American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 20

The Humanities in the Schools

The Humanities and Public Education
Stanley N. Katz

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The Women's Studies Movement
Catharine R. Stimpson

Cultural Equity?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Harvard University

There was one school in Piedmont, West Virginia, the Appalachian village where I grew up, and little Brenda Kimmel was its princess, at least as far as I was concerned. Brown v. the Board of Education having been decided when I was four, in 1954, I in turn was scampering hard alongside her two years later in the newly integrated public schools of Mineral County, West Virginia; for I was a would-be little brown prince. Now, Brenda Kimmel was the obsession of my grade school and high school years. That girl ate books—went through them faster than anybody I knew before or had known, except my father. Brenda would sit in study hall in total concentration, twirling her hair and devouring page after page, and so at the age of 13 or thereabouts, practical man that I am, I started to read books too.

I had been reading books before then, mind you—lots of them, but pretty much only sports books. I read sports books in order to get close to my father and to my only brother, who is five years older than I am, whose mutual passion for sports created a bond that had excluded me. If I could not fully share in their passion for sports, at least I would know something about what they were talking about if I read about sports. So I did all my book reports in school on sports books. Books with such scholarly titles as Basketball Bones and Last Second Shot, books I could read in an hour. Of course, it wasn’t just Brenda Kimmel’s example that made me change. It was also Mrs. Iverson, my eighth grade English teacher, who finally rebelled.

“Those ‘books’ you are reporting on are fluff,” she had declared. “You are forbidden from reporting on them any more!”

Fluff? How dare she call my books fluff? What was I supposed to read instead? She handed me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.

“I could never read a book that thick,” I told her. “How about another book?” “Read it,” she said.

I stayed up most of the night reading that book, and I was sorry when I fell asleep and couldn’t read any more. I went on to Les Miserables, the biographies about Einstein, then Albert Schweitzer—Genius in the Jungle by Joseph Gollomb. Schweitzer was a revelation. I wanted to learn to play organs and restore them just like Albert Schweitzer did. I wanted to walk past the church on the day of Pentecost on my 13th birthday and decide to change my life, secure with the knowledge that I would help the world, and win the Nobel prize. After all, I always did have a deep sense of guilt—treating malaria in Africa would be a natural for me. I read a book called My Sweet Charlie, a tear-jerker about a black boy and a white girl who fall in love in the South. He gets lynched of course, or anyway something very tragic happens to him because of white racism, and it all comes to a melodramatic ending. I gave it to Brenda Kimmel, though somehow I don’t think that she appreciated the plot. And then I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, completely enraptured by Irving Stone’s divine kitsch. It was I who was carving the Carrara marble, molding it with my chisel like clay. Best of all, though, was the passage about Michelangelo making love with his mistress, early one afternoon. Especially the part about how he had come to her house unannounced; how she had answered the door “in her robe only”; how she had opened it for him when he had kissed her; and how red her nipples had appeared against her tan body. I read that page so often, it turned a different color from all the other pages in the book. It was the first time I had been aroused by words on a page: a strange and magical experience. Only reluctantly did I return that book to the library.

On Saturdays I used to go to the library in the nearby town of Keyser, West Virginia, the county seat, checking out recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, and listening to the records while I read the plays. I loved the sound of Richard Burton’s voice, and the clomping of the horses in MacBeth. None of this, alas, impressed Brenda Kimmel. Not even when I told her about Bertrand Russell and the bicycle. It seems Russell was out riding his bicycle one day and decided on the 32nd turn that he no longer loved his wife; reasoned that it was only fair and honest to tell her this; and headed back to do so. Incredible! I read that passage almost as much as I read the one about Michelangelo’s mistress. But where Brenda and I parted company, and where I parted company with just about everyone else in my school, was when it came to books about being black. Here I grew up in a kingdom all my own. I would read about the books in Ebony magazine and then go down to Red Bowl’s newsstand and order them through a distributor. They were mostly Dell paperbacks, and I paid for them with money I got from selling bottles. Which meant spending a lot of time collecting bottles. The big Dell Authors became a reading list for me. I remember the color of the pages and the size of the print, the red and black covers. I would order other books by people I had heard of, even vaguely, and I would read those too. Getting a new book in at Red Bowl’s newsstand was almost as exciting as was smelling a new textbook on the first day of school, or the mimeographed handouts that we all got in grade school.

