CROSS: The riots following Martin Luther King's assassination in
1968 - do you think, fundamentally they derailed the strategy that the civil
rights movement was on prior to that?
GATES: I don't think the riots derailed the civil rights movement.
I think that the implication of King's assassination has not been fully
appreciated. The riots showed the depth of frustration over racism and
Remember, King was participating in a protest against the wages of garbage
workers when he was assassinated, and he had turned his analysis away purely
from a race based analysis to a race cum class based analysis which was very
important and which, as James Foreman said recently, was something that they
hadn't largely considered during the civil rights era. They thought that
racism was the big thing. If we could get rid of legal racism all of us would
plunge headlong into the middle class. Well, it turned out that that's not the
But what was really troubling about King's assassination was the absence
of a plan, an analysis, someone who had understood how race and class produce
their peculiar compounding effect in the United States and the implications
that has on people of color in general and African-Americans in particular.
So the leadership splintered, went all sorts of ways. You had young
radical black power advocates who were obsessed with black is beautiful and
with a race-based notion of our oppression. You had fringe groups like the
Black Panther Party which had moved to an economic analysis and certainly to
the advocacy of violence and guns and self defense and protection, but they
were being annihilated systematically by the FBI and they were totally
annihilated eventually. And then you had the remnants of the center, King's
successors, who were floundering around, trying to hold onto their little bit
of turf and I think that we've suffered because of a lack of a coherent
analysis as to what causes our oppression. I think that the violence has
terrified America and led America to do what it generally does in the face of
black violence - which is throw water on the fire in the form of immediate
grants, bandaid solutions instead of to deeper structural cancerous
CROSS: What brought King to the issue of class?
GATES: Dr. King's Nobel Prize had a more powerful transforming
effect on him than I think he realized at the time. He went to Stockholm, he
went to Oslo where he received the Prize, he saw a combined economy, a mixed
economy, an economy that was capitalist but had -- an economy that was
capitalist certainly but that also had a socialist safety net, so that medicine
was socialized, pensions, etc. He thought it was much more humane. What's
interesting about that is that Booker T. Washington went to Denmark in the
early part of this century for a similar reason. He was concerned with how
vocational education worked in Denmark and if the Danish model could be
imported into the United States, and that was a pivotal trip for him and it
certainly was for Dr. King too. So gradually King, who had been accused by
Hoover of being a communist all along, gradually moved toward a more socialized
form of capitalism.
Most black leaders, whether left, right or center, from Frederick Douglas
and Martin Delaney on in the middle of the 19th century have not even wondered
about the merits of the capitalist system. Few exceptions, but not very many.
Marcus Garvey's not an exception. Elijah Mohammed was not an exception.
Farrakhan is not an exception. They are all bourgeois capitalists. I mean
they believe in capitalism. They think what's wrong with capitalism is that we
don't have our fair share, and they're certainly right about that.
But King decided that we needed a mixed economy and he thought that the
system itself, not evil people, but an inherently flawed system, was the cause
of black oppression and that was quite a transformation. Very important. But
very few people -- there are exceptions of course -- but very few people have
followed that up. Cornel West's analysis is very similar to that, I would
CROSS: The Panthers picked it up in their rhetoric certainly.
GATES: Yeah, the Panthers were what Eldridge Cleaver called
'voodoo nationalists.' They loved black nationalism and the trappings of black
nationalism but they based their political analysis on a form of Marxism and
they saw themselves as part of a larger revolutionary vanguard that manifested
itself in Cuba, in Hanoi, in Algiers, in China, in wherever they could make
allies. Che Guevera was very important to Eldridge Cleaver. The successful
revolution in Cuba was very important to them, and indeed when he fled the
country he and Kathleen went to Cuba where they became quickly disillusioned
with the Cuban form of communism.
CROSS: As I look at the list of the 'grizzled elders' that you had made,
most of them were in what I would call the Black Power movement as opposed to
the civil rights. In fact only Julian and James Foreman I consider
GATES: I tried to pick people who were representative of a broad
spectrum of the fissures and factions of the civil rights establishment, and a
lot of people are dead. Roy Wilkins is dead, Thurgood's dead, Wiggin Young of
course died swimming in Nigeria. But these are the guys who are left, and also
they were some of the most energetic, some of the most vocal in calling for a
radical transformation of American society, so I thought it would be
interesting to talk to them to see what would have happened to America had they
succeeded. What would have happened to America had their programs been
adopted, either through violence or through peaceful legislative means?
CROSS: Is the effort to try to find out what would have happened or what
mistakes they made?
GATES: Both. Yeah, but implicitly you do both, but if you lead
off saying what mistakes did you make, most people would say I didn't make any
mistakes, get the hell out of my house. I think the surprising thing in my
interviews is that very few people even imagined, I quickly realized, that they
would win. They wanted to survive, they felt the things that they felt, I mean
they took to heart the things that they said, they were deeply committed but
they never dreamed that they would actually win. And the way to find out is to
say what would America look like 30 years later had you won? And generally
they say,we'd have more multicultural textbooks. Like, excuse me? We need a
revolution for that?
CROSS: What is the brain trust you are building at Harvard? Explain to me
the idea of the brain trust.....
GATES: What we're trying to do first and foremost is to build a
strong academic department at a major research institution of higher learning.
You don't need to be Albert Einstein to figure out how to do that. You look at
other departments, how do they become great departments? They became great
departments by inviting the senior scholars, the most productive scholars, the
central scholars in their discipline to come to Cambridge and work together,
and that's what we've done. When I was appointed I asked Anthony Appiah who's
the most brilliant African philosopher ever if he would come, because I believe
that African and African-American studies should be brought together in one way
And then together we made a list of people we'd like to see as
colleagues, Cornel West, William Julius Wilson, Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham,
Leon Higgenbotham, people like that were on the list.
