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.)

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “What “tomming” really looks like”

  1. Wow! That is some serious Tomming.

    I don’t know that it really really outdoes Clarence Thomas slandering his own sister as a welfare princess however. Or for that matter pretty much the entire careers of fellow collaborators Colin and Condi. And these folks are still out there doing damage….

  2. Wow, just one comment. Why? Is it the subject matter, or just coincidental conflicts in time?

    Too bad; I hoped to open for input my question: Is the derogatory, pejorative term in the Black experience, “Tomming” analogous, or similar, to “self-hating Jew” in the Jewish experience.

    My understanding is that, in a vacuum, they seem to be pretty similar. But, what about in the specific cases of Steve Harvey’s use of the term, “Tomming” described here, and some Jews use of the term, “self-hating Jew,” as a slur against those that are/were publicly critical of Israel in the Palestinian situations?

  3. I don’t think of Lippmann as self-hating. I see him as trying to draw and emphasize the distinction between his own refinement and class position and that of the embarrassing riff-raff he deplored. I won’t draw attention to African-American analogous figures, but they clearly exist.

  4. I think my interest in this question was peaked by some articles I read recently which had the common thread, the large, and growing, unhappiness with Obama’s leadership, or lack thereof, in promoting issues historically owned by “The Left, Liberals, Progressives, and/or Democrats in general. The unhappiness has grown to the point where, at least the word, Primary, is openly mentioned.

    Naturally, any real, organized, primary movement is universally considered “off the table,” but the linchpin of my concern is the unchallenged view that Blacks would abandon the Party in toto should such a movement gain some traction.

    How do folks here feel about that? I admit that I feel very uneasy about it, and angry too. I brought up the Palestinian issue because I wonder if I’m being hypocritical as I tend to support Israel’s positions on most of the critical flashpoints in that relationship. I don’t believe that I am, and I further don’t believe the two cases are analogous at all.

    Maybe if it wasn’t the weekend it would have been bounced around some more.

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