Why have black poverty rates remained static since the end of the civil-rights movement? When journalist Michele Norris brought her Race Card Project to the Institute, she immediately made examinations of race, culture, and identity central parts of the Aspen idea. “We want to try to engage people to talk across difference, to try to examine deeply entrenched narratives, so that we better understand how those narratives can confine or define communities,” she told an Institute audience in January. For her initiative’s first event, Norris sat down with Institute Trustee Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Harvard professor and filmmaker’s latest film project is Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, a look at black history in the modern era.
NORRIS: In your new film, you look at the 50-year period from 1965 forward. Why?
GATES: Imagine Martin Luther King came back now and said, “What’s happening?” We would say, “Well, Dr. King, the black upper-middle class quadrupled.” He would say, “That means you must have wiped out poverty!” When King died, he was in Memphis for the garbage-worker’s strike. He was planning the Poor People’s Campaign. He thought that poverty was a condition that could be treated. Very few people at that time thought poverty was structural, that it was a fundamental part of the American capitalist system. They thought that there had not been sufficient will turned toward the problem, and just as they wiped out nearly a century of de jure segregation with the passage of the Voting Rights Acts, they could turn their attention to wiping out poverty. But that’s not what happened. The poverty rate was 41 percent the day King was assassinated, and it’s 38 percent now. So that’s a paradox.
Meanwhile, the Black Panthers were busy trying to dismantle the economic system, which is why they were systematically killed. In black studies, we sometimes think of the black nationals as the radical people. But what did the American capital system ever do to black nationals? It started selling them Afro picks and dashikis made in Texas. The black nationals were not questioning the economic structure of the United States. They didn’t have an argument with capitalism. They just wanted a chunk of it. But what happened to the group that questioned the economic structure of the country? The Panthers wanted to tear the system down, and what happened? Boom, dead.
NORRIS: In the 1970s, we were laying the foundation for a black middle class. But, when a black family integrated a neighborhood, it affected property values and community wealth.
GATES: Middle-class, white suburban neighborhoods began to integrate. Then five years later, the white people left. So two things happen: (1) the white middle-class suburbs become integrated, then become blacker; and (2) the black inner-city neighborhoods that black middle-class people fled become driven by class. It used to be that we all lived in the same neighborhoods because of segregation.
Black doctors and ditch diggers lived next door to each other, sent their kids to the same schools. That was a class escalator. You’d start in the unskilled part of the paper mill, then you’d move up and make a lot more money, then you’d get a mortgage, you’d get two cars and a TV, you’d send your kids to college, and they would become a doctor or a white-collar worker. That was a cycle.
But after segregation, as soon as you got enough money to move, you moved, and black inner-city neighborhoods didn’t have role models to imitate anymore. That left behind a new and devastatingly repetitious cycle. The absence of role models, the presence of crack cocaine, the disappearance of industrial jobs in the city, it all left behind devastation.
NORRIS: What should have been happening to ensure opportunities for working-class families?
GATES: The mistake, as King knew, was underestimating the role of class in the history of the American racial imagination. If you have laws that say, “All blacks shall…” or “All blacks shan’t…,” the class differences within the race are irrelevant. It didn’t matter if you had gone to Harvard or you were a murderer. You were affected by the law in exactly the same way. So, we didn’t have time for class differences. But we did have pronounced class differences within the race—going back to house and field Negros in the Civil War, light-complexioned people, dark-complexioned people, “good hair,” “bad hair.” It’s almost like we invented class, but the only people who knew about our class distinctions were us. The larger white community didn’t care.
This film is a wake-up call to the black upper-middle class. We must demand that the larger system make changes structurally. But black members of the upper-middle class and the leadership class have to insist on this.
Far too many of us have taken for granted that the black underclass is going to be the black underclass, and there’s nothing that can be done.
NORRIS: So what can people do to help those entrenched in poverty?
GATES: That’s the big question. The two causes of poverty are structural and behavioral. Structural, like the disappearance of industrial jobs from the cities. President Obama was always very honest: that world is gone and is never coming back. Donald Trump said, “Elect me, and I’ll bring it back.” The structural part is not my area of expertise, but I don’t see concern about addressing the structural causes of poverty coming out of the Trump administration. The other cause of poverty is behavioral: studying your ABCs, not having a baby as a teenager, staying in school, not shooting somebody. All the things that if you say in public make you sound like Clarence Thomas. But culture is the air we breathe.
I’ve always loved hearing my Jewish friends talk about Hebrew school. If American Jews did not have Hebrew school, there wouldn’t be Jewish religion and culture. They perpetuate their own culture. What’s that got to do with solving poverty? There are 18 million black Baptists. We have churches. Why can’t we take Sunday school and make it Hebrew school? Teach computer skills or DNA? What if I went to an inner-city school right now and said: “Today’s lesson is Watson and Crick. I’m going to swab everybody’s cheek, and in six weeks, we’re going to tell you what ethnic group your ancestors came from in Africa. While you wait, we’re going to teach you the history of the slave trade and of the 12.5 million Africans who were shipped across the ocean.” We could do more with the institutions that we do control. That’s not going to solve all the problems, but it’s the best I can do.