Lawrence Bobo, to whom we've just extended an offer, Patricia
Williams, to whom we hope to make an offer soon, Lani Guinier, we hope that she
comes to the law school. These are people, if we could in the med school and
public health, in the Kennedy School, if we could extend offers to an ideal
group of people who are involved in one way or another with what we might
loosely call African-American studies, who would those people be? And that's
what we did. And to our astonishment many of those people are now here and we
hope to bring as many in over the next three or four years as we've brought in
over the last five years.
Now, once you get them here, then what? You cannot, as a chairman,
tell William Julius Wilson or Anthony Appiah or Cornel West what to do. All I
want to do is keep everybody happy so that they stay and so we can build a
strong Ph.D. program but also through the Du Bois Institute, the oldest
research institution devoted to African-American studies in the United States,
through that vehicle begin to address the problems of race and class that
afflict America. A black think tank as it were, a black Brookings and I
recently became a member of the board of the Brookings Institution. I was very
excited about that because I thought I could learn a lot about the history of
one of America's foremost think tanks and figure out what we can imitate and
where we need to make departures to. I feel like Doc Holliday.
Then I thought it would be good to build connections with other black
think tanks, Trans Africa in Washington, the Joint Center run by Eddie Williams
in Washington, a few others perhaps, and figure out how we can pool our
resources to begin systematically and in a non-ideological way to address these
problems. We need to study everything. We need to throw everything up for
grabs. We need to get rid of all of our assumptions, our predispositions and
start over. How did we end up with the largest middle class in history and the
largest underclass in history 30 years after Martin Luther King was
CROSS: When you say 'we' you mean --
GATES: America The central paradox confronting our generation of
African-Americans is this: we have simultaneously and paradoxically the largest
black middle class in history and the largest black underclass in history.
45% of all black children live at or beneath the poverty line. Nobody
predicted this in 1968. We thought that if we could move into the middle class
to such a great extent as we had then everybody would be in the middle class.
Thurgood Marshall told his associates the day of Brown v. Board, it's all over
now, boys, five years we won't even need the NAACP, we won't even need advocacy
groups, we will all be members of the American mainstream. And as we know all
too painfully that didn't take place.
First of all, it was naive to assume that tens of millions of black
people would all be in the same class. You see, we were all in the same class
before the law under segregation. If you have a law that says all blacks shall
or all blacks shan't then you're all in the same class whether you're a janitor
or a doctor, whether you're a brain surgeon or a hairdresser. But once that
law is lifted then the class distinctions which had always obtained within the
African-American community, as every black person knows, came to the fore. In
fact they became infinitely more complex because instead of having what my
mother used to call colored money, now if you were in the upper middle class
you could, after affirmative action, have access to white money. Meaning you
didn't live in Sugar Hill in Harlem, in the upper class section any more, you
could eventually move to Scarsdale or Greenwich or Stanford or some other upper
middle class white suburban town. And as William Julius Wilson has pointed
out, that had enormous implications for the African-American community.
All the middle class role models took a hike.
The people living in inner cities don't want to live in inner cities
necessarily. They want to live in nice communities where they feel safe. A
lot of people love black culture and they like the cultural space that let's
say Harlem was, or Bedford-Stuyvesant was, but if they have to choose between
the legacy of our culture and rats and roaches and drug heads and the homeless,
well what are they going to do? Where are you going to raise your children?
They want to move. So they move when they could.
CROSS: What you offered to William Julius Wilson I know in particular was
to be with like-minded black folks who were all going to tackle the major issue
facing black Americans in 1996.....
GATES: The sales pitch--is we need you more than any institution
that you can think of, particularly the University of Chicago in Bill Wilson's
case. We need you because we're young, we're building a team, we're building
an institution. It's not fixed in concrete, it's not formulated and you will
be associated with people just like you. People who work very hard, who have a
lot of energy, who are very productive and who are passionately concerned about
solving the problems confronting too large a segment of the African-American
That is what appeals to people. It's very lonely being a prominent black
intellectual at an institution where you're the only prominent black
intellectual. That was the model that was followed in the late 60s when black
studies started. You'd get one here and one there and one here, like Johnny
Appleseed. And 20 years later you hoped a great apple tree producing some sort
of fruit would grow.
Our model is to build a forest. Our model is to bring a group of people
together who can cross pollinate. You can think of so many things that you
would never think of otherwise if you're surrounded by creative people and that
team effort is what we're trying to foster here. And we encourage it by having
a weekly seminar, the Du Bois seminar 12 to 2. It's a brown bag lunch, maybe
50 people come each week. Someone speaks for an hour and then we have an hour
of questions and answers.
We had one yesterday. Bill Wilson was there, Cornel West was there and
frankly, it was hard for me to follow the paper because I was so excited at
looking around and seeing Anthony Appiah and Wilson and Evelyn Brooks
Higgenbotham all in a room together, and then listening to their questions,
their comments, the way we agree, the way we disagree. That's wonderful, and
we're hoping to start a discussion group among the faculty in the second
semester to consider specifically the problems of race and class and that'll be
headed by Bill Wilson and I think the attendance will be 100%, 150% and the
results over a long period of time should be quite spectacular. You see, we
want to start doing white papers. Non-ideological analyses of very specific problems
which then can be pieced together into larger policy statements. They can be
used by people like the Black Caucus or occupants in the White House and
wherever. Solid reliable research without an ax to grind. One of the most
satisfying aspects of being part of this group is that there is no ideological
position that any of us can hold that would get us kicked out of the group. We
have enormous respect for each other and it is beyond our idiosyncratic
ideological quirks and twists and differences.
