A Vision of a New Racial Tapestry Harvard Scholar Gates Talks about Racism and Multiculturalism in US

Article excerpt

FOR affable and impish Henry Louis Gates Jr., it was the morning after. One of his former students at Yale University, Jodie Foster, had won an Oscar at the Academy Awards late the previous night.

And now Dr. Gates, head of Harvard University's department of Afro-American studies, was sinking into an armchair in his Cambridge office, still a little sleepy from watching a night of TV. "I predicted a sweep for 'Silence of the Lambs,' " he said happily. Then, as if such prophecy were clearly normal, he said with a playful, Jack Benny-like gesture, "What can I say?"

Along with his light side, mix equal parts of a solid reputation for black scholarship, outspokeness on race problems, welcomed public visibility, a commitment to multiculturalism, and here is the black scholar that Harvard expects to mold its Afro-American program into the heavyweight champion of black studies.

With plenty of fanfare a year ago, Harvard hired Gates away from Duke University in Durham, N.C. Prolific and peripatetic, Gates brought with him enough energy to have already written or edited a number of books on black literature and black writers, including "The Signifying Monkey," which won an American Book Award in 1989. His most recent book is "Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars."

Gates also received a MacArthur "genius" grant while teaching at Yale, has written a number of essays on pop culture for newspapers, lectured widely, and was an expert witness at the trial of 2 Live Crew, a black rap group charged with obscenity in Florida last year. To the delight of his Harvard students, Gates managed to get black filmmaker Spike Lee to campus this semester to lecture on black films.

Seated in his office just off Harvard Square, Gates talked for an hour.

In this election year, what's missing from the candidates' discussion of issues?

What's missing is a serious explanation of a remedy for the class divisions in this country. I see the racial divisions as metaphors for deeper economic differences unlike we have seen in this country before. Look at the black community; simultaneously we have the largest black middle class that we have ever had along with the largest black underclass we've ever had. None of the candidates has given a sufficient explanation as to why this is the case. There's been a lot of jibberish about racism, but no systematic analysis of what caused this problem, and no analysis leading to a systematic solution.

Why don't candidates talk about it?

Because nobody wants to hear it.

Why is that?

Well, I think it was President Reagan or Nixon who said, if there's 10 percent unemployment then there is 90 percent employment. There are more people satisfied than not satisfied in the middle class. I think {the candidates} have written off a large part of the American constituency and are defining everybody as middle class except people who are unemployed or unemployable, the constituency about whom they feel is no hope. {The candidates} are asking the black middle class to think of themselves as as part of a larger American middle class rather than as part of a black community. And that's very different from {the past}. I just don't see social compassion in this.... I saw a statistic last week that said 44.8 percent of black children live under the poverty line. This is totally unacceptable.

Is it a form of racism when the candidates seldom mention the problems of the black communities in the inner cities? …

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