Posted by: Kenn Hermann | November 20, 2007

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the Plight of African-American Society

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the well-known Harvard scholar, has written what promises to be an important op-ed on “Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth” in the Sunday New York Times. He is responding to a poll published last week by the Pew Research Center that found that almost 67% of those African-Americans polled believe that there is a growing cultural gulf between poor and middle-class blacks. Gates’ response to this disturbing trend is that: “the message here is that it is time to examine the differences between black families on either side of the divide for clues about how to address an increasingly entrenched inequality. We can’t afford to wait any longer to address the causes of persistent poverty among most black families.” Indeed, we can’t. He cites sobering statistics of out-of-wedlock births and families headed by single mothers that underscore the disintegration of the African-American social fabric, statistics that have only gotten worse in the past three decades. There I will stop. You need to read the rest of the article yourself.

Although Gates wrote this for the NYT and fully expected that it would become widely discussed, I hesitate to get involved in the discussion. I am, after all, a white middle-class male academic living in a modest-sized university community. While I cannot contribute, I will be watching and listening intently from the sidelines to see how this article is picked up by the African-American community. Surely, Tavis, Diane, Charlie, or Terry will be discussing it with him.



  1. An eloquent article. I agree with Gates that “ending discrimination, by itself, would not eradicate black poverty and dysfunction.” And frankly this statement alone divides the black community. Many blacks, and my guess is that most of them are poor blacks, believe that discrimination is the sole cause of their problems (vs the one external cause amongst many internal causes). I believe they see the affluent blacks as “lucky” and fail to believe in the ability to achieve without ‘selling your soul’ or some sort of hand-out.

    As an African American single mother who was raised by an African American single mother I have defied the odds by crossing the bridge from working class to upper middle class. Therefore I have been on both sides of this gap and I am quite disturbed by the disparities within the community. Reason being… I (and many others) live as proof that an ambitious mindset and willingness to work hard (and yes, sometimes harder than our white counterparts) are the keys for success, not welfare and not the lottery.

    The gap between the poor and middle class blacks is not just a problem statistically it is a problem that socially and culturally divides us. Once an African American crosses the bridge to affluence they are often shunned by their counterparts. They are considered “not black enough” or labeled an “Uncle Tom.” They are considered “out of touch” and therefore largely ignored by those who could benefit most from their advise and encouragement. Bill Cosby is a perfect example of this disassimilation. The poor typically resent criticism from the affluent, no matter how constructive the criticism may be.

    I’m not sure what the solution is but I would anxiously get involved in the activism of an initiative that produces results.

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