The Two Nations of Black America: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Director - Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, Trustee - The Brookings Institution

March 1, 1998

Six black men, each intellectually superior in his own way, graduated from Yale College in the class of 1966. Each had managed, through some luck and a lot of pluck, to penetrate the iron-clad barriers that had kept the blacks matriculating at Yale to a fixed number for several decades. When I entered Yale two years later, 95 black men and women entered with me.

We were, to a person, caught up in the magic of the moment. Our good fortune was to have been selected to be part of the first “large” group of blacks included in Yale’s commitment to educate “1,000 male leaders” each year. But we wondered: what would becoming a true black leader entail—for ourselves and for our people outside those hallowed Ivy walls’ What sort of sacrifices and obligations did this special ticket to success bring along with it? We worried about this—out loud, often, and noisily.

Mostly we did our worrying in our long languid dinners in the colleges or in bull sessions in our suites, but our ritualized worrying space was our weekly meetings of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, headed by our black and shining prince, Glenn de Chabert. Our first item of business was always “recruitment,” how to get more black students to join us at New Haven. “This place is lily white,” de Chabert would complain. “We are flies in the buttermilk.” Brimming to overflow with maybe 200 students, the year’s first meeting of the BSAY looked like Harlem to me! I basked in the warmth generated by the comfort of the range of brown colors in that room, but I also shuddered (as unnoticeably as I could) as I contemplated the awesome burden of leadership that we felt or were made to feel, fulfilling our obligations to “help the community.” After all, “the revolution” was unfolding around the country and we, along with students like us at Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, and Wesleyan, were to be its vanguard. This burden was no mere abstraction. The trial of New Haven’s Black Panthers, and of one of their leaders, Bobby Seale, was under way just a block or two away at New Haven’s federal courthouse.

It astonishes me today how sharp my black colleagues were, how thoughtful beyond their years, how mature. For some reason, I long assumed that most of these guys were up from the ghetto, first generation college. After all, our uniforms of the day, dashikis and blue jeans, obliterated our variety of social distinctions. Names like Baskerville and Irving, Reed and Robinson, Schmoke and de Chabert, Barrington Parker the Third, meant nothing particular to me. Only later would I discover that my contemporaries were no strangers to the idea of college. Had it not been for affirmative action, we would have met at Howard or Morehouse. They were not so much a new black middle-class bourgeoisie recruited to scale the ladder of class as the scions of an old and colored middle class, recruited to integrate a white male elite. We clung to a soft black nationalist politics to keep ourselves to the straight and narrow.

For me one crucial scene of instruction on the path of a more or less nationalist politics came while I was watching a black program that had been produced by students at Howard. In the film, a student, happily dating a white co-ed, comes to see the error of his ways after a campus visit by Maulana Ron Karenga. What a figure Karenga was—brown bald head, African robes, dark sun glasses. This was one bad dude, bad enough to make this guy in the film turn his back on love and come on home! I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me before this that there was “a way to be “black,’” that one could be in the program or outside of it.

Of course I knew what an Uncle Tom was, but even Uncle Tom was still part of the extended family. No one ever talked about banishing him from the tribe. Before this. But this was a new day. A new generation, a vanguard within the vanguard of civil rights leadership, was demanding Black Power, the right to take over, and declaring venerable elders like Martin Luther King, Jr., to be too old, too tired, too Milquetoast to be effective keepers of Black Power’s incandescent flare. Dr. King was especially symptomatic, moving away as he had done from an exclusively race-based politics to a more broadly conceived analysis that would bring “poor people” together. Where did a movement based on poverty leave all of us who were discovering an Afro-coifed dashiki-clad “blackness” long forcibly hidden from our view? Even the Black Panthers, Marxists that they claimed to be, manipulated the trappings of nationalist garb and rhetoric to maximize their appeal in a program that would eventually lead out of the black community and straight into a coalition with the brown and red and white truly poor.

J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, apparently, were not aware of, or especially concerned about, what Freud called “the narcissism of tiny differences” within the black movement. For Hoover, the Panthers were black, they were radical, they were Communist-inspired. And they could be dealt with.

