Politics are poisoned by bitter partisanship, economic disparities between whites and minorities are widening and trust between these groups seems to be eroding, complicating efforts to bridge America’s divisions. These were among the many observations by panelists at the annual Hutchins Forum Thursday evening in Edgartown.
Titled One Nation: Diverse and Divided, the annual panel discussion sponsored by the W.E.B Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University explored the historical structures and consequences of racism, argued over the role of personal responsibility as a way to overcome it and lamented a fractured cable news media that serve up content that panders to viewer ideology.
But during the course of the evening, the audience at the Old Whaling Church took some measure of hope from the experiences of two teenagers from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, which was the epicenter of the civil rights movement in 1957, as they spoke about a school assignment that had them explore the history of prejudice.
Fifteen-year-old Amaree Austin and 18-year-old Clayton Gentry were introduced by journalist, author and moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who had met the two during her own reporting. As part of their school assignment, they were asked to first interview people who remembered or were involved with the Little Rock Nine, black students who had to be escorted by federal troops as they integrated the school.
“What I’ve grasped from this is you have to know your history, you have to go back to understand what you don’t want to go through again,” said Ms. Austin, a sophomore, who interviewed her great aunt, Thelma Mothershed, one of the Little Rock Nine.
Mr. Gentry, who enters Northwestern University this fall, said he was able to explore discrimination in its many forms, not only whites committing violence against blacks. “It’s important to note that unconscious bigotry, that unconscious bias that pervades our country, our world, in the 21st century — still exists,” he said.
“It’s important not only to look without but to look within and to identify that in yourself,” said Mr. Clayton, who is white. “I know for a fact that I still carry some of that today, as much as I fight it. I think everybody does to an extent. But I know that I can better combat it when I am aware of it.”
The panelists addressed the complexities of America’s changing demographics as it moves toward a population in which whites will be in the minority, not the majority, in about 30 years.
Yet, after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, one study suggested the country’s attitudes about African Americans and Hispanics were more negative than ever, said Charles M. Blow, a columnist for the New York Times.
The country’s divide is not just racial or ethnic, he said, but economic, ideological and geographical. For example, average incomes of white families still far outdistance those of black and Hispanic families.
At the same time, the Republican Party is considering abandoning any outreach to a rapidly increasing Hispanic population. As if to underscore the point, the GOP in 2010 gained the largest share of white voters since 1822, said Mr. Blow.
Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a syndicated columnist, noted that cable news has played no small part in magnifying the country’s divide, especially when viewers can flip to a channel that echoes their own political beliefs. The result is a widely different picture of each day’s news, depending on the channel.
“It is like being dropped into an alternate universe, to go from Fox News Channel to MSNBC,” said Ms. Chavez, herself a political analyst for Fox News. “I mean, you really believe space aliens have taken over. One of these two groups of people is clearly out of their mind.”
The news media also aren’t telling the stories that are relevant to large numbers of minority Americans, including the civil rights struggles that immigrants are enduring today, broadcast journalist Maria Hinojosa told the audience. As an example, few people in the audience had heard of the Dream Nine, a group of young immigrants who intentionally got arrested to protest U.S. immigration policy.
“And the fact that you don’t know about it, an audience that is engaged and hungry, says something about who’s telling the stories, who’s not telling the stories, who has the access to tell the stories,” said Ms. Hinojosa, who anchors the NPR show Latino USA and also is anchor for WGBH/La Plaza and PBS.
What created the most heat, if not light, during the forum was a clash over the way forward for minorities who have experienced discrimination. Mr. Blow said the history of discrimination must be understood as part of progress, especially when the legacy of discrimination is alive today.
“First you have to acknowledge that,” he said. “I think this idea of people asking people to forget, it is the biggest impediment to fixing it.”
But Ms. Chavez, a self-professed conservative, said finger-pointing over the past serves no good; looking ahead and taking responsibility for our own behavior is a way forward.
“You can’t change history, you can’t change society overnight,” she said. “The only thing you can do is behave a certain way yourself, and I think we’re only going to get better when we’re teaching our children that, and when children take individual responsibility and we instill in them those values that are going to be able to make them succeed.”
She said a critical concern today remains the breakdown of the American family, sometimes abetted by the government’s past welfare policies that encouraged single mothers to have children out of wedlock.
The welfare remark drew scorn from some in the audience, and Ms. Hunter-Gault felt compelled to tell them they’d get their chance during the question and answer period.
“This is a tragedy of enormous proportions and a challenge to all of us as Americans. And we’ve got to solve it, we’ve got to figure it out,” said Ms. Chavez, noting that single parenthood was a problem in the families of Hispanics and poor whites as well.
But Mr. Blow said the history of government-sanctioned discrimination has essentially served to break up black families. He detailed how blacks have been prevented, first by slavery and later Jim Crow, from creating any wealth to transfer to successive generations, unlike white families that have been able to give their children and grandchildren a leg up.
Mass incarceration of young blacks for minor drug offenses is a policy that has in effect removed them from the family, denied them educational opportunities and hamstrung efforts to gain meaningful employment, he added. He said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that some of the country’s drug policies will be reformed is a positive step.
“You can never talk about the breakdown of the black family unless you acknowledge and articulate that this country has endeavored over hundreds of years to break [African American] families,” Mr. Blow said.
“You want me to slow down up here,” he said, smiling and turning to Ms. Hunter-Gault. “I’m getting hot up here,” he added, drawing laughter.
The country’s immigration policies have served to break up Latino families as well, said Ms. Hinojosa, with the Obama administration deporting more individuals than any previous administration. “And that is a loss of economic potential,” she said.
In the end, panelists seemed to agree that talking and especially listening to each other, no matter how much disagreement persists, is key to progress.
“I’m gonna say this and I hope I don’t insult you, but you’ve got to listen to people like me, even if you disagree with me,” said Ms. Chavez, as some applause rose to greet her. “But if voices like mine can’t be heard, then the only voices that are gonna get heard are the real extremists.”
Ms. Hunter-Gault put a punctuation point on the evening:
“Many of these people come here to hear other people’s points of views, and while we’d like to resolve a lot of the issues that face us as a society, we know from what we’ve heard today that we just have to keep working on them,” she said.
The evening was hosted and launched by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the Du Bois Institute, who made the announcement that the Hutchins Center will be launched Oct. 2 at Harvard. “The birth of the world’s first center for African and African American research,” Mr. Gates said.
He introduced Glenn H. Hutchins, co-founder and managing director of the private equity firm Silver Lake, as the prime benefactor of the new 23,000-square-foot center in Harvard Square that will house the Du Bois Institute and other scholarly initiatives related to African, African-American and African-Latin American studies.
Although he did not announce the amount of Mr. Hutchins’s gift, Mr. Gates said the center will have an endowment of about $70 million.
“Isn’t that a miracle?” he said.