(1950 - )
The Commonwealth Club of California - San Francisco, California - January 28, 2004
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is one of the most prominent African American intellectuals of his time. He is a renowned scholar of black studies and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Gates is a prolific writer, an engaging speaker and a public television star. His accomplishments read more like a course catalog than one man's resume. Gates has defined a new critical approach to black literature. He has unearthed lost artifacts of African American history, including rediscovering the first novel by a black writer, Our Nig. He helped produce a vast new collection of reference works on black history and culture. He elevated the place of African American Studies in higher education. He has drawn wide attention to the complicated stew of America's genetic lineage, with television programs that reveal the mixed ancestry of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Yo Yo Ma, Chris Rock and Meryl Streep. Finally, Gates's 2009 arrest, as he tried to enter his own home, made headlines and provoked a national dialog on race.
Gates was born in northern West Virginia and grew up in the town of Piedmont, a small community in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. "Skip," as Gates is known to friends, is the younger of two boys. His mother worked as a housekeeper. His father held down two jobs, loading trucks during the day at a paper mill and working as a janitor at the local telephone company in the evenings. In a memoir titled, Colored People, Gates describes Piedmont as a segregated town where blacks and whites lived largely separate lives, where there was little open friction between the races, and where the civil rights movement played out as a relatively muted drama compared to elsewhere in the nation. There were no big protest marches or lunch counter sit-ins in Piedmont. "Civil rights took us all by surprise," he recalls in Colored People. It was a conflict his family watched on the TV news. "Whatever tumult our small screen revealed…the dawn of the civil rights era could be no more than a spectator sport in Piedmont. It was almost like a war being fought overseas."1
The Piedmont public schools responded to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning school segregation by promptly, and rather quietly, opening the doors of white schools to black children. Young Skip's parents encouraged their boys to excel in the newly integrated schools. Gates remembers being recognized and nurtured as a gifted child by the white faculty. He also developed an early sense of ease and friendship with white children. "We were pioneers, people my age, in cross-race relations, able to get to know each other across cultures and classes in a way that was unthinkable in our parents' generation," Gates says. "To speak to white people was just to speak. No artificial tones, no hypercorrectness."2
Gates grew up in an African American community – in terms of both geography and his extended family – that was rich in culture and characters. He tells their tales with the affection and relish of a natural storyteller, a trait he credits to his father's love of a good yarn. He also describes an early "avidity for information on the Negro," anticipating his life calling as a student and exponent of African and African American heritages.3 As a teenager in the 1960s, Gates and his cohort experimented with the ideologies of black power and afro-centrism they increasingly saw on TV and read about in the newspapers. Gates fondly remembers developing elaborate soul-brother handshakes, spouting the few phrases of Swahili he managed to master, and growing the tallest afro in town. He also chuckles at his father's sardonic reaction: "KKK hair, Daddy called it: Knotty, Kinky, and Kan't-comby."4
In 1968, Gates left home for college. He majored in history at Yale University, then won a fellowship to Cambridge University, where he earned a Ph.D. in English literature in 1979. Gates taught at Yale, Cornell and Duke, establishing himself as a powerful new figure in English literary criticism and the interpretation of African American literature. He has published prolifically, branching out from literary studies to co-produce extensive reference works on African American history and culture. These include a massive encyclopedia called Africana, first imagined a century earlier by scholar W.E.B. Du Bois as a Negro equivalent to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
In 1991, Harvard recruited Gates to revive and lead its struggling Afro-American Studies department. Gates lured eminent scholars from other leading universities to his program, including Cornel West, William Julius Wilson, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Gates and his dream team resuscitated the program at Harvard. They are also widely credited with lifting the academic status of black studies as a whole. Gates's mission was to free black studies from the grip of afro-centrism, and to welcome interested students and scholars of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. "We stand as a rebuttal to the idea that Afro-American studies is primarily about building the self-esteem of other African Americans, or that only African Americans can understand, interpret and therefore teach black studies," Gates told an interviewer.5 Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson says he has never met Gates's match for intellectual leadership and interpersonal skills. "He's probably done more to create a positive image for African-American studies than any other scholar in the world," Wilson told The Boston Globe.6
As his academic reputation soared, Gates also established himself as one of America's leading public intellectuals. He has published widely in the non-academic press – from Newsweek to Jet and Art in America to Sports Illustrated. He has appeared in seven major PBS television series on race and African American culture. In 1997, Time declared Gates one of the 25 most influential Americans, saying he combines "the braininess of the legendary black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and the chutzpah of P.T. Barnum."7 The British magazine The Economist describes Gates as a "silver-tongued intellectual imp" who has emerged as the "chief interpreter" of the black experience for the white, American establishment.8
While Gates is certainly a high-profile figure compared to most academics, he is perhaps best known to some Americans as the Harvard professor who got into a scuffle with a cop, and then made peace over a beer on the White House patio. On July 16, 2009, Gates was returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, after an overseas trip. His front door was stuck, so Gates and his taxi driver tried to push it open. A neighbor called the police to report a suspected burglary. Gates and a white officer got into a verbal confrontation and Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped, but the incident sparked a vociferous national conversation over the persistence of racial discrimination in the United States. Commentators found reason to blame both parties for the fracas. The story culminated with a White House "beer summit" between Gates and the officer, James Crowley, hosted by President Barack Obama.