Systematic repression has a curious way of hampering the evolution of a movement. And not only were the Black Panthers repressed, Dr. King was assassinated—in retrospect the most dramatic act of violent repression in the wing of the movement that was beginning to embrace a class-based organizing principle that sought to reorder American society. Dr. King was killed. People like Huey Newton were imprisoned. And people as unlike as Elijah Mohammed and Vernon Jordan, Jesse Jackson, and my new compatriots at Yale were being invited to integrate a newly expanded American upper middle class. The vanguard of black cultural nationalist political consciousness, in other words, became the vanguard in the race’s broad movement across the great divide that had for so long prevented genuine economic mobility up the great American ladder of class.

Somehow, in the late sixties, in the aftermath of the King assassination, what was held to be “authentically” black began to change. Ghetto culture was valorized; the “bourgeois” lifestyle that the old guard leaders of the civil rights establishment embodied was held to be too great a price to pay for our freedom, or at least to admit to. We wanted to be “real,” to “be down with the people,” to be successful, yes, but to appear to be “black” at the same time. And to be black was to be committed to a revolution of values, of mores and manners, of economic relationships. We were “a people.” The best way to dramatize this kinship was to dress, walk, talk like a “brother.”

Above all, being black meant that we were at one with “the revolution,” standing tall and firm in defense of “the people,” and that revolutionary vanguard, the persecuted and harassed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. We went on strike on April 15, 1970, two weeks before Nixon and Henry Kissinger invaded Cambodia. We struck because Bobby Seale, we felt deeply, was not being tried fairly just down the street, bound and gagged as he was at the worst moment of the trial. The strike rally was glorious. It seemed as if 100,000 people crowded onto the New Haven Green on May Day of 1970. Kingman Brewster, Yale’s dynamic president, offered them food and shelter in the residential colleges. Each stained glass window of the sacred cathedral of learning that we called “Sterling” stood intact at week’s end. De Chabert had never spoken more impressively, never been more daring or inspiring.

However, graduation inevitably came, calling us to the newly expanded opportunities in graduate and professional schools and then on to similarly expanded opportunities in the broader professional and academic world. I went off to Cambridge, England, and when I returned a few years later to teach at Yale, so very much had changed. Any pretense that black admissions would be anything but staunchly and firmly middle class had ended during my absence. The new black middle class was perpetuating itself. Affirmative action, under assault by the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision and wounded, still was functioning to increase the size of the middle class exponentially by a factor of four. Meanwhile, the gradual disappearance of industrial jobs in the cities was cutting off that upwardly mobile class escalator that so many in the middle class had been able to scale.

Thenceforth, in one of the most curious social transformations in the class structure in recent American history, two tributaries began to flow, running steadily into two distinct rivers of aspiration and achievement. By 1990, the black middle class, imperiled though it might feel itself to be, had never been larger, more prosperous, or more relatively secure. Simultaneously, the pathological behavior that results from extended impoverishment engulfed a large part of a black underclass that seemed unable to benefit from a certain opening up of American society that the civil rights movement had long envisioned and had finally made possible, if only for some. And for the first time ever, that inability to benefit seemed permanent.

Gangsterism became the handmaiden of hopelessness. Even middle-class children, well-educated, often, and well-heeled, found value in publicity celebrating a “gangsta” lifestyle. Cultural forms such as Rap and Hip Hop, “the CNN of the black community,” valorized violence, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and a curious form of masochistic self-destruction. And then life began to imitate art—the gangsterism of the art of Hip Hop liberalized itself in the reciprocal murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls—and the bizarre nightmare inversion of popular black values manifested itself in a most public way.

Which brings us to the present—for the African-American community, the best of times and the worst of times. We have the largest black middle class in our history and the largest black underclass. In 1990, 2,280,000 black men were in prison, or probation, or parole, while 23,000 earned a college degree. That’s a ratio of 99 to 1, compared with a ratio of 6 to 1 for white men.

What do we do about this? What do we not do?

