Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. correspondent for FRONTLINE's The Two Nations of Black America.  Gates is  professor of the Humanities  at Harvard University and Chair of its  Department of Afro-American Studies.

 



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 economic deprivation.

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 case.

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 causes.

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 say.

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 traditional.

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 or another.

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 killed?

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 community.

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 this documentary......

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 friends.

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 group originally?

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 1960.

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 that.

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 act.

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 Congress.

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 competing goods.

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 underclass.

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 thing.

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 issues, wonderful.

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. What's happened?

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 this out.

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 a miracle.

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 manifest themselves.

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 1965.

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. Right?

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.

Gates is also the  Director of the  W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research.   His books include Figures In Black; The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism; for which he received an American Book Award: Loose Canons;  his  memoir Colored People;  The Future of the Race (with Cornel West); Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Black Man; and General Editor (with Nellie McKay) of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. FRONTLINE producer June Cross is the interviewer and the producer of

 

 

 
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