Gates gave this speech at the Commonwealth Club of California, in San Francisco, the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum. He was speaking in advance of the premiere of his 2004 PBS project, America Beyond the Color Line. The program was a kind of State of the Union report on black America at the dawn of the 21st century. Gates describes what he learned travelling the country to interview a cross-section of African Americans for the show, and concludes with his own declaration of the most pressing obstacles in the nation's long struggle for racial equality.
I'm going to show you a clip from my new film series, and I'm going to tell you about it. In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois, of course, the greatest black intellectual of all time – you know they talk about our generation of black intellectuals and writers – they talk about my main man, Cornel West, and they talk about Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Manning Marable and Claude Steele up at Stanford – you could add us all up together, and put us in a Cuisinart and pour us out, and we would not be worthy of tying W.E.B. Du Bois' shoelaces. W.E.B. Du Bois was the man. And he woke up in 1900 and he predicted, famously, that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. And that turned out to be true, certainly, no one could dispute that.
So at the beginning of the 21st century, I wanted to ask, and attempt to answer, the same question: What will the problem of the 21st century be? But unlike the lordly Du Bois, who sat at his desk up in Harlem and just pronounced the answer, I wanted to travel all throughout the United States, interviewing a cross-section of the African-American community, and address the question the following way: Where are we, as a people, 35 years after the brutal assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? Where are we as a people? Have we progressed? Have we gone far enough? How much further do we have to go?
And the result is, as you heard in the marvelous introduction, I interviewed dozens of people. From the rich and powerful and famous, to the homeless, the not-so-powerful, the impoverished, the infamous, the imprisoned. I interviewed Colin Powell, I interviewed Vernon Jordan, I interviewed Russell Simmons, I interviewed Alicia Keys, Maya Angelou. I went and did a segment on black Hollywood; I interviewed Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac; I mean it was hilarious, I could barely ask the questions for laughing for the whole time. But I also interviewed single heads of households on the South Side of Chicago. I went to Cook County Jail and interviewed prisoners. I interviewed people who formerly were drug dealers, who were now reformed drug dealers and most probably will fall off the wagon and be drug dealers again. I wanted to ask black America, in every possible shape and size and even color, "Where are we as a people?" The result is a four-hour series, fortunately I was lucky enough to have PBS and BBC give me a film crew and let me travel around the country, interviewing people, and the result's a four-hour film series that will air on PBS on February 3 and February 4, it's called "America Beyond the Color Line."
Now part one is called, "Ebony Towers," and it's about the new, black middle class that's emerged since Dr. King was killed in 1968. Part two is about the amazing phenomenon of black people from the North reverse-migrating to the South. You could look through all of the annals of African-American literature, and you'll find tens of thousands of references to black people in the South following the North Star, or following the Drinking Gourd – which was a metaphor for the Big Dipper, which, of course, involves the North Star – but you will not find one, not one, that says, "Black man or black woman, find your freedom by heading back to Mississippi." Or as my dad says, "Missibama" or any of them other "Misses." But in the 1990s, the most incredible thing happened, which was far more black people from the North started migrating back to the South. And I wanted to ask, why? Because for me, when I was growing up in the '50s, the South was a litter of crosses and the corpses of black men. And why would these people – and these are upper-middle-class black people – moving back to Atlanta, moving into all-black neighborhoods, all million-dollar homes, all-black country clubs, all-black swimming pools? And I wanted to ask them, "Is this what Dr. King died for? If Dr. King came back, would he like this? Or would he not like this?" I wanted to ironize it and put them on camera and see how they felt.