But now at the age of 14 I was addicted to black books, and I would read them at one sitting. I remember James Baldwin saying something about having the opportunity to feel human in Europe and wondering what he meant. He also said something about coming to terms with his blackness, high in the Alps in Switzerland, listening to Bessie Smith’s blues recordings. I had not even heard of Bessie Smith. I wouldn’t hear Bessie Smith’s music until my sophomore year at Yale. But that was okay, because James Baldwin played Bessie for me.

Later that year I remember doing a book report for Mrs. Iverson on Dick Gregory’s new autobiography, entitled Nigger, and the battle of wills that she and I had about her saying the title out loud. She flatly refused. I had said it first, but her awkwardness and embarrassment made the words sound dirty, even in my mouth. And we said “nigger” all the time at home. But most of all I remember the funny shade of crimson that Mrs. Iverson’s face was when the crescendo of my oral presentation somehow culminated on that word “nigger.” And I sat down to silence, part of me satisfied, part of me frightened, but all the time knowing that I had passed through some kind of gate. Unlike the bottles I had sold to Red Bowl’s, I was non-returnable.

So that’s how I came to the humanities. The substitution of the love of the text for would-be pleasures of the flesh. Fortunately, when I got older, I discovered to my great satisfaction that one could have both. And that, too, is how I came to learn about and understand what being a black person in a racist society was all about. And now (fantasy of fantasies!) I even write books—books about other books and books about being black. And more of us today—more women, more people of color—are writing and publishing books than ever before in the history of this country. A few weeks ago, incredibly, three black women—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan—graced the Best Sellers list of The New York Times. This impulse, and the impulse that has brought us to this great library today, is part of what is variously known as the movement toward cultural diversity or multiculturalism, in the academy, from pre-K and elementary schools through high school and the university. And like the bottles I sold back to Red Bowl’s, the American academy too is non-returnable—non-returnable to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when men were men, and men were white, and when writers and scholars were only white men.

Over the past decade the college curriculum has, of course, become a matter of vigorous political contestation, and perhaps that is not altogether a bad thing. As Amy Gutmann, the political theorist, has argued, “in a democracy, political disagreement is not something we should generally seek to avoid. Political controversies over our educational problems are a particularly important source of social progress because we have the potential for educating so many citizens.” Certainly the last several years have provided an occasion for testing Gutmann’s hypothesis. Proponents of curricular change and of retrenchment alike have had to marshal and clarify their arguments. It would no longer do to preach to the choir merely. Each have had the opportunity to pick holes in the other’s arguments, and in honest moments of reflection to consider the legitimate objections raised by the other side. Academics came to realize that it would no longer do to talk solely among ourselves, and more Americans outside the academy were being brought into this conversation. The inhabitants of an Ivy Tower were reminded that the Ivy Tower was part of a larger society, and supported with increasingly scarce resources from that society. This, I think, was a good thing.

At the same time, however, the polarizing tendency of the debates could sometimes distort, as polemics almost always do, the very real issues at hand. As the literary critic Gayatri Spivak of Columbia writes, “Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, and in the name of convenience, an institutionalized double-standard tends to get established. One standard of preparation and testing for our own kind, and quite another for the rest of the world. Even as we join in the struggle to establish the institutional study of marginalities,” she concludes, “we must still go on saying ‘and yet’.” In the same spirit, we are often a little too ready to let pass bad arguments for a good cause. What is a good cause? One that we believe in, of course. And these bad arguments among proponents of curricular reform often center around notions of representation, cultural equity, and self-esteem. So I want to discuss these pitfalls very briefly.

The first I call the representation fallacy. And this means quite simply that we should only study authors of color or women simply because of the changing demographics of the American population. And this, it seems to me, no matter how understandable the impulse for this might be, is wrongheaded. If blacks are ten percent of the population of Los Angeles, does that mean that the curriculum, too, should be ten percent black? If in North Dakota blacks make up one percent of the population, are North Dakotans justified to yield only one percent of the curriculum to black texts, and one percent only? In short, the notion of direct social representation reflected in the curriculum, applied in a consistent way, would immediately lead to absurd and untenable results.