CROSS: Make a relationship for me between the brain trust that you're
pulling together here and the 'grizzled elders' that you want to interview for
GATES: The analogy that's most commonly used is between the group
of scholars put together by Charles Hamilton Houston, the star of which group
of course was Thurgood Marshall, at Howard plotting the strategy that led to
Brown v. Board. The comparison with the civil rights movement is not an apt
one because these people were thrown together out of necessity, often had
enormous jealousies between them. our group of people, we're very good
CROSS: All homies.
GATES: Yeah. And it's real, because it's not based on ideology.
It's not based on adversity. Just the opposite. We're very amenable to each
others' ideas. We have enormous respect for each other. It's wonderful.
Look, it's happening in other places as well, we just get a lot of attention.
There are several other really good African-American studies departments. My
model was Princeton most recently when Cornel West was there Princeton, under
Neil Rudenstine first and then Ruth Simmons, had decided to make a strong
commitment to Afro-American studies. But they didn't have a department.
We are a department. The difference between a department and a program,
which Princeton is that we can make our own tenured appointments. Gives you an
equal place at the table. And so we all wanted to be at a place where we could
use departmental status to recruit people on our own, or jointly with other
departments or schools and then eventually would have a Ph.D. program because
we all believe in the integrity and the relevance of a Ph.D. in
African-American studies. So that the analogy with the civil rights leaders
doesn't really fit. And we're not politicos.
CROSS: Back to the Howard group then. Was Kenneth Clark part of that
GATES: Yeah, they were all -- see, I've always thought that Howard
University should do what Radcliffe College did after coeducation became the
norm. It decided to become the center for women's studies in the United States
so they created this great library, the Schlesinger library, full of
magnificent holdings by and about women. Howard University already has the
library, and at one time Howard had all the great black intellectuals or most
of the great black intellectuals. Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood
Marshall went to law school there. Alain Locke, the Harvard-trained
philosopher, Sterling Brown, master's degree in English from Harvard, E.
Franklin Frazier, Bedford Logan, Ph.D. from Harvard in history, and lots more.
All these people were on the faculty at the same time. I mean we would need 50
more appointments to equal the stellar people who were at Howard say in 1940 to
What happened, of course, is the integration of historically white
research institutions such as Harvard. They integrated their students in 1968,
1969 and then slowly began recruiting faculty members, as you know. Now, 20
years later, 25 years later, we don't want to be the only one on the block. We
want to be with other people of color and other non-black people who study
people of color to cross pollinate, cross fertilize each other. And you have
enormously more strength in numbers than you do as the most highly rewarded
person if you're all by yourself.
CROSS: I asked about Kenneth Clark because I remember back-- I think it
was in the middle 70s when we were first having those battles over how
integration was actually going to be accomplished by the time we actually got
around to it. And Dr. Clark would always say to me was, we didn't really
anticipate that one of the things that was going to happen was that the
historically black colleges would close and that the black students would be
sent to the white colleges. What we anticipated was that some white professors
would go to the historically black colleges, some black professors would go to
the historically white colleges, but somehow it didn't work out like
GATES: The impact on historically black colleges has been complicated.
CROSS: The impact on society--I use that as a metaphor for the society at
large. The criticism that I heard, from those that were involved with
Thurgood in that initial brain trust group, is that it didn't work out the way
we planned it.
GATES: But nobody planned it.
CROSS: We were going to have integration but on what terms?
GATES: You have to start with the following observation. No one
planned the impact of integration because no one could imagine it. We didn't
know when we would ever be integrated and we're still not integrated. Benjamin
Mays said famously that 11:00 on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in
America. Well, I got news for Benjamin Mays. 11:00 on Sunday morning is still
the most segregated hour in America but the difference is, today it's by
choice. Then it was by force. We had no plan for our larger movement into
American society. None of us could possibly plan for that. That's what the HU
group is doing and if we could we didn't.
Now, you cite Kenneth Clark. I think the difference between the sort of
institution that we're trying to build and the loosely-organized group of
leaders that we're referring to as the grizzled elders of the civil rights era
is epitomized by the treatment of Kenneth Clark. Kenneth Clark's scholarship
was judged by many people in the radical element of the larger black political
movement to be politically incorrect, to be retrograde, to be not what we want
to affirm, and there are scholars still writing books trying to refute his
famous doll studies. And then slippage easily made goes like this: I don't
like your work, I don't find it useful to my political goals, therefore I don't
like you. I think that you're a traitor to our people. I think that you have
been used by the white power establishment. I think that you are an agent of
The Man. I think that you are an Uncle Tom.
That will never happen here, and it shouldn't happen anywhere.
Scholarship is scholarship. You have to encourage people to do their work.
You refute them on a scholarly basis. But this business of declaring people in
and outside of the race or the business of making someone an enemy of the
people is disgusting and we need to get rid of that, and at the finest
institutions we have gotten rid of that.
CROSS: How do we make a link between what you're trying to do here, what
Howard did, and the people that we're going to talk to.
GATES: The intellectuals at Howard were united by the civil rights
movement. They were planning. They were like the army officers planning a
military campaign. They were at war. And they knew that they had the secret
weapon and the secret weapon was the law and they decided that they were going
to plot a strategy step by step, case by case which culminated in 1954, the
famous Brown v. Board decision and then inevitably ten years later led to the
passage of the civil rights act of '64 and then in 1965 the voting rights
That movement was dead the day the voting rights act was passed. It had
nowhere to go. It didn't know it was dead but in retrospect it was. That was
the culmination of de jure segregation. That was the culmination of the
movement that Du Bois on the one hand, one of the founders of the NAACP,
Charles Hamilton Houston, so pivotal to the legal struggle, that they and a lot
of other people had planned.
