A Curious Martyr in the Struggle Against Racism
The black-bourgeois Harvard professor and
He's in the national spotlight thanks in no small part to President Barack Obama's politically ill-advised statement - made at the heavily distracting end of a prime-time press conference in which he was attempting to sell his watered-down, corporate-friendly "health care reform" - that Gates' arrest was a "stupid" action on the part of the Cambridge police. The president referred to Gates as a personal friend and admitted to not being particularly knowledgeable about the specifics involved in the Gates-Cambridge incident.
Blacks Have "No Excuse" for Not "Running MIT"
Blacks Have "No Excuse" for Not "Running MIT"
Another "PBS special" from Henry Louis Gates? White supremacists can be forgiven if they are not shaking in their boots. Five and a half years ago, the bourgeois professor fouled Black History Month by narrating an ambitious, four-part, and British-directed Public Broadcasting System television series titled "America Beyond the Color Line." Purportedly dedicated to providing a provocative new take on race, class, and black experience in the
"Unless there is a moral revolution and a revolution in attitude among our people," Gates told Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson as "America Beyond the Color Line" hit the airwaves, "unless [poor blacks] decide to stay in school, learn the ABCs, not to get pregnant when you're 16, not to run drugs, not to sell drugs...we're doomed to have a relatively small black middle class and huge underclass and never the twain shall meet. The only way we can succeed in society," Gates said, "is mastering the ABCs, staying in school, working hard, deferred gratification. What's happened to these values?... My father always said, and it's true, if we studied calculus like we studied basketball, we'd be running MIT. It's true and there's no excuse." 
This was the key theme in a previous PBS special narrated by Gates. In that documentary, titled "Two Nations," Gates proclaimed that black poverty was pretty much about poor decisions: "deciding to get pregnant or not to have protected sex. Deciding to do drugs. Deciding not to study. Deciding, deciding, deciding..." 
"A Wake-Up Call...More Especially to Black
Gates told the Chicago Tribune that "America Beyond" was "meant to be a wake-up call to
The Tribune's Johnson reporter found that "America Beyond's" "most striking" aspect was "the degree to which it pushes the idea of personal responsibility as the best solution to the black community's problems," which, the reporter says, "is perhaps not something you expect to hear from a man who identifies himself as politically ‘center-left.'" While knowing full well that larger, interrelated forces of capitalism and racism play a role in the creation of deep and disproportionate black poverty, (he is not stupid), Gates decided (perhaps I should say "decided, decided, decided") in "America Beyond" and in "Two Nation" to skip past structural-racism and get to the meat of the matter: the personal responsibility of poor blacks.
It' was a comforting message, no doubt, for much of white America, most of which has embraced the convenient notion that racism (structural or otherwise) no longer poses serious problems for blacks and that the real barriers to black success and equality are located in the African-American community itself. "As white
The election of Gates' friend, Harvard graduate Barack Obama, to the White House, has of course pretty much closed the door on the chance that many American whites will understand that the "corrections" (an interesting word choice in a time when black prisoners account for nearly half of "freedom"-loving America's globally unmatched incarceration rate!) are only minimally underway if at all.
"Is it the System, the Man, Racism...Capitalism?"
Presented through the quintessentially Caucasian venue of the PBS documentary, much of "America Beyond" seemed like racially treasonous snitching. In one scene from
During one telling sequence in "America Beyond," Gates sat across from a black inmate at a notorious and giant racist holding pen -
The point was shared in "America Beyond" by U.S. Secretary of State Powell, who told Gates that young blacks needed to...make better choices in life. (Gates did not ask Powell to elaborate on the moral character of the Secretary's choice to support the bloody, illegal, unjust, and thoroughly unnecessary invasion of
Critical Omissions in the Call for Better Choices
There was nothing in "America Beyond the Color Line" about the need to make a "wake-up call" to the more structurally empowered and predominantly white business and government decision-makers who negatively affect black experience by "deciding, deciding, deciding" to, for example:
* deny blacks equal access to the nation's highest opportunity communities through a panoply of well-documented discriminatory real-estate, home-lending, and zoning practices and policies.
* target blacks for historically and globally unmatched mass incarceration and felony marking, thereby richly exacerbating the already deep socioeconomic and political disadvantage of lower-class African-Americans.
* maintain strict lines of racial segregation between predominantly black and under-funded inner city schools and predominantly white, affluent, and well-funded suburban school districts.
* divert hundreds of billions of dollars from social programs needed to assist the victims of domestic U.S. structural racism to pay for economically dysfunctional tax cuts that benefit the disproportionately white opulent few and to pay for an objectively racist foreign policy that pays its primary dividends to wealthy whites.