Hand in hand with this conflation of textual and political representation has been a suspension in my own field of literary or esthetic judgment: the inability to distinguish between texts that are good and texts that are not so good—all in the name of a dubious multiculturalism. How did this come about? “Taste is not an index of morality,” Ruskin once wrote, “taste is morality.” Today we have inverted Ruskin to insist that taste is immorality or, at least, that judgments of taste were an unsuitable activity to engage in while children were watching. Not that anyone ever stopped judging, of course; judgment simply entered into the circuits of gossip, something done furtively and on the sly.

In this respect Hannah Arendt wrote in a most illuminating way about taste judgment as a political faculty: “They do not compel in the sense in which demonstrable facts or truth proved by argument compel agreement. They share with political opinions as they are persuasive. The judging person, as Kant said quite beautifully, ‘can only woo the consent of everyone else, in the hope of coming to an agreement with him, eventually.’ Culture and politics belong together, because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision—the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision of what manner of action is to be taken in it, as well as how it is to look, and, fourth, what kinds of things are to appear in it.”

The sort of conversation and contestation that normally surrounds literary and cultural assessments, however contingent they might be, can be a valuable part of teaching. All texts are not created equal, they never have been and they never will be. Once a text by, say, Alice Walker becomes essentialized as the eternal black feminine, this kind of conversation, however, can no longer take place, because then you are no longer debating the value of a work, but of a genus of person.

The notion of cultural equity proceeds by just such a personification, unfortunately. As people enjoy equal standing under the law, so, too, we argue, must works of culture. The problem, clearly, is that this proposition is unintelligible. It requires that we could measure literary works on a scale, and declare them equivalent by some magical metric. Today, pace Yeats, even the mediocre lack all conviction. For the Thoroughly Post-Modern Millies of our day, nothing is easier than to attack the straw men of disinterest, neutrality, impartiality, detachment, objectivity, and the like. Nor is it difficult to demonstrate the way in which the humanities have from their very inception been riven by the social divisions of humanity, whether these be sexual, racial, ethnic, or class division.

And yet our terms of disapprobation, the accusations of bias that we level, seem inevitably to incorporate the very normative dimensions we seem to deny. After all, the concept of bias only has meaning in contrast to the ideal of disinterest. Absent this ideal, we can only contrast bias in favor of other biases, and make no appeal that transcends the localities of our discourse. “The oppressed have different purposes and wants from their oppressors,” the philosopher Richard Rorty observes, “but they do not have deeper insights into reality.” Rather than seeking to lay bear underlying realities, therefore, we might see our task as the contra-position of different interests, different perspectives. But I don’t think that we are therefore condemned to the more reductive forms of cognitive relativism, or what in my field are called “standpoint epistemologies.” We often hide within them another appeal to the transcendental—often a magical notion of a group identity, say, of being a woman or a member of the black community, whose coherence may be vouchsafed by Plato, or vouchsafed by God, but never by the vagaries of history or lived experience.

And of course the same reductive forms of identity politics conduced to the self-esteem school of pedagogy, a view of education as a sort of twelve-step program to racial or gender self-recovery. The difficulty arises when the promotion of self-esteem is offered as a rationale, the primary rationale, for curricular reform. This is a mistake. As it happens, a significant amount of research has been conducted in educational psychology on the matter of self-esteem, and it turns out that the theory that self-esteem improves scholastic achievement has no empirical support. When Laotian students in California ace their SAT’s, it isn’t because the curriculum reinforces a rich sense of their complex Laotian cultural heritage.

This sort of dime store psychology is quite seductive, and it has been quite seductive to me. But, as I say, a lot of empirical research has been done on this matter, and there is simply no evidence to support the proposition that self-esteem is causally related to school achievement. What there is, is some evidence that school achievement is causally related to self-esteem. Perhaps it is also worth noting in the arena of public school education, that there is a danger of offering curricular change as a cheap fix for what may be a very expensive problem. Because the truth is, curricular change in history or literature is irrelevant if a kid does not know how to read or write or add. And that is the real crisis in American education that we all face—a new generation of kids that is going to be functionally illiterate. Forty-four percent of the members of the African-American community cannot read the front page of their local newspaper with adequate comprehension. Faced with brutal facts like that one, all of our high flown rhetoric about the canon and cultural diversity and multiculturalism becomes staggeringly beside the point.