Part three is called "Black Hollywood." And, I shot this in the wake of Denzel [Washington] and Halle Berry getting the Academy Awards and Sidney [Poitier], of course, getting a lifetime achievement award from the Academy. So I wanted to go to Hollywood and ask, "Has racism disappeared in Hollywood because we have so many black actors on the A-list?" Chris Tucker takes me to church. Bishop Noel Jones' church, he's Grace Jones' brother, in South Central. And we went, I mean rocking. And so we're sitting there, and I look up, and Stevie Wonder walks in, with his new baby, and I guess his new wife. And Stevie Wonder performs a duet with Ali Wilson from the old Temptations. You know, if Bishop Jones' sermon didn't make me get the Holy Ghost, Stevie Wonder almost did. It was fantastic. And the answer to that question is: No, racism has not disappeared in Hollywood, in case anyone's holding their breath to wonder if there's a news flash that I had received that you hadn't.
And finally, I wanted to go to the inner city. And so I chose the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. The Robert Taylor Homes, set up in the early 1960s, symbolized all that was possible, all that was supposed to be good about public housing. And my film crew was the last, or one of the last, film crews in the Robert Taylor Homes, because the problems had become so severe that the city of Chicago had decided that they couldn't be fixed, that they had to tear them down. And I wanted to record that history, that movement, over a 40-year period – from the time the Robert Taylor Homes represented optimism and hope, to the time that the Robert Taylor Homes became synonymous with poverty, and the self-perpetuation of poverty, by a significant segment of the African-American community.
Now, I went to Yale University in September, 1969. I was one of 96 black men and women to go up to Yale in September of 1969. By contrast, the class of '66 at Yale had six black men to graduate. What was there a genetic blip in the race? And all of a sudden there were 90 smart black men and women who existed in 1969 who hadn't existed in 1966? Of course not. We got in because of affirmative action. We were the affirmative action, crossover generation. It doesn't mean that we weren't qualified to get into Yale. It's just that we couldn't have gotten into Yale before because there were strict racist quotas on the number of black boys – Yale didn't go co-ed until 1969 – the number of black boys who were allowed to be entered into Yale. And I wouldn't have gotten into Yale, definitely, without affirmative action, no matter what my scores were. Why is that?
Well, my daddy, who is 90 years old, my dad, God bless him, my dad turned ninety on June 8 of this past year. My dad is so funny. My dad makes Red Foxx look like an undertaker. We asked my father, we had this big party, right? [laughter] We asked my father, "Daddy what do you want for your 90th birthday party? What's your fondest ambition, your greatest wish, your dream?" He thought about it for a nano-second and then he said, "Boy…" that's his term of endearment for me, for the last 53 years – "boy." He said, "Boy, all I want is to bump Bob Dole off that Viagra commercial." [laughter] I said, "I don't want to think about that daddy, I don't want to go there." Anyway, my dad, for 37 years worked two jobs to put me and my brother through college. I have one brother, no sisters, my brother's five years older, he's a very successful oral surgeon, chief oral surgeon at Bronx Lebanon Hospital in New York. Then there's little old me bringing up the rear. My daddy would go to work at 6:30 in the morning, at a paper mill, and we lived in a company town basically – an Irish and Italian company town.
In 1950, the year I was born, there we 2,100 people in Piedmont, West Virginia, 386 of whom were black, most of them were my relatives, which made it very rough about dating time, you know what I mean? People say, "Vice is nice by incest is best," especially in West Virginia, but I don't want to play that! [laughter] So the mill – daddy would go to work at 6:30 in the morning, and at 3:30 in the afternoon, the mill whistle would blow and we would get out of school, because basically it was a company town. He'd come home and wash up. We'd have our evening meal at four o'clock, and at 4:30 he'd go to his second job as a janitor at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company. He'd get home about 7:30 or eight o'clock. We'd do our homework, then we'd watch TV, and then we'd go to bed.
