Politics & Policy

Heed the Round Mound of Rebound

Charles Barkley in 2008 (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
NBA great Charles Barkley sounds off on “acting white.”

No one to this point had doubted that Super Bowl–winning Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is black. His great-great-grandfather was a slave emancipated after the Civil War. His grandfather was president of Norfolk State University, a historically black college.

At least no one had doubted until columnist Mike Freeman of the website Bleacher Report wrote that the source of tensions in the Seattle Seahawks locker room might be “that some of the black players think Wilson isn’t black enough.”

Not black enough? This set basketball great and uninhibited sports commentator Charles Barkley on an epic rant. On a Philadelphia radio show, he spoke about the dirty little secret of how “when you’re black you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people.”

When black kids succeed in school, he explained, “the loser kids tell them you’re acting white.” In general, there are too many blacks who think that “it’s best to knock a successful black person down ’cause they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful.”

“We’re the only ethnic group,” he added for good measure, in characteristic Barkley style, “that says, ‘Hey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.’”

Barkley is saying nothing that, in more politic language, President Barack Obama hasn’t already said. In his famous 2004 convention speech, he attacked “the slander that says a black youth with a book in his hand is acting white.”

In his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative speech last July, he returned to the theme: “Sometimes African Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of ‘acting white.’” He went on to excoriate the idea and insist that there are “different ways for African-American men to be authentic.”

The phenomenon of black kids accusing other black kids of “acting white” is often dismissed as a myth, but it is well-established. John McWhorter of Columbia University writes that “studies, plus heaps of journalism, document black teens defining themselves against white ones by classifying hitting the books as ‘them’ rather than ‘us.’”

The social scientist John U. Ogbu wrote a whole book on the topic, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement. From his research in Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland, he concluded that black kids don’t reject making good grades so much as the attitudes and behaviors “conducive to making good grades.”

By the twisted logic of acting white, Russell Wilson’s family is a perpetual offender. His father was a football player but also graduated from the University of Virginia’s law school. His grandfather was a university president who has spoken of the family’s insistence on education: “Most of us worked our way through college.” Wilson himself graduated from North Carolina State in three years.

Of course, there’s nothing white or black about a family determined to lift itself up by dint of the hard work and education that always have been, and always will be, the necessary stepping-stones to success in America.

Russell Wilson had the perfect response to the controversy about his blackness or lack thereof: “Black enough? I don’t even know what that means. I’m just an educated, well-spoken male.”

Just so. But the tough-love message of a Charles Barkley, or a Bill Cosby before him, never seems to make a dent against the conventional narrative of black victimhood. It is considered the logic of The Man. It cuts against the grain of the liberal orthodoxy that all that ails the black community is the lack of more government support. It is anathema to civil-rights leaders who have made grievance their stock in trade. And, of course, if a white person says it, it is denounced as racism.

There is a vast academic, media, and organizational apparatus devoted to supporting the conventional narrative, and the Round Mound of Rebound has more wisdom than all of it.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2014 King Features Syndicate

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