should all welcome the opportunity to — as Wilbon said — shout them down on through every outlet possible.
Hopefully, the more that happens, the less ignorance there will be. Willful or otherwise.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.