AIF Blog

Black in America Since MLK

Oct 19, 2017
CATEGORY: Society, Economy, U.S.A.
Walter Isaacson speaks with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
How far have we come since Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963? What do the events in Charlottesville, Virginia tell us about race relations in America today? 
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, sat down with Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June to discuss what it means to be black in America.
In 2016, Gates released his new four-hour PBS documentary, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise. The series focuses on the last 50 years of African American history — beginning with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and ending with the present day Black Lives Matter movement. 
“It never occurred to me that our lifetime was historical,” Gates says. “So the conceit is, ‘What would you tell Martin Luther King if he came back today?’”
Gates explains that King would be profoundly moved at the news of the country’s first black president while saddened by the structural racism and growing class divide that remains stubbornly embedded in our culture.
According to Gates, affirmative action initiatives caused the black middle class to double in size and the black upper middle class to quadruple. However, this progress has come with a setback, as the class divide within the black community continues to widen. 
In 1970, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line was 41 percent, while four years ago it was 38 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I think what we aspire to, is to have the percentage of black people in the working class the same as white people in the working class,” Gates says. “But we certainly do not. It’s really going the opposite way for both blacks and whites.” 
What caused this divide? And how can we heal it?  
Affirmative action initiatives throughout the 1960s brought unprecedented numbers of people of color to historically white colleges and institutions. But when the quotas were met, the doors slammed shut. As factory jobs began to disappear, whites escaped to the suburbs, leaving the black community behind. 
Gates believes poverty is more than a class divide. Instead, it’s built into the structure of American capitalism. Rather than change the system, we must reform it. 
He suggests there needs to be a massive revolution in public education in the United States. 
“We need to bus the dollars from the rich school districts to the poor school districts,” Gates says. “We need to allocate the same amount of money per student per school district.”
In addition to education, we must address the penal system. Today, 33 percent of the prison population is comprised of black males, a staggering statistic that speaks to bias in our justice system. “We seem to have this permanent class of disenfranchised people tied to the prison system which didn’t exist in the 60s,” Gates says. “And we’ve really taken it for granted.”
The structures of racism continue to push back against mending the class gap.  
“Unless there are radical transformations in the socio economic and educational structure of this country, the percentage of impoverished blacks will stay the same,” Gates says. “It’s a self perpetuating cycle and that is unacceptable to me.”
Below, watch the entire discussion between Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Walter Isaacson.

Written by Eliza Costas, Editorial Assistant, Aspen Ideas Festival