But after 1965 we were in a crisis. All of our ills and woes were to be
resolved by integration. Well, what did integration mean? We didn't know.
How would they be resolved? We didn't know. What would the end of de
jure segregation actually mean for an average African-American? Well, what
it's meant for the African-American community is as follows: if you were in the
middle class and positioned to take advantage of what we now call affirmative
action then you became more firmly established within the larger American
society. As it were you were integrated into the economy and petty forms of
American apartheid -- whom you could marry, where you can buy a home, where you
can vacation -- slowly disappeared, more or less. And you always have to say
that because -- I mean as you know.
But the larger implications for the overall community, we're still only
beginning to understand those. What will it take to wipe out that 45% level of
black children living in poverty? We don't know. What will it take to put
black people to work in a highly technological world, 21st century global
economy? We don't know. What will it take, if anything, to turn the inner
city into some sort of economic oasis? Is that possible? I frankly don't
think so. Other people are much more optimistic. What will it take in an era of -- how
can we put it? -- the reconsideration of gerrymandering as a viable tool of
social engineering to elect more black officials? What will it take to ensure
that the number of black elected officials stays high? Well, we all thought
that in the recent election five congresspersons would be turned out because
they had been redistricted out of majority black districts. They all won. No
one knows what that means.
Do you need a majority black district in order to get black people
elected? Obviously you don't. Ask Doug Wilder. Ask some of the mayors from
cities like Denver, Willie Brown in San Francisco. We make a lot of glib
assertions about race and race identity and we haven't thought those through.
I was attacked at our own conference here observing the 100th anniversary of
Plessy v. Ferguson by an official of the NAACP legal defense fund for an essay
I'd just written in April number of The New Yorker in which I said we have
ethnicized our electorate. We think that black people can only be elected in a
majority black district. I don't like that. I think that that's wrong, though
on the other hand I think it's wonderful that we have so many black people in
But in the end you have to appeal to a majority of your constituents to be
elected. That's what democracy is. Does that mean that only black people are
going to vote for a black person, only Hispanic people are going to vote for an
Hispanic person, only an Asian person can represent Asian people? I don't want
to live in a world like that. I don't think that's what America is all about
and this election proved that it doesn't have to be that way.
Gary Franks, who lost this election, did not lose because he's a black
person in predominantly white state like Connecticut, he lost because people
didn't like his performance, but he won a few years ago precisely because they
did like his stand. And I'm trying to say what Hegel said when he defined
tragedy as the war not between good and evil but the war between two competing
goods, and often the dilemmas that confront us are in fact the war between two
The problem with the strategy of gerrymandering districts to ensure black
majority is that it means that black elected officials are dependent upon their
constituents, their black constituents staying in these predominantly black
neighborhoods which all too often are economically deprived. So what happens
if jobs develop outside of this district? What happens if economic development
-- and this happens all the time -- does not occur in the inner city but occurs
in another region of the same town like out in the suburbs or someplace outside
the city? And we all know about this. Well, do the elected officials want
their constituents to move? Absolutely not.
So you see, they might not necessarily be speaking to the best interests
of their own constituents because they're dependent upon black people staying
in those districts. That's wrong. That's bad for our collective economic
health. Why should the inner city be developed? Are there good sound economic
reasons for that? And where there are it should be developed, but because of
some nostalgia? For black people all living together? That's not a good
reason to me.
I think that we have to look long and hard about patterns of migration
and how we encourage black people to respond to expanded opportunities. I
think we need to move people from the inner city to the jobs instead of holding
our breath waiting for the jobs to miraculously appear in the inner city. I
would rather a black person live a middle class life in a minority status in
that district than to live in a majority black district in an
These kind of concerns are things that need to be
addressed by the black leadership, and there's a great deal of muddled thinking
about these issues, particularly about maintaining a black presence in places
like the Congress of the United States and what redistricting. I think that
we've always been a migratory people and certainly in this century and we have
followed economic opportunities and I think that we have to be encouraged at
the end of this century to follow economic opportunities first and foremost
rather than sitting idly by waiting for the inner city to develop.
CROSS: Black Americans are different than other immigrant groups who have
come to America in that as we move into the middle class in some ways our
middle class is clinging to our past more tightly than any other immigrant
group that's come here. How do you explain that? The Afrocentric
GATES: I think that one of the things that would surprise Dr. King
were he to come back is the extent of petty black nationalism, bourgeois
nationalism and by petty black nationalism I mean the trappings of black
nationalism. You see brothers get out of their black BMWs with their kente
cloth cummerbunds and ties to go with their tuxedos just to show that they're
down with the brothers. You go into someone's house there's John Coltrane on
the wall, there's the obligatory Jacob Lawrence or Bearden print, complete
works of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
You know, that it's a way of staying in touch, overcoming a sense of
estrangement, but even more important it's overcoming the guilt of the
survivor, and scholars have written reams of books about the guilt of the
survivor. It's a phenomenon that applies to many people in many situations.
It's developed in relationship to Jewish people who were not killed during the
holocaust and what that means is a sense of responsibility to those who were
left behind and that certainly is true of the black middle class today. So
that we see black middle class people celebrating their culture.
Kwanzaa. I mean Kwanzaa was invented in Long Beach, California by Ron
Karenga and doesn't have anything to do with Africa directly certainly, but
buying books about Kwanzaa, celebrating Kwanzaa, wanting Kwanzaa celebrated in
your kid's school to show that we are a black presence. In part it's a love
for African-American culture which I certainly love and celebrate and even
teach. In part it is the use of culture as a bridge to connect those people
who have escaped from the black community, that is the inner city black
community, with those who have not. It's also a bandage covering a wound,
salving a wound and I'm not sure that is --
CROSS: What's the wound?