I say all of this as a sort of deflationary preface, because I think it is worth trying to keep ourselves honest as we continue to toil in the academic vineyards. Bad arguments may do for other people, but we can’t afford them ourselves. I also think it is worth restoring more of a historical perspective on the project of curricular development. That the curriculum changes, has always been the case. If the curriculum didn’t change—let’s say Lynne Cheney, or anyone in this room, devised the perfect curriculum for all time and everybody, and everybody agreed on it—well, that would be truly an historical innovation. Sometimes it’s not clear who’s the young Turk and who’s the traditionalist. These days the tendency to broaden our educational vistas is, of course, often called “multiculturalism,” a sweet or bitter mouthful, depending upon your sympathies. To both its proponents and its antagonists, multiculturalism represents, either refreshingly or frighteningly, a radical departure. Like most claims for cultural novelty, however, this one is more than a little exaggerated. For both the challenges of cultural pluralism, and the varied forms of official resistance to it, go back to the very founding of this republic. In the universities today, it must be admitted, the challenge has taken on a peculiar inflection. But the underlying questions are time tested. What does it mean to be an American? Must academic inquiry be subordinated to the requirements of national identity? Should scholarship and education reflect our actual demographic diversity, or should they rather forge the communal identities that may not yet have been actually achieved? For answers you can, of course, turn to the latest diatribe on these subjects from George Will or Dinesh D’Souza or Roger Kimball. But, in fact, these questions have always occasioned lively disagreement among American educators. In 1917, William Henry Hulme decried what he called “the insidious introduction into our scholarly relations of the political propaganda of a wholly narrow, selfish, and vicious nationalism and false patriotism.” His opponents were equally emphatic in their beliefs. “More and more clearly,” Fred Louis Pateen ventured in 1919, “it would seem now that the American soul, the American conception of democracy, Americanism, should be made prominent in our school curricula, as a guard against the rising spirit of experimental lawlessness.” Sound familiar?

Given the political nature of the debate over education and the national interest, the conservative penchant of charging multiculturalists with politics is a bit perplexing. For conservative critics, to their credit, have never hesitated to provide a political defense of what they consider to be a traditional curriculum. The very future of the Republic, they argue, depends on the inculcation of proper civic virtue. What these virtues are, of course, is a matter of vehement dispute. But to speak of a curriculum untouched by political concern is to imagine, as no one can, that education takes place in a vacuum. It is because we have entrusted our schools with the fashioning of a democratic polity, that education has never been exempt from the kind of debate that marks every other aspect of American political life. And while I am sympathetic to what Robert Nisbet once dubbed the “academic dogma,” the ideal of knowledge for its own sake, I also believe that truly humane learning, unblinkered by the constraints of narrow ethnocentrism, can’t help but expand the limits of human understanding and social tolerance.

So those who fear that balkanization and social fragmentation lie this way have got it exactly backwards. Ours is a world that is already figured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions, to forge for once in this country a civic culture that represents both difference and commonalties, is through education—an educational system that seeks to comprehend the full diversity of human culture.

Behind the hype and the high flown rhetoric is a pretty homely truth: there is no tolerance without respect, and there is no respect without knowledge. The historical architects of the university understood this very well. As Cardinal Newman wrote over a century ago, the university should promote what he called “the power of doing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values and determining their mutual dependence.”

In just this vein the critic Edward Said has recently suggested that “our model for academic freedom should therefore be the migrant or the traveler. For if in the real world outside the academy we must needs be ourselves, and only ourselves, inside the academy we should be able to discover and travel among other selves, other identities, other varieties of the human adventure. But most essentially in this joint discovery of self and other, it is the role of the academy to transform what might be conflict or context or assertion into reconciliation, mutuality, recognition, creative interaction.” That’s why I want to resist the tendency to cast this debate in terms of the West versus the rest of us, for that is the very opposition that the pluralist wants to challenge. Pluralism sees cultures as forces, dynamic, interactive rather than the fixed properties of particular ethnic or gender movements. Thus the idea of a monolithic, homogeneous West itself comes into question. Nothing new here. Literary historians have pointed out that the very concept of so-called Western culture may date back only to the 18th century. But rather than mourning the loss of some putative ancestral purity, we can recognize what is valuable, resilient, even cohesive in the hybrid and variegated nature of our varied modernity.

