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‘We Wouldn’t Be Having This Conversation.’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. on America’s Missed Opportunities for Racial Equality

4 minute read

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Emmy-winning historian and head of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, tells TIME about the origins of modern inequality, America’s missed opportunities and where the fight goes next.

How do you see the state of equality today fitting into the history of equality?

One of the most dramatic shifts to the structure of the African-American community has been the doubling of the black middle class and the quadrupling of the black upper middle class since 1970. When we look at the child-poverty rate, we would have expected that would go down dramatically too. But it didn’t. Usually when we’re talking about equality, we’re talking about the black community vs. the white community. But I’m very concerned about the inequality within the African-American community.

How did this situation come about?

People like me who entered Yale around 1969 are solid members of the American upper middle class, and it’s because of affirmative action. My colleague Lani Guinier once said that affirmative action initially was a class escalator, but now it’s a class perpetuator. Many black students admitted to Ivy League universities are the children of the upper middle class—the very people whose class status was transformed by affirmative action. That should be enormously troublesome to every African American because we need the curve of class in the black community to resemble the larger curve for American society as a whole. And it doesn’t.

What do you think should be done about that?

One, we have to defend affirmative action. Two, we have to change the way we fund public schools so the amount spent per child is the same in every district. I’m not optimistic about that happening, but that would be the greatest contribution to equality across the board.

How would you describe the state of racial equality in the U.S. today?

I think each black person still fights stereotypes about racial difference that are inherited from the 19th century and the institution of slavery—if you just look on the Internet, many people see a black person and think that they’re fundamentally inferior to a white person who is the inheritor of “world civilization.” So scholars like me spend a lot of time in an endless effort to show that there were black people of great intellectual attainment even thousands of years ago.

Is there a moment in American history you think stands out as the closest we’ve come to full racial equality?

We believed we were closest the day Barack Obama was elected President. Unbeknownst to us, his victory bred a deep level of resentment and anxiety that overlapped with larger changes in the economic prospects of members of the American working class.

Was there ever a point at which full racial equality could have been achieved?

Oh yeah! If Thomas Jefferson and the founders had actually believed that all men were created equal, they should have acted on it and abolished slavery. The next great opportunity was 1865. If, at the end of the Civil War, black men—ideally people, but it was only going to be men—were given the right to vote, and if land in the South was redistributed as reparations for their contribution to the economy and the horrible traumas of slavery, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Are you hopeful this conversation could ever be unnecessary?

Yes, inevitably. We used to talk about race in binary terms: black people and white people. Now we have a multiplicity of ethnic groups, and all of them are going to be fighting for their economic rights, their social rights and political rights. We need to think about coalitions across the color line, including coalitions between white workers and black workers whose economic interests are exactly the same.

This article is part of a special project about equality in America today. Read more about The March, TIME’s virtual reality re-creation of the 1963 March on Washington and sign up for TIME’s history newsletter for updates.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com