GATES: The wound is the severance of the black community. The
wound is knowing deep down that it's highly unlikely that the American people
are willing to do anything serious about diminishing the number of those black
children who are born at or beneath the poverty line. What does that mean?
Can you enjoy your success as a black upper middle class person knowing that
the opportunities for every other black child are severely limited by
structural causes over which they have no control and that the collective will
to make the structural changes necessary to deal with these problems, to change
the possibility of opportunity for these children, that will is gone. That
will is left somewhere in the great society of the late 1960s.
Then trying to decide what can we do collectively to if all the black people in the
middle class liquidated all their assets it still would not solve the
structural problems confronting the African-American people. What do all these
metaphors of family, brother, sister, we are people, we are family, we're black
love, what's all that mean? What does it mean? Is it realistic? Is it
romantic? Is it nostalgia? Is it wishful thinking? Essentially people follow
their economic interests and we were encouraged to follow our economic
interests by the black community. Get all the education you can, boy or girl,
then no white racist can control your life. OK, well, we did that. Then you
get a good job. Then you move out to the suburbs because you don't want your
children to go to bad schools and you don't want your life confined by crime,
determined by crime, etc, etc. So you do all that.
How can you maximize those kind of marvelous things for other
people who look like you? Now, it just so happens that even middle class black
people vote like underclass black people when underclass black people vote. We
vote overwhelmingly for left of center democrat candidates, just like the
Jewish people do and like Puerto Ricans do. The class differences do not
manifest themselves in how we vote and the reason is because the most important
thing to the average black person is racism and they see themselves first and
last, generally, as African-Americans because that's how the society sees you.
That's how the police department sees you. That sense of vulnerability that
you have, the sense of limitation you have in your job, the knowledge that the
glass ceiling has been constructed for people who look like you brings people
together who don't have quite frankly any common, or very little common
economic interest, and I find that fascinating and I think it's true for other
ethnic groups as well.
Does that justify us in talking about black people as if 35 million
people think with one mind and speak with one mouth? Absolutely not and I think that one
of the things that we're trying to do here is encourage an expanded definition
of blackness, that maybe there are 35 million ways of being black, that we all
don't have to think alike, act alike, talk alike in order to be black. But
this creates great anxiety. We don't want people to escape. Look at the
reaction of black politicians to the mixed race movement, the challenge to the
census to add other categories of racial identification. Why does this create
panic? Because it diminishes the number of black people --
CROSS: No, but we've also been there before.
GATES: No, but the real reason is because you want as many black people
in the country to get your parcel, to get those things allocated by percentages
Like voting districts. And you don't want this other category.But why should
racist laws defining who is black and who is not, inherited from slavery have
anything to do with the reality of our lives? They shouldn't.
But you see, our society is still trapped in this binary, black/white
logic and that has had some very positive implications for our generation.
It's had some very negative ones as well and one of the negative ones is that
it creates enormous identity problems for people who have one black ancestor
and all white ancestors for example. Don't look black, choose to follow their
white parents identity. Legally they can't do that.
CROSS: Does Skip Gates get up in the morning, look in the mirror and
think about the 45%? On a regular basis?
GATES: I'm sure that there are some African-Americans who wake
up every day and think about the socioeconomic evils affecting our community,
when they first look in the mirror, but I'm not one of them. Generally, when I
look in the mirror I think, thank God that I made it through the night and I
think about what I have to do in the course of the day.
But, some part of my consciousness in the course of my day certainly is
occupied by-- and I think is true for all black Americans,--one central
question. What does it mean to be black in a society where being black has so
many negative implications at the end of the great American century?
And that means that no matter how successful a Harvard professor is, or
any of us in any aspect of American life, you are never too far removed from a
black person in the most impoverished inner-city neighborhood in your
community. The system would be better off, you might say, if that weren't
true. Why should the people who oppress us want to see the successful people
so concerned with the plight of the unsuccessful people? But that's the way it
is, and as long as the system continues in the form in which it has manifested
itself that situation will remain.
Frankly, from a moral point of view, I'll take what- ever cause keeps
connecting the middle class with the lower class. But it so happens that I
deep down believe that many people would escape, completely, if
they could; that there is nothing natural about feeling
compassion toward those people who look like you, but who have not been as
successful as you.
That's one of the things that I think Cornell West is so brilliant
about, recreating in people their sense of moral responsibility for each other:
black upper-class and middle-class people for black underclass people. White
people for black people. Black people for Jewish people. Males for females.
Straight people for gay people. That is how you create a community. And I
think that many of us are trying to move beyond identity politics that are
based on mere images, that we can only feel compassion for those people who
look like us. That takes a leap if you're black, I think, because you spend so
much time being preoccupied with the class differentials, the structural
differentials within the African-American community, but it's the future. I
mean, it's what being a citizen of a republic should be all about.
There are many forms that political commitment can take. I
remember hearing Vernon Jordan, one time, saying that Colin Powell is a
brother, that you don't have to hang out on the street corner to be a brother.
And certainly, all that he did to further affirmative action in the Army cannot
be dismissed as anything but a major political commitment. Look at Vernon
Jordan. He's on the boards of major American corporations, integrating them,
intervening in policy decisions that have enormous effect on average, regular
African-American working people. That's a political commitment.
And I think scholarship is a political commitment, in that order, too.