So, he worked two jobs for 37 years. Now, no matter how intelligent I may or may not be, I would not have had the class profile, within the African-American community, to be one of those six black boys who went to Yale. What am I talking about? All the black people in here know what I'm talking about. If you look at the biographies of the fathers of those black boys – one's father was a doctor; one was a lawyer; one was an undertaker; one worked at the postal office; and one was a numbers runner. [laughter] That put you in the black upper class in the old days. I was stone working class, so it means I wouldn't have been allowed, I wouldn't have been allowed to make it through the filters within the race behind closed doors – behind what Du Bois called "the veil," in order to show up for Yale. Affirmative action was a class escalator when it started, as well as a race integrator.
So, ladies and gentlemen, all that's happened to me in my fortunate life, has been enabled by affirmative action. And for me, who's benefited so much from affirmative action, to stand at the gate – no matter how small my gate – it would be disingenuous for me to say I'm not a gate-keeper. Of course I'm a gate-keeper. For me to stand at that gate, and then to oppose other people of color or women, because no one has benefited from affirmative action more than white women in American society – everybody leaves that out of the discussions of affirmative action, but that's the truth. For me to be a gate-keeper, standing at the gate, and keep out women or other people of color, would be for me to be a hypocrite as big as Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas. And I am not going to be that kind of person. [applause]
So we all were the affirmative action babies. And you have to imagine what I looked like: I had a two-foot-high afro. You've got to imagine this head with a two-foot-high afro. My daughter Maggie just graduated from Weslayan University in Connecticut. She looked at my year book a couple of years ago and she said, "Daddy you're not on the page." And I said, "Yes I am baby, there I am." And she said, "That's you daddy?" And I said, "Yeah." She said, "You look just like a Klingon!" [laughs] I said, "I was a good looking Klingon." I had a closet full of dashikis – I looked like a ball of black cotton candy walking down the street. You know Cornel West, Cornel West's afro looked like a crew cut next to my afro.
And we were going to be the revolutionary vanguard for our people. We were going to reclaim W.E.B. Du Bois' notion of the talented tenth. You all know what that is – what he called the "college-bred Negro." At the time Du Bois wrote that essay in 1900, it was probably the talented "oneth," in terms of black people with a four-year college degree. In fact, we only, our people only hit double-digits with a four-year college degree in the 1990s, and today, only 17 percent of us have a bachelor's degree among the African-American people. But we were going to be the vanguard. And we were going to show Du Bois that he had been wrong, that you could produce a talented tenth that would be socially responsible. We were going to reach back in the ghetto and pull all the brothers and sisters – whether kicking and screaming or not – we were going to drag them into historically white, elite institutions, symbolized by places like Mother Yale. We called Yale the "the Yale plantation." [laughs] And we were the nouveau black people, coming to change the shape of the plantation.
Well, at the end of my first year at Yale – this great year when we had all these black people there – we shut Yale down. In April of 1970, we had a big strike. Remember on May Day of 1970, the whole country went on strike? Remember? Because Nixon and Kissinger invaded Cambodia. Then, after that, was Kent State, then Jackson State. Everybody forgets about Jackson State, but kids were killed at Kent State then there were killed at Jackson State. Two weeks before, at Yale, we went on strike. The strike was led by Kurt Schmoke. Black man – used to be mayor of Baltimore. Was a Rhodes Scholar, became my hero. In fact I went to Cambridge largely because Kurt had become a Rhodes Scholar two years before. And we persuaded all of our colleagues to go on strike, because the Black Panther Party – which started out here in Oakland of course – the Black Panthers were being persecuted by the police. Bobby Seale was on trial in New Haven. And we persuaded Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, to issue a statement saying that he was skeptical of the ability of a black revolutionary to get a fair trial in any court in the United States. Of course, it cost him his job, but it led to the strike at Yale. And so all these revolutionaries came to Yale. And their lawyers, like Garry, who defended the Panthers, and William Kunstler. David Hilliard got out of jail, and he came. Huey Newton was in jail, Eldridge Cleaver was in exile, but everybody else was there, right? And so, we had this huge rally.