* disinvest in communities of color, helping create the barren material underpinning for neighborhoods where adult males with felony records and prison histories are more numerous than livable wage jobs.
* sponsor and protect various overseas drug lords who happen to serve America's imperial objectives while conducting a massive domestic anti-narcotics campaign that is significantly less effective and much more expensive than treatment when it comes to mitigating the ravages of substance abuse and generates the critical raw material (black bodies) for the nation's remarkable, globally unmatched and white-run prison industrial complex.
* permeate severely disadvantaged black neighborhoods with predatory financial institutions that exploit ghetto residents' limited economic choices.
* go easy with affluent white corporate and high-state criminals who devastate untold lives and communities with fraudulent practices and schemes while consigning hundreds of thousands of poor blacks to hard time in violent mass incarceration facilities for small-time narcotics transgressions that are deemed unworthy of imprisonment in every other nation in the democratic world.
* subvert the meaning and significance of American democracy by constructing a preposterously expensive, big-money and big-media-dominated "winner-take-all" election system that makes it absurdly difficult for racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities to translate their vital needs and perspectives into policy.
* attack "affirmative action" college admissions practices that try to marginally compensate a minority of blacks for centuries of structural racism while maintaining silence over "legacy" admissions practices that reward predominantly white applicants (i.e., Harvard and Yale graduate George W. Bush) for being born into a family that attended the same school in the past.
There was no call in "America Beyond" for a new "personal responsibility" on the part of the very predominantly white agents and beneficiaries of the above, bullet-pointed bad decisions (a small share of the poor and dangerous choices that can be observed in the corridors of Caucasian power and privilege). There was no demand that these perpetrators "wake up" to their need to make better decisions more consistent with the supposed noble American Values of hard work, honesty, saving, deferred gratification, and non-reliance on public assistance - critical omissions!
Booker T. Obama
Obama's initial, off-the-cuff defense of his Harvard friend Gates' position on what(ever) recently happened in Cambridge is also somewhat ironic and yet appropriate. "America Beyond" portrayed racial inequality and its causes in much the same Booker T. Washingtonian terms as those used by Barack Obama on the rare occasions when he feels compelled to explicitly address the problem of race. The capitalism- and Wall Street-friendly/-captive and "black but not like Jesse" president has made a career - a rather spectacularly successful one to date - out of militant race-neutralism. Taking his cue from the movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), he has consistently respected majority-white race fears and denial by distancing himself from the supposedly obsolete and dysfunctional notion that racism still poses serious barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the
Likes Gates, Obama is far from stupid. He knows full well (as is clear from his recent NACCP address ) that structural discrimination and racial bias continue to be major factors in black experience and racial inequality. He has decided (and "decided and decided"), however - for reasons that make political sense in a nation whose white-majority electorate is in deep "post-Civil Rights" denial about how powerfully white supremacy has (in historian David Roediger's phrase) "survived U.S. history" - to take the Booker T. Washingtonian road and to place primary emphasis on sending a "wake up call" to black America, not to white America. We can expect (I am writing on the morning of Friday, July 24th) him and his handlers to backtrack from his support for Gates , which was foolishly and somewhat uncharacteristically issued prior to a thorough review of the facts involved in the specific case. Those facts and, far more importantly for the Obama/Axelrod administration, the public opinion data (reflecting the incident's likely reinforcement of white racism-denial) simply do not recommend a pro-Gates position. Ironically enough, being seen as allied with Gates works against Obama's carefully constructed "post-racial" image in this particular case. In the meantime, consistent with the master class's longstanding use of race to divide and divert, the corporate media and the right have seized on the Gates-Cambridge-Obama story in ways that are helping distract attention from the health care issue. And we can do without yet another PBS Special from "Skip" Gates.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
1. For a recent brilliant and radical take on race and class in the American experience, see David Roediger, How Race Survived
2. Booker T. Washington was a leading black spokesperson before, during, and after the turn of the 20th century. Rejecting the idealistic and confrontational approach of the great black leader Frederick Douglass and the later Civil Rights Movement,
3. Steve Johnson, "Behind Gates: How the Harvard Scholar is Using His ‘Color-Line' PBS as a Wake-Up Call," Chicago Tribune, February 3, 2004, section 5, page 1.
4. Frontline ("P"BS), "The Two Nations of Black America: A Conversation With Henry Louis Gates," (no date, remarkably enough), read athttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/gates4.html
5. For my own efforts on that topic, please see
6. Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (
7. See Obama' "Remarks to the NAACP," paragraphs 10 to 14.
8. My expectation was born out. See Nancy Benac, "Obama Moves to Dampen Uproar Over Comment on Race," Associated Press (July 25, 2009), read online athttp://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090725/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_obama_harvard_scholar