What “Tomming” Really Looks Like

Adam Serwer rightly calls out comedian Steve Harvey, who labels Tavis Smiley and Cornel West Uncle Toms in a particularly crude way. I’ve had some tough words for West. But I think Smiley and West’s poverty tour raises important concerns that might not otherwise gain a hearing. As Adam observes, “Tomming involves deliberately advancing the arguments of the community’s dectractors in a bid for approval.” That’s just not what West and Smiley are about.

In any event, the real and alleged Uncle Toms of today can’t hold a candle to the heroes of the past. Here’s how it’s done.

The rich and pretentious Jews of our big American cities are perhaps the greatest misfortune that have ever befallen the Jewish people….They are the real fountains of anti-Semitism. When they rush about in super-automobiles, bejeweled and furred and painted and over-barbered, when they build themselves French chateaux and Italian palazzi, they stir up latent hatred against crude wealth in the hands of shallow people…. The Jewish smart-set in New York and the Jewish would-be smart set can in a minute unmake more respect and decent human kindness than Einstein and Brandeis and Mack and Paul Warburg can build up in a year.

I worry about upper Broadway on a Sunday afternoon when everything that is feverish and unventilated in the congestion of a city rises up as a warning that you cannot build up a decent civilization among people who, when they are, at last, free after centuries of denial, free to go to the land and cleanse their bodies, now huddle together in a steam-heated slum.

Walter Lippmann, 1922. (Quotes from Ronald Steel’s beautiful biography Walter Lippmann and the American Century, p. 192.)

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.