Now you have to imagine this: 5,000 people – most of them, they were white – and then the 96 black kids at Yale. So, we waited till they were seated, and we all walked in, march step. You know, we were bad. Man, we had our dashikis, our 'fros were all teased out – we knew we were the vanguard, we were the revolutionaries! Fists on your chests and all that stuff. Remember the soul handshake? We had that elaborate soul handshake? We would change, you know like your security code for your computer that changes every month? We would change the soul handshake every month just to make sure you were still black, you know, to make sure you were up to blackness. [laughter] You had to do the dap, the Vietnam guys would teach you all that. It was great, so we were smoking man. Some of us had berets on, like the Panthers, some of us had those long black leather jackets on, most of us had dashikis on. So we walked in, lock step, sat down. Jean Genet, the French playwright and revolutionary, had been flown over from Paris to address us. Man, this was the revolution. It was happening! Right before our very eyes! And he had this beautiful woman, I'll never forget, he had this beautiful woman who was translating, because he spoke no English. And so amidst, you know officially we were supposed to be learning Swahili and stuff, but I made a mental note: Learn French. [laughter]
So Jean Genet gives us this great stirring speech – this was the end of capitalism, corporate capitalism was in its final days! Sure as shootin,' as Marx had predicted, Western capitalism was being brought down. Marx predicted it would collapse – it was collapsing. And the revolution was being led not only by the great American Negro people, as he said at that time, but by the lumpenproletariat from the inner cities, the natural leaders of whom were the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, being unjustly imprisoned, persecuted by that fascist J. Edgar Hoover, etc, etc, etc. So we were jumping up and cheering. This was our moment. Then he said, he wanted to make a final address, a direct comment to us, the new black students at Yale. And he looked at us, and he said, "If there was a revolution – and he was convinced there was a revolution – if there was a revolution it would occur in spite of the fact that we had accepted admission into Yale University." [laughter] And we all looked at each other and said, "That woman musta got that translation wrong."
We were nouveau race traitors. We were the new Uncle Toms. The system was smart enough to adapt just enough to save itself. And it was adapting through the creation of this new concept called affirmative action, and the 96 black people sitting there, in spite of their afros, their dashikis, their berets and their black leather jackets, were tools or pawns of the system, diffusing the genuine revolutionary fervor of the lumpenproletariat, represented by its true leaders, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Man we were flabbergasted, man! [laughter] Everybody, 5,000 white people are looking at us, you know? [laughter] And we'd been jumping up and down with our fists and stuff. Then he quoted Herbert Marcuse, how many of you remember Herbert Marcuse? The great Marxist philosopher. Who was Herbert Marcuse's greatest student? Come on anybody. Angela Davis. Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis. Angela Davis, he said, was his most brilliant student. He then, Genet, cites an essay Herbert Marcuse had written in 1958, in which Marcuse predicted that the principal outcome of a successful civil rights movement would be the creation of a new black middle class. And that would be it. And things, then, would go back to normal. OK? How cynical! We thought, "What did this Frenchman know?" Let him go back to Paris. So you know, we got up and tried to save the day [laughs], and moved on with our business. But that thought haunted us.
Putney Swope. How many of you saw the film Putney Swope? Who were our heroes? Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, Thurgood Marshall. Not so much Dr. King, to be honest. Dr. King had fallen out of favor with the young, with the revolutionary – we were Stokely Carmichaelites. You know, Martin Luther King was old. His day had passed. No. We wanted the revolution. And Stokely was going to lead us. But Putney Swope? Putney Swope, the first blacksploitation film. Robert Downey Sr…even a young Mel Brooks is in this film. It opens: the board of directors' room at a Madison Avenue advertising firm. One token Negro in a three-piece suit, sitting at the board meeting. Everybody else, of course, is white. Chairman of the board is giving this rousing speech about making money – very, very greedy speech – has a heart attack, falls face down on the table at the board of directors' meeting. All the white guys jump up, pick his pockets [laughs], they push his body out the way, and call for the election, on the spot, of a new CEO. So you do it by secret ballot, of course. So, they count the votes, and the man says, "Hmm. We have to count the votes again." They count the votes again. Then he stands up and announces the vote had been nine to two, nine votes for Putney Swope. The camera pans in on one white guy, and he says, "I thought nobody would vote for him but me." [laughs] Next scene – so you think, what's going to happen? Next scene: Putney comes in, first day at work, he got rid of his three-piece suit, he has on military fatigues, looks like a Black Panther. Has a little military hat on, fires all the white people in the advertising agency, changes the name to The Truth and Soul Advertising Agency, hires inner-city black people and revolutionizes the advertising industry by mounting new approaches to the marketing of products, such as Victrola Cola, Ethereal Cereal and – my favorite – Face Off Pimple Cream. [laughter]
Putney Swope amasses $156 million in the next six months. $156 million sounds like a lot now, it was a hell of a lot in 1969. And when he's so hot, you know he becomes famous on the cover of all the magazines. He's descended on by all the black revolutionaries – four guys representing the four major streams of the black movement: there's a Black Panther figure; there's a figure, a cultural nationalist from Karenga and Amiri Baraka; there's a Stokely Carmichael figure for Black Power; and then there's a Whitney Young figure – remember Whitney Young? – a Whitney young figure from the National Urban League. And they all have their stock slogans. The Panther guy says, "We need power for the people." The Stokely Carmichael guy says that "Black power is the only way." And the guy from the cultural nationalists says, "Violence is a cleansing force." And then the hapless, suited figure from the National Urban League, the Whitney Young figure, says, "Violence…" he looks at them and says, "Violence will not help our people; violence will get us nowhere; violence will not get us a job." And one of the Panther figures looks at him and says, "Yeah, violence might not get us a job, but it will certainly eliminate the competition." [laughter] So, they all then unite in one thing. Which is they're only there to hustle Putney Swope. They want money, and Putney Swope throws them out, says they're all frauds and the real revolution will come by penetrating the system and transforming the system from the inside.
