Aspen Ideas Festival: Henry Louis Gates Jr. on race and class in America

Walter Isaacson and Henry Louis Gates at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Walter Isaacson and Henry Louis Gates at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Dan Bayer | The Aspen Institute

Henry Louis Gates Jr., prolific book author and producer of documentary films, is now exploring the last 50 years of black history and the racial and class barriers in America. What would we tell Martin Luther King Jr. if he came back and wanted to know what had happened?

Gates spoke about his latest work, which involves finding ways to cross barriers between people of different races and classes, for a June 26, 2017, Aspen Ideas Festival session that was broadcast Tuesday on MPR News. "The America I Know: Black in America Since Martin Luther King" was moderated by Aspen Institute president and CEO Walter Isaacson.

Affirmative action and the integration of minorities at historically white universities played a role in the widening gap between the classes, Gates said.

"Because of affirmative action, the black middle class has doubled since Martin Luther King was killed. The black upper middle class has quadrupled. That's the good news," he said.

"What's the bad news?" he asked. "In 1970, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line? Forty-one percent. What was it the last time it was taken two years ago? Thirty-eight percent. So we have this paradox. We have a class divide within the black community. For some of us, it's the best of times. For others, it's the worst of times."

Gates, the author of 21 books and 15 documentary films, including the award-winning PBS series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," said he wanted to make a documentary series looking at the anomaly.

"How did we get to this paradoxical situation where some of us have more freedom and more wealth than any previous generations of black people ever could have imagined, and on the other hand, where there is maybe even less hope for so many black people, and what do we do about it?

Gates is also famous for a 2009 incident in which he was arrested by a white officer in his own home following a report of a possible break-in. Gates had just returned home from a trip to China and the lock wasn't working, so he and a friend pushed their way into the house.

Former President Barack Obama further inflamed the issue when he said that police "acted stupidly" in arresting the black professor. Obama later said he could have "calibrated those words differently." Gates and the officer, James Crowley, were invited to the White House for a "beer summit."

Gates said he later asked Crowley why he arrested him. "And he said, 'I just wanted to go home to my wife,' " Gates recounted.

"He shows up, there's a phone call. Two black men had broken into this house. He sees me in the kitchen. So that's one. Then he sees the suitcases (I had opened in the foyer). ... The motif for thieves is to bring suitcases. They bring empty suitcases to your house and fill them up. So, he had two out of three and that was the tipping point for him," Gates said.

"He couldn't see my ID, couldn't hear me because he was convinced he was going to be killed. He was afraid. And when he told me that, it melted my heart," Gates said. "I forgave him. I understand what it's like to be afraid."

More from Aspen Ideas Festival

Being Muslim and American in 2017

Being Latino in America today

Can DNA help us grapple with the past?

Living in the surveillance economy

What your interactions with robots say about your character

Prescriptions for a better health future

Rural realities, problems and opportunities

Stopping the violence in America's cities

Has democracy run its course?

StoryCorps founder David Isay on the importance of listening

Bill Bishop on why we live with people just like ourselves

David Brooks on 'The Second Mountain'

How presidents prepare for Armageddon

Why millennials work the way they do

The social downside to technology

Listening to America

Examining the Rule of Law

What you need to know about Martin Luther King

Conservatism in the Trump era

American values and the Constitution

Spotlight on health

More from MPR News Presents

MPR News presents offers speeches, documentaries and debates — airing weekdays from noon to 1 p.m.

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News