You don't have to be teaching a crack victim the ABC's in order to be pursuing
a policy that will have an impact upon that person. We can't all march in
picket lines. We can't all work in the inner city. And, I don't even think
that it is incumbent upon an African-American intellectual to be concerned in
their work with problems of race and class. It's just one of the things, that
we here at the DuBois Institute, are concerned about. When I see Andre Watts,
I want him to be a virtuoso pianist. If he is concerned about social issues
affecting the African-American community, all to the good. But first and
foremost he has to be a master of his craft. Jesse Norman; I want that
splendid voice to continue to resonate. If she is also concerned about social
Not everybody is going to be actively involved in an advocacy relation
between the black community and the white community. And I think that we have
to remember that. But, for those of us who are, I think that that's important
and will continue to be important for a long, long time.
CROSS: Do you think you have guilt about it?
GATES: No, I don't feel guilty about my success. I feel I was
raised to be successful. I accepted the ideology of the black community, which
was to study hard, work hard, and pray for a miracle. And the miracle for me
was my mother, first of all, who created a tremendous sense of self-confidence
and positive self-esteem within my brother and me. But, secondly, affirmative
action. Now, without affirmative action I would have certainly have gone to
college, I probably would have gone to Howard, or to Morehouse. And there is
nothing wrong with that, but I certainly would not have gone to Yale. Yale has
taken black people for a long time, but four or five, one or two. The class of
1966, had six black people. My class, which entered in 1969, and graduated in
1973, had 96 black people.
What--they found 90 smart black people miraculously? No, they made a
policy change. They got rid of a racist quota and substituted a goal, and I
was swept up into the Ivy League with all those other young Afro coifed 18-year
olds, because the Ivy League decided that it wanted, and it was self-conscious
about this, that it wanted to educate the leadership class across the entire
spectrum of ethnicities in the United States, and not just white males,
anymore. As a matter of fact, women entered Yale in 1969, at the same time a
significant number of black people did.
So that was the miracle in my case. But I think that this kind of good
fortune, and certainly the subsequent good fortune that I've been able to
enjoy, brings with it a sense of responsibility. I don't try to punish people
who don't share that sense of responsibility. I'm certainly not a manipulator
of guilt, but I would like for all African-Americans to know something about
their history, because the fact of racism, sooner or later, will hit you upside
your nappy head, and if you don't know where it came from it's very hard to
recover from it.
And, secondly, because far too often it's been an accident that has led
to the good fortune of an individual African-American, and another kind of
accident, a perverse kind of accident, and a miracle in reverse that has led to
misfortune of someone just as talented. I mean, I don't for a minute think
that the black people who come to Harvard are more talented than black people
who go to other schools. For various reasons they were positioned to get in
and they are very intelligent people. But there are a lot of other very
intelligent people in the African-American community.
I don't think the guilt is a useful emotion by and large, but I think
that a positive sense of responsibility is a much more useful emotion. And
that's what we try to encourage. I think that those people try to manipulate
the guilt of young black students, for example, and this happens at a lot of
schools. I mean, black professors. I think that they are more frightened of
diversity within the community, and think that they can only replenish the
ranks through order, discipline, guilt, control. And I think the ideal way to
replenish the ranks, is willingly through a sense of shared responsibility the
people come to of their own volition, and not because they get a command from
the Commandant of Blackness. And that's what they have to do. I mean, that's
the surest way to kill a movement, without a doubt.
CROSS: How have we arrived at a situation where it is authentically black
to rebel against everything--that our parents told us was the way to succeed.
GATES: Well, certainly one of the ironies of the success of
affirmative action is that the middle class within the black community no
longer lives within "black community" by and large. And, this is Bill Wilson's
thesis, that the black successful individuals, professionals, have moved out of
that community. So that the kind of role models that we all had when we were
growing up, when under segregation, the lawyer, the undertaker, the teacher,
the doctor, lived not too far away. Sometimes, next door to the janitor, the
hairdresser, the secretary, the worker in the factory, and the domestic, the
street sweeper, the garbage person. So, we had this complicated set of role
models and images swirl all around us.
Also, there was a sense of concern and feeling, out of necessity for
each other, so that if you were being bad some adult would say, "What's your
name? I'm going to tell your daddy. I know your daddy. I'm going to tell
your daddy, and he's going to beat your butt if I don't catch you first." All
that's gone. So, that the black people who were doing well, by and large,
moved to middle class neighborhoods. And then the presence of crack/ cocaine,
as many people have pointed out, drastically changed the desperation factor in
the African-American community. That, and the fact that the traditional
pattern of moving from no class through working class, from working class to
the middle class, that is through factories located in the cities, that, by and
large, has disappeared. Those jobs have gone, have headed south.
So that if you add all those factors up, you had a politically
disenfranchised, economically disenfranchised group of people left in the inner
city, predominantly black. Black people doing well, able to take advantage of
affirmative action, living in middle class neighborhoods and never the twain
shall meet. Black people in the suburbs were successful, feeling
guilty. Valorizing or claiming respect for this putatively authentic black
culture, which is based on their idea, a romanticization of inner city culture.
People in the inner city feeling estranged, being manipulated by their leaders
saying, Well, black people who have escaped are no longer black. It's a
nightmare. It's a nightmare.
We have more fissures now in the black community than we ever had.
Again, we've always had class differentials, but they didn't play themselves
out in these way. Nor was the level of despair this high. We were all under
segregation, equal to some extent, despite our class differentials within the
community. We were all potential victims in similar ways, in exactly the same
way to a law that says, You black person cannot sip out of this water fountain.
You cannot sit down in this restaurant, and you certainly cannot live in this
neighborhood. That, by and large, has disappeared. Though if you try to get
buzzed into a fancy jewelry shop, as Patricia Williams wrote a brilliant essay
about this, pointed out. Or, if you're stopped in a car by a racist cop, like
Mark Furman, if you're traveling with someone white, you could end up dead.
