By Courtland Milloy
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was one of 96 black men and women who entered Yale in 1969. His class included Ben Carson, who achieved renown as the first pediatric neurosurgeon to separate Siamese twins joined at the head. Sheila Jackson, who became Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), also arrived at Yale that fall.
By contrast, six blacks were admitted to Yale in 1966.
“Did black people all of sudden become smart in three years?” Gates, now a professor at Harvard, asked during a recent talk at the Aspen Institute in Washington. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he said, affirmative action began providing opportunities previously denied to qualified blacks.
Partly as a result, the number of black people in the middle class tripled in the past 35 years. On the other hand, about 40 percent of black children live in poverty — the same percentage as in 1968.
In his book, “America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans,” Gates asks: “What does the success of this expanding middle class — W.E.B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth, the college-educated black person, even now only 17 percent of all black Americans — mean for the progress of our people?”
In the last of three columns about Gates’s call for a new civil rights movement within the black community, the 53-year-old chairman of Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department answers that question.
“I think many of us have given up,” he said. “I also think far too many of us have an Abraham Lincoln mentality: ‘Where is that [white man] on a white horse galloping down Main Street to liberate us?’ We’ve lost our sense of urgency.”
Just as distressing were some responses he received when Ivy League peers were asked whether the poverty rate among blacks would ever be as low as the poverty rate among whites.
“You know what they say? ‘Never,’ ” Gates said. “They say that basically the size of the black middle class is fixed and it would be enough just to make sure our kids enjoy our class status and that we should just let all of those other people go.”
Gates acknowledged that many black people give unselfishly of their time and resources to help those who are less fortunate. But he said a broader, more unified approach is needed.
He called for a network of after-school programs that draw on the works of innovators such as Robert Moses, whose Mississippi-based Algebra Project emphasizes math literacy and economic access in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality.
Those efforts would be complemented by other challenging programs, including chess classes based on a model developed by Maurice Ashley, an African American international grand master. Ashley coached junior high school students in Harlem to the National Chess Championship in just two years.
“It’s all about long-range thinking,” Ashley says in Gates’s book. “The secret to success lies in preparation.”
Gates also applauds educator-activist Lenora Fulani, a founder of the All Stars Talent Show Network and the Development School for Youth in New York.
“We teach them that all the world’s a stage,” Fulani says in Gates’s book. “We teach them how to perform in a talent show or in corporate America. I tell them, we have a hip-hop show. So wear those costumes to the show. But when you’re going to Wall Street for your internship, I tell them, take the three earrings out of your ear, don’t wear a nose ring, and put on a suit.”
It is not for lack of wealth and know-how that such programs are not replicated as widely as they should be. Short memories, perhaps a lack of gratitude, may be the culprits here.
“We have to remember our roots,” Gates said. “We were produced by generations of people hellbent on dismantling the historic forces of white racism in this country. We stood on their shoulders. We benefited from their sacrifices. . . . I happen to think that Martin Luther King didn’t die so that a handful of us could make it into the larger middle class while the majority of our brothers and sisters are left behind in hopelessness and despair.”