Cultural pluralism is not, as we know, everyone’s cup of tea. Prominent cultural nationalists like Allan Bloom or Leonard Jeffries correctly identify it as the enemy. These polemicists thrive on absolute partitions between civilization and barbarism, between black and white, between a thousand versions of us and them. But they are whistling in the wind. For whatever the outcome of the cultural war in the academy, the world we live in is multicultural already. Mixing and hybridity are the rule, not the exception.

As a student of African and African-American culture, of course, I’ve come to take this kind of cultural palimpsest for granted. Pluralism, the great American philosopher John Dewey insisted early in this century, is the greatest philosophical ideal of our time. But he recognized it was also the greatest problem of our times as well. How are we going to make the most of the new value we set on variety, difference, individuality? How are we going to realize their possibilities in every field and at the same time not sacrifice that plurality to the cooperation we need so much? It has the feel of a scholastic conundrum. How can we negotiate between the one and the many? Today the mindless celebration of difference has proven as untenable as that bygone model of monochrome homogeneity. If there is an equilibrium to be struck, there is no guarantee we will ever arrive at it. The worst mistake we can make, however, is not to try.

Question-and-Answer Period

Question: There is a degree of courage, personal courage, that you are asking for—someone to stand up and put forward this idea that multiculturalism can be a cover for some of our errors.

Gates: I think that it has to be done. The question is, how should one go about doing it? I think that one builds up trust with one’s colleagues so that one knows another through various contexts. And part of it means giving those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt. People should feel that they can stand up and draw distinctions and say, “Look, I have to admit that I am trained within a set of presuppositions, and that extending from those presuppositions, I find Beloved a masterpiece; I find The Temple of My Familiar a fiasco.” That is a fair enough statement. And if someone responds to that in a polemical, political, nasty way, there is not very much we can do about it. But I think we can gain the trust of our colleagues, and say look, we are all in the same boat.

I think it is important that we understand. And if you disagree with me about The Temple of My Familiar, teach me—teach me another way of reading that makes The Temple of My Familiar a richer, esthetic statement than Beloved. It means put up or shut up. That’s the way it has to be negotiated; it has to be give and take.

(One of the things I learned in England is you can say anything you want, as long as you make it into a question. “The Temple of my Familiar is a disaster, wouldn’t you say?” I had many bloody noses before I learned that.)

We have to have this give and take, this dialogue. We have to do it, because at the beginning of this movement, there were too many silly things that were allowed to pass. And then we would go off among ourselves, and I would ask somebody, “Do you really think that what you said is true?” And they would say, “What? Are you crazy? Of course not, but we can’t let them see this divided house.” Frankly, I think we are cheating ourselves.

I said that we should identify our critical positions, but I want to enter a caveat on this score. Must I stand up and say, “as a black, Appalachian from Piedmont, West Virginia”? It always seemed to me that it is the things we can’t disclose about our critical position, our esthetic position, which are the most revealing. And so even this gesture—by standing up and saying, “Well, as a Chicano heterosexual from New Mexico, I . . .”—I think that’s finally unproductive.

I’m just trying to say that I’m not sure that categories by which we identify ourselves—particularly the broad categories, such as gender, class or race—really explain anything. They are totalizing categories, which tend to eliminate our specificity as human beings. I mean, I’m a middle-class African-American male. What does that mean? I know all kinds of upper middle-class African-American males who think what I say is totally ridiculous.

Question: Are you saying that we should not try to integrate the academy?

Gates: I wasn’t saying that we should not integrate the academy. I was saying that it is a bad argument to say that the curriculum of the American novel should be ten percent black because black people are ten percent of the population. They are two different things. And in fact, it is much easier to integrate the curriculum than it is this room. And often one is used as a political substitute for the other. And so you say, “For Christ’s sake, you have Toni Morrison. What more do you want?” You see what I mean?