That could happen to any black person. So, again, you have more individual
freedom within the black community than we've ever had. But we still have the
threat of racist oppression, no matter how much money you have, no matter how
successful that you've been.
And, on the other hand, if you're an inner city black person, an
unemployed black person, we have more despair than we've ever had. And that, I
don't think our leadership and our scholars have fully accounted for. Again,
no model predicted this. No one foresaw this. It's quite remarkable,
actually. So you get strange forms of behavior. One form of behavior that's
strange is this -- that we deny that we're doing well. We think that we are
all suffering from racism in exactly the same way.
How can you be, let's say, a professor at Princeton and think that the
forms of discrimination that you suffer are exactly the same as a household in
the inner city with a 16 year old mother, and a 32 year old grandmother, and a
48 year old great-grandmother?
And, of course, I exaggerate. But there are households that exist that
conform to that image. Just like there are households like the Huxtables, with
the black lawyer and a black doctor married to each other, and their kids going
to wherever they want to go to school. But again, no one predicted the three
generation, maternal household on the one hand, and Cliff and Claire Huxtable
on the other, existing simultaneously. And then calling these two
representatives of the black community, a family, a unit, a people. Where does
being a people start and stop?
CROSS: I was thinking again about the group at Howard University
and how they strategized the Board decision, And the thought that somehow good
intentions and the idea of white people exposed to black folks-- got to know
us up close and personal -- that their racism would disappear.
GATES: Well, again, Du Bois had this idea. Du Bois thought that
he would be a sociologist because that was being a scientist, and that through
a scientific method, he could compile data and show them that they were wrong
about us. He said this over and over again. "If only they knew the real negro
and not the stereotypes."
But you see that is to presuppose that racist behavior is the result of
matters of the heart rather than deeper, socioeconomic causes. For instance,
we need a cheap labor force so we can justify in enslaving these people or
treating them like neoslaves if we diminish their humanity. So we will
diminish their humanity by saying they are stupid, they smell bad, they are
evil, they are ugly, benighted, we are doing them a favor by dragging them out
of Africa, etc, etc. A whole industry built up over two centuries reinforcing
the idea that black people were subhuman, that they were not like us,
Europeans, that they were a different order of things. You can't counter
racist behavior in every instance simply by presenting them those facts.
I mean Du Bois did these studies in Atlanta -- these famous Atlanta
conferences every year for a decade or more. What did he do, mail it to all of
the white racists or to the Klan. You know we didn't go "oh, wow, I was wrong
about the negro. We are not going to... you niggers anymore." That's
ridiculous because it wasn't what it was about anyway. I mean often the people
in the grip of the most heinous forms of racism weren't even aware of why they
were in the grip of that kind of racism. They were the tail end of a chain
reaction justifying the denigration of a people for economic purposes. The
only way you change that is structurally, right. You begin to protect people's
right to have a job, equal wages.
I found in my experience close contact with people on an equal economic
basis changes your opinion about those people. That is more than any single
cause, not meeting in a church, and we shall overcome civil right's groups,
joining hands and singing at the end, hugging people in the middle of the
service and saying, "I love you brother my nanny was black."
All that is fine and good, and change of heart is quite wonderful. But
generally when people identify the other as being related to them economically,
I think that their attitude about those people has changed more quickly and
more profoundly than any other way, that you sense of commonality, your sense
of community, your sense of neighborhood is being defined by work, by economic
interests, by shared aspiration, then you can say, "they are just like us."
They are not -- though they might like fried chicken, and I like boiled cabbage
and corned beef, we are fundamentally related in how we go about working, our
expectations in the workplace, the way we complete tasks on the job, what we
watch on television at night, who we root for in the world series, those kinds
of things. Whether we believe in God or forms of worship, it gives people a
chance not to be threatened by each other, economic equality.
Without economic equality any of those differences that I just
named can be blown up into a difference that suggests a completely different
order of human being. You are outside of my community, and I'm not talking
about my neighborhood--I mean my human community. You are a different kind of
person. Eventually, you are a threat to me. I have to do everything I
possibly can in order to protect my wife, my children, their children, their
children's children, my mother, everything that I love to contain you because
you go about the process of being a human being in a fundamentally different
and threatening way to me. Of course, people don't. Of course, people do have
different cultures, different forms of social behavior and customs. Those
differences are then used to mask forms of economic exploitation, and that is
the bottom line.
It is only by giving people jobs and preparing them for those jobs,
meaningful jobs, that we can solve the problem of racism and classism in the
United States. That's it. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure
There is a culture that is perpetuated in an impoverished environment.
How someone feels when they wake up and look in the mirror, what their horizon
of possibilities is. What is considered legal behavior, illegal behavior. What
is considered morally acceptable in terms of the use of one's body or the abuse
of one's body. Forms of stimulation. Whether one can entertain hope and for
how long. Whether the traditional value from the African-American community
and other immigrant groups in America that we will live for our grandchildren.
We will accrue as much as we can to give our children a bit more, and they will
accrue to give their children more. Whether that will continue to be a value
in the African-American community or will instant, spontaneous, immediate
consumption with no thought of the future because we will be dead. We will be
dead by 25. We will be dead by 30. There is no hope so wy be concerned about
the future. Whether that will continue to be a value among the impoverished
within our community.
Now, I am not trying to sit here on Mt. Olympus and say, "these people
are morally wrong." But these are not forms of behavior that should be
encouraged, and they are not forms of behavior that are going to lead to the
overall progress of our people.
