Miscellany

The Fab Five Touched a Sore Point in America's Racial Discussion

Michigan radio personality and play-by-play man Franck Beckmann praised the current Michigan basketball team on his Facebook page, by contrasting them with the Fab Five. He called the famed group selfish, lazy, entitled, disrespectful and racist. Given the respective racial compositions of the two teams, the comment created controversy. That wasn’t surprising.

From Beckmann’s Facebook Page:

I got called off vacation to broadcast the Michigan hoops games in Charlotte…M/Duke should be great….This M team is the antithesis of the Fab 5, unselfish, always plays hard, no sense of entitlement, respects opponents, and no racists…We should thank Jalen Rose for reminding everyone why we never want another group like the Fab 5 at Michigan, or any other school!!

Beckmann clearly resides to the right of the political spectrum. He’s also not the only critic to express that sentiment about the Fab Five. Jason Whitlock, who covered the group for the Ann Arbor News, has much the same opinion. I remember admiring them and rooting for them uncritically, but society had not shaped me yet. I was eight.

The documentary brought the quintet back into the pubic consciousness, but the subsequent reactions have been far more interesting than the story itself. The vitriol and polarization hasn’t diminished in two decades, because the Fab Five prodded America’s canker sore, a long and unresolved racial dialogue.

Culturally, the Fab Five weren’t a unique phenomenon. They fit in a broader narrative. In perception they represent the same milieu of defiant blackness as the Black Panthers or NWA. Mainstream America has a broad consensus for passive, theoretical racial equality. Ghandian non-violence goes over well. Jim Crow was evil oppression. Martin Luther King is revered. When that push turns proactive and aggressive, white people become fearful and profoundly uncomfortable.

It’s easy to support a concept. It’s much, much harder to be introspective and confront your own biases and fears honestly. No one would be overtly racist, but Conservative whites, like Beckmann, hide behind indirect euphemisms and stereotypes. Liberal whites, even more fearful of their latent tendencies, mask themselves with political correctness ad absurdum. As a society, we are seldom able to have honest, productive discussions about race.

The Fab Five were brash, insubordinate and self-consciously black. They were political. They prodded an open wound in American society. That’s why their story seems just as relevant and controversial as it did twenty years ago and why we remain muddled with the same polarized and euphemistic commentary about them.

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