Putney Swope was our secret hero. What we wanted to do ladies and gentlemen – our self-styled, revolutionary vanguard that integrated Yale in large numbers – was to go in the system and transform it from the inside, forever eliminating racism, and fundamentally changing the class structure of the African-American community. Thirty-five years later, ladies and gentlemen, where are we?
Well, since 1968 – since, in fact, that day Martin Luther King was killed – the black middle class has almost quadrupled, which is a wonderful thing. But at the same time, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line is 40 percent. Four out of 10 black kids live at or beneath the poverty line. You know what the figure was the day Martin Luther King died? Forty percent.
Was Herbert Marcuse right? Was the principal outcome of the civil rights movement and affirmative action the production of a new black middle class, or not? For the African-American community, in other words, it's the best of times, but it is the worst of times. Do you know that in 1990, there were 2,280,000 prisoners, black men in prison, on probation or parole. You know how many black men got a college degree in that year? Twenty-three thousand. That's a ratio of ninety-nine to one. Do you know what the ratio that year was for white males in prison, on probation and parole, who got college degrees was? Six-to-one. In Chicago, right now, 45 percent of all black males between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are both out of school and out of work. And most of them who are out of school didn't finish school, or if they finished school, they are essentially functionally illiterate, which means you can't read the front page of the Chronicle or the LA Times or The New York Times, and pass an examination on it. Sixty-nine percent of all of the households in Chicago are headed by single mothers, the black households, are headed by single mothers. The average lifespan for a black man in Chicago is fifty-nine. And in any given week in Chicago, only forty-five percent of the members of the African-American community are gainfully employed. Fifty-five percent of the African-American community, of all ages, in Chicago, are unemployed.
So what did I learn when I traveled the country, interviewing this cross-section of the African-American community? What did I learn when we talked about where are we as a people? We learned that the causes of our poverty are both structural and behavioral. Now what's that mean? Well, first of all, structural – you cannot enslave a people for three centuries, followed by a century of de jure segregation, and then cure it with 35 years of affirmative action and post-civil rights, entitlement legislation. Institutional racism is a fundamental aspect of the American society, and our people have suffered disproportionately from that. In addition, the economic structure began to change in the 1960s. The traditional way of moving from the no-class to the working class, and the working class to the middle class, was through factories in the cities. That's why we went to the cities in the first place, and all the white immigrants did it. What happened in the '60s and the '70s? Factories moved south, shut down in the cities. First they moved South, to the southern part of the United States, then they moved south of the border. Now they're dispersed wherever people can most efficiently exploit a large labor force. So that the traditional way of moving up the economic scale in America disappeared.