You see, the causes of poverty--as scholars ranging from William
Julius Wilson to Cornell West and a lot of people have pointed out--are both
structural and behavioral. The job problem,the disappearance of jobs as Bill
Wilson says in The Disappearance of Work, the title of his new book,
caused an enormous economic nightmare for members of the black community left
behind in the inner city, but there are also behavioral problems. Deciding to
get pregnant or not to have protected sex. Deciding to do drugs. Deciding not
to study. Deciding, deciding, deciding. Like dominoes falling over. A chain
reaction of negatives that leads to despair and hopelessness and the desire for
I am writing a story for The New Yorker on the Chitlin Circuit,
these plays, gospel plays. Plays like "Mama, I want to sing" and "My
grandmother prayed for me," which happens to be my favorite. I went to Newark
about a month ago. Sunday morning I jumped on a plane and flew to Newark and
went to Newark Symphony Hall. Sixteen hundred black people paid $24.50 to see
"Mama -- to see "My grandmother prayed for me." Packed. People came from
church decked out. I mean sisters had hats on and veils and the netting, the
lack stockings, those black dresses. They stood up and did the holy -- I mean
when the spirit manifests itself. The sisters did it, and they clapped. Why?
The play culminates with the crack, prostitute daughterhearing the voice of God
changing just like that. The son being given a magical bible, which he puts in
his breast pocket that keeps the bullet from penetrating his heart.
Each time one of the three miracles occurs, the crowd goes
crazy. Everybody wants a miracle. These people don't want to be living in the
situation in which they are living, and they want a miracle. We used to look
to the White House and the Supreme Court for the miracle, and now they are
looking for these miracle plays looking for heaven the God and the machine to
The point is there is no miracle; there is only hard work. The hard
work is addressing the structural problem structurally through a comprehensive
jobs bill and an education program and insisting, secondly, within the
African-American community, that each of our people assume moral responsibility
for his or her behavior. We stop blaming the man for all the problems that
afflict our community. If Jewish people had done that, they would all be dead.
The Jewish people and other ethnic groups banded together in the way that the
Haitians are doing it here in Boston and pulling each other up, and I really
like that model. I don't want to be accused of giving the standard sermon
about good minorities and good immigrant groups; it's not that. It's just
thatthere are forms of behavior that we benefitted from in the African-American
community in the 50s.
If any of us had acted like some of our brothers and sisters act today,
we would have been slapped upside our heads. Being rude to older people, not
believing in the future, not believing in education, not believing that we
could do it, not believing that collectively attaintment in school was a good
thing for our people was a political victory. Getting an A in school was a
political victory. That mentality, that logic has been lost. Deferred
gratification has been lost. Believing in the future, lost. We need to get
those values back, and you can't get them back through some bulletin from the
churches. You need to believe in them as a people in a way that we believe
them as a people in the 1950s and 40s. Otherwise, we never would have made it
through the civil rights era. Never. When we believed we had goals. We had a
common purpose. Again, King's death, the passage of the Civil Rights act,
because there was no agenda. Because there was a crisis in the leadership
class within our community, no one knew what to believe. No one knew what
belief to unite around that would liberate us. What would liberation consist
of? Thurgood Marshall's notion that we would all end up in the middle class.
Hardly. Thirty five million people are not all going to be in one economic
class, and we need to begin to understand that.
But what we have to do is affect -- what I call the bell curve of class
so that -- most of us are in the middle class, some of us are in the lower
classes, some of us are in the upper classes. What we have now is a big middle
class, not big enough, and a far too big underclass. Two nodes, two humps, two
mountains. We have to merge those into a new working/middle class. We can
only do that through a comprehensive jobs bill. We can only do that if every
segment of American society understands that it is better for the future of
American society to change the class structure somewhat, that is to share the
goodies along a broader base particularly within the African-American community
than it does oppress it.
CROSS: The first time we talked you asked me to find out definitively how
black folks as an aggregate are -- worse off or better off than we were in
I will tell you what the answer is. In 1965 per capita income of black
folks was 56 percent of the per capita income of white folks. In 1995 the per
capita income of black folks is 57 percent of the per capita income of white
folks. So now, what does that tell you?
GATES: Well, that tells us that we didn't take sufficient
account of class in our analysis of the political things that have afflicted
the African-American community. But more than that it tell us that all the
things that are much better for black people today, and there are a lot.
We have more individual freedom than we ever had today. We suffer from
racism, legal racism much less than we ever have. I mean, there are a million
ways that it is better being black in 1997 than being black in 1967. OK. But
the level of despair in the African-American community among those who have not
benefitted from the advantages of affirmative action is, I think, more
penetrating, more deafening that it was even in the 1920s and then during the
depression of the 1930s.
Again because of the schism within the black community. See, it's one
thing to say, "we live like this because white racists have treat us this way."
It's another thing when no white racist treats Michael Jordan that way. No
white racist treats Vernon Jordan that way. No white racists treats tens of
millions of black people who are doing quite well in this society. You can't
blame white racism in the same way that you could before.
In a way we are nostalgic. Our leadership class is nostalgic for Bull
Connors and Orville Faubus for the ghost of white racism. That's why we rally
so energetically in a crisis. All of a sudden we have a crisis. A black man
beaten by a policeman. So we all know what to do about that.
But how do you change the bell curve of class? The right would say
bootstrap mentality, morality. "Just say no" Mrs. Reagan said. "Don't use
those drugs, don't have unprotected sex, etc, etc." The left would say all too
often, "just change the society, redistribute the wealth or make a structural
change." What you need is to bring those two positions together and stress
federal or state intervention, corporate intervention, to address the
structural imbalances, moral, personal behavioral intervention to correct those
aspects of unfortunate and aberrant behavior. Only that way I think we can
achieve the end that we all want.