In 1858, with the issue of slavery cutting through an already divided nation, Abraham Lincoln stood in the state capitol building in Springfield, Ill. and gave the speech that launched his national political career.

“A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” the future president famously said. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

One hundred and sixty years later, slavery is gone. But divisions remain.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. opened this year’s Hutchins Forum by speaking about the past in order to draw parallels with the present state of life in America.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault (far right) moderated the discussion. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves today riven by political party, by ideology, by race, by gender, by sexual identity, by religious affiliation and practice, by nationality, by socio-economic status, by region,” Mr. Gates told an overflow audience at the Old Whaling Church Thursday evening. “You name it. We are riven. . . yet we aren’t going to move forward if we can’t speak to each other.”

A prestigious panel, including intellectuals, writers, one lawyer, one political advisor and one Republican political candidate, came together to debate those very divisions — and more importantly, how to overcome them — as part of the annual discussion on the Vineyard hosted by Mr. Gates and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American research.

Thursday’s conversation, which has become “the most sold-out ticket on the Island,” in Mr. Gates’s words, began with a simple question from moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault: How divided is the country now?

Conservative political advisor Shermichael Singleton, who has worked on over 40 Republican campaigns, admitted that the country was divided racially and economically. Leah Wright Rigeur, a Harvard professor, agreed, but said that the bigger issue was whether there has ever been a moment in American history when the country was united. Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist with the New York Times, took Ms. Wright Rigeur’s question a step further.

“The question I’m asking is what does unity look like?” Mr. Blow asked. “I can’t be made to come together with a bigot. So where is the movement supposed to happen?”

Dr. Lawrence Bobo summed up the conversation at evening's end. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Kimberly Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, looked at the issue of division from a historical perspective.

“Clearly we are divided. . . but it’s not new,” Ms. Crenshaw said. “If we look at the Presidential election since 1964, the majority of white people have voted one way, and the majority of people of color have voted another way. That’s a division. . . what I think that’s new is how the division is being mobilized.”

Ms. Crenshaw said the division was being used politically to rip off the scab of Jim Crow, of white supremacy more broadly, and advance it for political purposes. While she said Presidents in the past have worked to put out the fires of division, she argued that the current President has served more as a match than an extinguisher. Ms. White Rigeur added that the Republican party today, rather than sowing unity through outreach to black voters, has reaped division by catering to the interests of white men.

One panelist, however, thought differently.

“I diametrically oppose everything that has been said,” said Liz Matory, who has run unsuccessfully for Congress three times: once as a Democrat, once as a moderate Republican, then most recently as a Trump Republican in 2018. “That’s the frustration of being the lone black Trump supporter. I do believe that people are utilizing this perceived division to keep us divided.”

She added: “[Democrats] told me that I was too educated and too privileged to be the first black person elected from Montgomery County. . . one party has taken our vote for granted.”

But for everyone else on stage, and for nearly everyone in the Whaling Church it seemed, the failures of the Democratic party to act on the concerns of its black constituents paled in comparison to those of the other major political party in the country.

“I agree that there are problems in the Democratic party,” Ms. Crenshaw said. “That doesn’t make the Republicans look any better to me.”

The conversation then deepened beyond party divisions and peered into the question of economics and race. Ms. Hunter-Gault asked why poor black voters and poor white voters remained divided when it appeared that the economy worked for neither.

“Because society, as it exists, places a skin tax on black people and gives a skin privilege to white people,” Mr. Blow said. “So, you’re whiteness, in and of itself, is viewed as an asset even when you are broke. And wealthy white people, from planters after the Civil War all the way to now, have used that pitch to say to them, you may be broke, you may be down on your luck, but at least you aren’t black. And they have absorbed that.”

While Ms. Matory argued that black voters tied to the Democratic party were miseducated, other members of the panel united over their belief that an inability to properly confront racial issues was at the root of their support for Democrats. On the one hand, Ms. Matory felt that the Republican party — and conservatism — presented a space for all people to fight for, and live by, the principles of individual liberty. The other panelists, in often sharp exchanges with Ms. Matory, felt that true liberty remained impossible in a party that welcomed, in their view, racist, bigoted language and policy.

“People don’t have an issue with conservatism,” Mr. Singleton, a conservative himself, said to Ms. Matory. “It’s you not speaking truth to power about racial issues.”

As in years past, there was a Harvard professor ready to tie everything together at the end. His name is Dr. Lawrence Bobo.

“At the same time that both parties have played on race, there are lesser evils and greater evils here,” Mr. Bobo said. “The Democrats engaged in this passive game of taking black votes for granted. Republicans actively cultivated a base on racial animosity, at first through subtle dog whistle cues, and then through Donald Trump.”

Mr. Bobo’s answer to stitching that divide, despite a President interested in cultivating a racial firestorm, was obvious. Get him out.

“The Obama coalition won twice,” Mr. Bobo said. “That coalition is still out there. . . But we cannot compromise on bigotry. We cannot compromise with misogyny. And we cannot compromise with anti-Muslim hate. And to quote one of my heroes, Mr. Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”