How do we address these structural problems? We need a federal jobs program that will create meaningful job opportunities for those most impoverished in this society, whether they're black, white, Hispanic or whatever. We need to give people hope in the system again. We need to make it worthwhile – make them feel worthwhile – that it's worthwhile for them to stay in school, to work hard, to take a job-trainings program, because they're going to get a meaningful job in a 21st century, highly technological, global economy. And not flipping burgers down at McDonald's. I interviewed a drug dealer who was – if we had played the tape you would have seen him. An ex-drug dealer who was making $6,000 a day dealing drugs. And he realized – just why he realized it, I don't know – but he realized he was headed directly to Cook County Jail. And so he decided he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in jail, even for $6,000 a day. So he just finished his first semester in college. But when I interviewed him, he was working at Popeye's. His name is Lyndell. I said, "Lyndell, may I ask you – how much money do you make a month working at Popeye's?" And he said, "$600 a month." And I said, "Do you ever think about that $6,000 a day that you used to make selling drugs?" He said, "Are you crazy? I think about it all day long while I'm flipping them burgers down at Popeye's." He is the exception. Who among us could resist the lure of $6,000 a day of, ostensibly, easy money, if you didn't feel that you had a stake in the system, if you didn't feel that you could be successful if you stayed in school?
We need school reform, ladies and gentlemen. I went to Boston English High School last Black History Month. I was waiting for all the kids to be assembled. It was an all-school assembly. I asked the teacher – I mean I was in school, right? – I raised my hand and asked the teacher if I could go to the bathroom, which I thought was the appropriate thing to do. She said, "Oh, certainly, Dr. Gates. Um. It will only take ten minutes and you can go." I said, "No ma'am, you don't understand. I have to go to the bathroom." She said, "No. You don't understand. You cannot go to the bathroom without a police escort. And it will take ten minutes for the policeman to be here." Our schools have become nightmares. How could any of us have learned what we learned when we were growing up, if we hadn't had order in our schools? We need to establish a safe learning environment for our children. We need to change the way taxes are distributed for our schools. The amount of money spent per-student should be exactly the same in the poorest, blackest, most-Hispanic neighborhood, as being allocated per-student in the richest, whitest suburb. This is only fair. It is only fair. [applause] The Department of Education needs to look at programs that are working in our public schools. And I'll tell you briefly about three.
Many of my friends are Jewish, and they would all tell me about how horrible Hebrew school was. I'd listen to them tell me about Hebrew school. Then I'd think, horrible? Man, that Hebrew school sound like a pretty good thing. Then I'd think, how come we can't have Hebrew school? If Jewish people had to wait on the state, on the public school system, for the perpetuation of Jewish culture, and the Hebrew language, there wouldn't be Jewish culture and there wouldn't be Hebrew language. Why can't we use our churches and our mosques to start after-school programs that teach African-American history and culture? In other words, we go around the public school system. I got a $500,000 grant from the Markle Foundation, wired the Rev. Eugene Rivers' church in the inner-city in Roxbury. We have an after-school program that teaches black history, African history, they learn about the black pharaohs of the Nile, and learn computer skills using Encarta Africana. It is a runaway success. It has spread to the city of Baltimore, it's going to Philadelphia, and it's going to Cleveland. How come our churches can't do that, like the Jewish people did through Hebrew school? Of course they can.
We need to transform our great black sororities and fraternities – the Deltas, the Kappas, the Alphas, etc. etc. – into self-esteem, black self-help factories. We need to begin to teach our people about entrepreneurial opportunities. We need to use these secular and sacred organizations to sponsor what you might think of as the new face of the civil rights movement, which will stress our traditional values of education. Ladies and gentlemen, when I was growing up in the '50s, the blackest thing you could be was Thurgood Marshall, or Martin Luther King. The blackest thing you could be was a doctor or a lawyer – not a basketball player or a football player. What's happened to our people? Learning the ABCs, staying in school, getting straight A's, was firing a bullet straight into George Wallace's racist white heart. That's what we were taught in school. You know, my father must have told me a thousand times, "Get all the education you can, boy, because no white racist can take it away from you." Our people have lost that. I read the results of a poll from The Washington Post recently that interviewed inner-city black kids, and it said, "List things white." You know what they said? The three most prevalent answers: getting straight A's in school, speaking standard English and visiting the Smithsonian. Had anybody said anything like this when we were growing up, they would have smacked you upside your head, and checked you into an insane asylum. Somehow, we have internalized our own oppression.
