It almost goes without saying that President Trump isn’t a popular figure among African Americans. In fact in an October poll conducted by market research firm, The Hill/HarrisX showed 85 percent of Black voters would pick anyone but him. Some have even pondered whether or not Trump’s presidency is a direct backlash to the socioeconomic progress made by Blacks over the years.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates pondered this notion in an interview this week with The New York Times Magazine, where he suggests this complicated perspective is at the root of the country’s changing expectations.
“...Between Martin Luther King’s death and now, the Black middle class has doubled and the black upper-middle class has quadrupled. But simultaneously, if you look at the wages of white workers — the chance of your kids doing better than you if you were in the white working class, that’s over,” he explained, saying that the combination of seeing a Black couple in the White House like Barack and Michelle Obama and African Americans doing better overall could spur some to take issue.
“It’s the curve of rising expectations,” Gates continued. “When it’s interrupted, people go nuts. After World War II, G.I.s got mortgages so they could live in the suburbs and buy a house, buy a car, then a TV….That was the promise of America. That promise is over.
“That drives people crazy, and then they target, they objectify, they need a scapegoat. So it’s not just Michelle and Barack. They are part of the larger phenomenon. To go from them to Trump is a seismic revolution that is the result of a collapse of expectation.”
To Gates’ point, progress for Blacks from the time of King’s assassination has indeed taken place. According to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, more than 90 percent of younger African Americans (aged 25-29) are high school graduates, compared with about half in 1968, and are twice as likely to have graduated college than they were that year.
Also, the report says, there have been gains in wealth, health, wages and income but at the same time challenges remain in multiple areas. Young Blacks are also half as likely to have a college degree than their white counterparts; Black workers are making 82.5 cents on the dollar compared to whites and are 2.5 times more likely to be in poverty than whites.
Those figures speak to Gates' position on reparations. He says centuries of slavery, then ensuing discriminatory practicies like Jim Crow resulted in the current social and econonimic inequality.
“We have to find ways to compensate for that cost. Affirmative Action, to me, is a form of reparations. So is health care — Obamacare or a variant,” Gates said.
“And there’s reform of public education. One of the most radical things we could do to reform public-school education would be to equalize the amount of money spent per student in every school. That is never going to happen, but that would constitute a radical shift. Those are my three big principles of reparations, and two of the three affect poor people in general.”
Gates, 69, who hosts “Finding Your Roots” on PBS and serves as director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research also revealed surprising details about the 2009 “Beer Summit” where he sat down with Cambridge, Mass., police Sergeant James Crowley, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. It was in the aftermath of Gates’ arrest at his home after Crowley mistook him for an intruder.
“The actual beer summit was us doing small talk,” Gates remembered. “And the reason Joe Biden was there is that the Cambridge police had insisted that because there were going to be two black guys at the table, they wanted two white guys at the table! They had sent somebody involved in the Cambridge police structure to be there.
“As we were walking out to the Rose Garden, somehow that guy got pushed to the side, and Joe Biden jumped in the line. That’s what nobody ever figured out: Why is Biden at the table? He was there to be the second white guy.
(Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)