TOPICS > Nation

For black Americans, era since civil rights movement brought success and vulnerability

November 22, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
It’s the best of times and worst of times for black Americans, says Henry Louis Gates Jr. He joins Jeffrey Brown to preview the PBS mini-series “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” and discuss both great gains and the vulnerability of those gains in the years after Dr. Martin Luther King.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a preview of the second half of the PBS miniseries “Black America Since MLK,” and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: The series subtitle is “And Still I Rise.” And, as that suggests, it focuses on the progress and continuing struggles of African-Americans since the civil rights movement.

It’s both cultural history and a personal journey told by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, who joins me now.

And, Skip Gates, welcome back to you.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, Harvard University: Thank you. Nice to be back on the program.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the introduction of this, you say, “As a young man, I was convinced the change was right around the corner.”

Well, it was and it wasn’t.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: It was and it wasn’t.

I was 15 in 1965, which is where the series starts. And the conceit of the series is this. If Martin Luther King came back and said, what’s happened since I have been gone, what would you tell him? What’s happened to the black community?

Well, you would say, well, Dr. King, the black middle class since 1970 has doubled. The black upper middle class, because of something called affirmative action, has quadrupled.

And Dr. King would say, my God, we must have solved poverty, the problem of poverty — because remember, at the time when Dr. King passed, people thought poverty was a virus which could be cured with antibiotics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: They really thought poverty could be wiped out, that it was an act of will.

So, you would say, well, Dr. King, we haven’t wiped out poverty, because the child poverty rate in 1970 was 41 percent. He would say, what is it now? Thirty-eight percent. So, what does that mean? For the black community, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s look at a clip from tonight’s episode, which looks at the simultaneous explosion of black celebrity and middle class.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Oprah embodied a new era, an era of black crossover superstars. From Michael Jackson to Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan to Whitney Houston, African-Americans were winning fame and fortune in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade before.

TINA TURNER: Listen to me.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: And their success encouraged America to think differently about race.

VINCENT BROWN, Harvard University: What happens is that I think white people can now suddenly imagine themselves identifying with black success in a new way. What that means is that, if you happen to be famous, right, then we will accept you into our society as a rough equal, maybe even a better.

MAN: How about a little one-on-one?

MICHAEL JORDAN: All right.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Black success wasn’t confined to the realm of celebrities. African-Americans were making dramatic gains in almost every arena.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that astonishing rise of a culture and political presence of blacks in America, how important was it overall or has it been to overall progress?

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Oh, it was crucial. And it’s a result of affirmative action.

When I went to Yale, I entered Yale in 1969. Ninety-six black kids entered that year, as opposed to six in 1966. What, was there a genetic blip in the race, and all of a sudden there were 90 smart black people who hadn’t existed before?

So, we were the affirmative action generation. We were there and we were part of this transformative element that integrated historically white institutions in the power structure, which is what we were supposed to do.

But what happened? Lani Guinier, my colleague at Harvard, used to say that affirmative action was a class escalator. So, we were on that class escalator, and we were going up the social and economic scale in the United States, and somebody hit the off switch.

All those people who hadn’t gotten on the escalator when we did were left behind. So, we have a class gap within the race. We have a huge class gap.

So, part of the reason I did this series was to remind those of us who benefited from affirmative action and who have done so well over the last 50 years that there is still a huge segment of African-Americans left behind.

JEFFREY BROWN: To what extent do you see the campaign and the results as a repudiation of the black presence in our culture and in our politics, or even a backlash against it?

HENRY LOUIS GATES: I think that the Trump vote, particularly among the working class, is a reflection of economic anxiety.

People are afraid. It used to be, if you deferred gratification, you kept your nose metaphorically clean, like the people in my hometown did, all of whom worked at the paper mill, you would one day get a mortgage, you would buy one car, you would get two cars, you would get a couple TVs, and then you would send your kids to college. And your kids would do better than you.

Well, that’s no longer the case for a lot of people.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where are we in the saga of what you’re telling Dr. King many years later?

HENRY LOUIS GATES: I think I would say, Dr. King, the jury is out, and there is a great deal of anxiety within the African-American community, within the Democratic Party, within liberal states like my state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, about the vulnerability of the gains that we have made.

What happens if, in the next four years, the vacancy, one vacancy, two vacancies on the court? What will happen to voting rights? What will happen to a woman’s right to choose an abortion within Roe v. Wade, et cetera, et cetera? I’m very worried about that. And we have to be vigilant and we’re going to fight.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the series is “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise.”

Henry Louis Gates, thank you very much.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” airs tonight on PBS at 8:00 Eastern, 7:00 Central.

SHARE VIA TEXT