Far too many members of our own community have internalized our own oppression. Which brings me – since I've been getting this sign from this woman right here, that I should get off this podium – which brings me…there are two other programs that I wanted to talk about but you can see them in the film series…but it brings me to the other reason that our people are still impoverished. I said that half of the reason was for structural causes like institutional racism. The other half, ladies and gentlemen is because we need a revolution in attitude and behavior within the African-American community itself. [applause] Nobody makes you, no white racist makes you get pregnant when you're 16 years old. I'm sorry, we do not have time for this form of behavior anymore. It is killing our people. No white racist makes you drop out of school. No white racist makes you not do your homework. No white racist makes you equate academic or intellectual success with being white. If George Wallace and Bull Connor and Orval Faubus had sat down, in their wildest drunken, bourbon fantasies, in 1960 and said, "How can we continue to control them niggras," as they would have said, one of them would have said, "You know, we could persuade them to have babies in their teens, do crack cocaine, run drugs, and equate education, not with being Thurgood Marshall or Martin Luther King, but with being white – then we'll have them."
Ladies and gentlemen, that's what's happened to our people. We have lost the blackest aspect of the black tradition. Frederick Douglass famously said, the slave had "to steal a little learning" from the white man. We've all been stealing a little learning. We've all been embracing education as if the collective life of the African-American people depended on it – until recently. And now, for far too many of our people, getting an education is something alien to our tradition. It's much easier to become a professional basketball player. Well listen to these statistics: In 1991, I did a piece for Sports Illustrated, and I asked them – on the black athlete – and I asked them…and before I tell you this, don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are athletes. I'm going to go to the Super Bowl this weekend. You know, I love watching the Final Four. I love championship sports. And I love the fact that so many black people have done well. But here's the reality: 1990 census – the number of black lawyers, black doctors, black dentists and black professional athletes – 20,000 black lawyers, 14,000 black doctors, 5,600 black dentists. You know how many black professional athletes? Remember, there are 35 million black Americans. You know how many black professional athletes? One-thousand two-hundred black professional athletes in all sports. It's easier to be a black brain surgeon than to make it into the NBA, but somehow our people are like Jimmy the Greek – they think we have an extra basketball gene. [laughter] My daddy…when I was a professor at Duke, my house was near a black neighborhood that had a basketball court that was lit. I go to bed at midnight, I pass it, it would be packed. I wake up, go to work at nine in the morning, it would be packed. [laughs] I don't know if they played basketball all night long, because I would be asleep. My daddy said, and I will censor what he said, my daddy said, "Ain't this a damn shame." He said, "If our people studied calculus like we study basketball, we would be running MIT." And you know that that's true.
We also have to stop scapegoating other people who we should be emulating. Homophobia is rampant in the African-American community. We have to stand up as leaders and fight homophobia in the black community; we have to fight sexism and misogyny in the black community; we have to fight anti-immigrant feeling in the black community. Do you know that 75 percent of my black students at Harvard are of West Indian descent? You know what that figure was when I was an undergrad at Yale? Ninety-nine percent of us had four African-American grandparents. Now, of the black kids at Harvard, only 25 percent have four African American grandparents, 75 percent are second-generation West Indian, and that leads to a lot of scapegoating. We need to be more like black immigrants from the West Indies and stop scapegoating them. And finally, we have to stop scapegoating the Jewish people. We need to emulate the best aspects of Jewish culture. And leaders have to stand up and say, "The Jews are not our problem. The Jews did not run the slave trade. Thirteen rabbis do not rule the world and sit there and decide that black people are going to be impoverished. This is rubbish." Why should we do this? We do this for the Jewish people? No, we have to do it for ourselves. You cannot get the solutions to your problems straight until you understand the nature of the problem itself. You have to understand what the target is, and the target is not Haitians, it's not West Indians, it's not gay people, and it's certainly not the members of the Jewish community.
Our goal, ladies and gentleman, in sum, is to change the bell curve of class within the African-American community. We need the same percentage of black poor as white poor, the same percentage of black rich as white rich, the same percentage of black people in the middle class as white people, and black people in the working class as white people. And we can only do this with a two-prong attack, addressing the structural causes of poverty on the one hand, and the individual, behavioral, attitudinal problems that we, ourselves, are causing for ourselves. We have internalized our own oppression. We are perpetuating our own poverty, and leaders – whether it is Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Colin Powell, Farrakhan, whomever – have to have the courage to stand up, join together and lead a moral revolution within the African-American community. Because, if we don't, the class divide within the African-American community is destined to be permanent. And never the twain between those two classes shall meet. And I, for one, will not be content until we do something about that, ladies and gentlemen, because Martin Luther King did not die so that some of us would make it and most of us would be left behind in the inner-city of hopelessness and despair. Thank you very much. [applause]