First of all, we have to stop feeling guilty about our success. Too many of us have what psychologists call “the guilt of the survivor,” deep anxieties about leaving the rest of our fellow blacks in the inner city of despair. We need to feel the commitment to service, not to guilt. Our community and our families prepared us to be successful. “Get all the education you can,” they told us over and over—and we did.

Second, we don’t have to fail in order to be black. As odd and as crazy as this sounds. Far too many young black kids say that succeeding is “white.” Had any of us said this sort of thing when we were growing up, our families and friends would have checked us into a mental institution. We need more success individually and collectively.

Third, we don’t have to pretend any longer that 35 million people can ever possibly be members of the same economic class. The entire population of Canada is 27 million. Canadians are not all members of one economic class. Nor do they speak with one single voice, united behind one single leader. As each of us knows, we have never been members of one social or economic class and never will be. The best we can strive for is that the class differentials within the black community—the bell curve of class—cease their lopsided ratios because of the pernicious nature of racial inequality.

So how do we do this? How do we “fight the power” in a post-civil rights world in which Bull Connors and George Wallace are no longer the easy targets? A world in which the rhetoric of the civil rights era sounds hollow and empty? A world in which race differences and class differentials have been ground together in a crucible of misery and squalor, in such a way that few of us can tell where one stops and the other begins? I certainly have no magic cures.

But we do know that the causes of poverty within the black community are both structural and behavioral. Scholars as diverse as philosopher Cornel West and sociologist William Julius Wilson have pointed this out, and we are foolish to deny it. A household composed of a 16-year-old mother, a 32-year-old grandmother, and a 48-year-old great grandmother cannot possibly be a site for hope and optimism. Our task, it seems to me, is to lobby for those social programs that have been demonstrated to make a difference for those motivated to seize these expanded opportunities.

More important, we have to demand a structural change in this country, the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the cities. We have to take people off welfare, train them for occupations relevant to a 21st-century, high-tech economy, and put them to work. Joblessness, as Wilson maintains, is our biggest crisis.

And while I favor such incentives as tax breaks to generate new investment in inner cities, youth apprenticeships with corporations, expanded tax credits for earned income, and tenant ownership of inner-city property, we have to face the reality that most of our inner cities are simply not going to become overnight oases of prosperity. We should think about moving black inner-city workers to the jobs rather than hold our breath and wait for new factories to resettle in the inner city.

It is only by confronting the twin realities of white racism, on the one hand, and our failures to take the initiative and break the cycle of poverty, on the other, that we, the remnants of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth, will be able to assume a renewed leadership role for, and with, the black community. To continue to repeat the same old stale formulas; to blame “the man” for oppressing us all, in exactly the same ways; to scapegoat Koreans, Jews, or even Haitians for the failure of black Americans to seize local entrepreneurial opportunities is to fail to accept our role as leaders of our own community. Not to demand that each member of the black community accept individual responsibility for her or his behavior—whether that behavior assumes the form of black-on-black homicide, gang members violating the sanctity of the church, unprotected sexual activity, gangster rap lyrics, whatever—is for us to function merely as ethnic cheerleaders selling woof tickets from campus or suburbs, rather than saying the difficult things that may be unpopular with our fellows. Being a leader does not necessarily mean being loved; loving one’s community means daring to risk estrangement and alienation from it in the short run in order to break the cycle of poverty and despair in which we find ourselves, over the long run. For what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of our country, and the African-American people themselves.

Those of us on campus can also reach out to those of us left behind on the streets. The historically black colleges and universities and Afro-American Studies departments in this country can institutionalize sophomore and junior year internships for community development through organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund. Together we can combat teenage pregnancies, black-on-black crime, and the spread of AIDS from drug abuse and unprotected sexual relations, and counter the spread of despair and hopelessness in our communities. Dr. King did not die so that half of us would make it, half of us perish, forever tarnishing two centuries of agitation for our equal rights. We, the members of the Talented Tenth, must accept our historical responsibility and live Dr. King’s credo that none of us is free until all of us are free. And that all of us are brothers and sisters, as Dr. King said so long ago—white and black, Protestant and Catholic, Gentile and Jew and Muslim, rich and poor—even if we are not brothers-in-law.