Last year at Yale, 17 courses in the English Department taught Their Eyes Were Watching God. Wonderful, but can’t they find another black face? I mean when is diversity genuine and when is it another kind of reification of an author? When are we replicating the forms of oppression that we rail against? I, too, was inspired by people of color in the academy, and mentors. But I also was inspired by mentors who do not look like me, either by ethnicity, or by religion, or by gender, for that matter. And certainly by class. Anybody can be a role model for anybody.

But I also think that it is important for people who feel disenfranchised to see other disenfranchised people make it. Psychologically. I know it was for me. Just like it was important right after I read the books that I cited at the beginning of this talk—the summer of 1965 when I read James Baldwin, right after the Watts riots. (I’ve written about this.) James Baldwin changed my life, in one way. But no more than Charles Dickens did or Hugo did, in a different way. That’s why I think that if I was asked to make a list of the most important things about my identity, I’m not sure that being black and being a male would be the first two things that come to my mind, though they would for some people. You know, it might be that I like John Coltrane or Mozart or it could be 10,000 other things. But the identity politics that we are all playing usually presupposes that the fact of one’s gender and the fact of one’s ethnicity are two of the most important aspects of our identity. And I’m not sure how that particularizes itself; I’m not sure how that manifests itself in one’s real life decisions. Because I know all kinds of black people who are not alike at all—other than the fact that they are in this broad, very shifting category that we call African-American.

I think that it is important to understand the political nature of the change in curriculum, and to understand the politics of demographics as they impinge upon the academy and upon the society outside. What we have allowed ourselves to do is to blur the distinction. You see, I think it is the weakest argument—an argument made by people who don’t believe in their literature—to say “the best reason for you to teach my people’s literature is because of our demographic representation in the population.” If that’s what you are going to lead off with, you have a weak hand. I mean, Toni Morrison stands up to anybody, so does Zora Neale Hurston. I don’t have to pull punches. I don’t have to engage in some kind of “mau-mauing” (as we used to call it) of my white colleagues to insist that they be put into the curriculum. Wole Soyinka has the Nobel prize. He is one of the greats of literature, from Nigeria. He is one of the great tragedians of this century. We don’t have to use bad arguments to effect this kind of change.

What happens in terms of representation? You see, the pun is on the word representation: representation as a matter of demographics, representation as a matter of politial leverage. You can’t confuse it for the way one represents, say, an identity in a text. They mean very, very different things.

Question: Don’t you think curricular reform is important?

Gates: When I talked about using curricular reform as a cheap solution to a very expensive problem, what I meant was that the problems of illiteracy are bound up with a larger problem of class differentiation in America. And the only way that they can be addressed is not by adding James Baldwin to the rhetoric reader, but by, say, a Marshall Plan for the city. Now really, if you believe that, I think that we can engage in all sorts of palliative activities, but the cure is fundamentally an economic and structural cure.

I mean, I think there are a few sets of problems. But the first is structural. Until we have an administration willing to address the structural problems systematically, through economic reform, job training, moving people out of the inner city. (Where, believe me, industry is not going to return in force, I don’t care how many tax incentives people give. Look, if you were running IBM—think about it in your shower, you don’t have to admit it in public—are you going to put your factory in some inner city? The answer is probably no.)

At the same time, however, I think that we have to insist that our people take responsibility insofar as possible for the choices in their lives. You know, waiting for governmental liberation is a bit like waiting for Godot. And the level of the problem is that homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between 15 and 34. And the vast majority of those black men are killed by other black men. There is no white person who is making them do that directly; we can say, indirectly, the system lets them do that. We have to insist that people start to make choices about what they do to each other and to their own bodies.

We can’t blame the victim. I’m not trying to do that. But we have to insist upon social responsibility while we simultaneously insist upon governmental intervention of a meaningful nature. I think that our politicians—the politicians of the black community and the liberal politicians who support policies that directly affect the black community—really don’t have a clue about how to solve the problem of the inner cities generally, and the problems facing black people and other people of color more specifically. And the reason is because the world has changed so dramatically since the passing of the last civil rights law.

I read Andrew Hacker’s book, Two Nations, which is replete with charts and graphs. And here is the two nations metaphor—two nations, one black and one white. If I were a Latino I would wonder what happened to me—and that is really something problematic in our discourse about racism, one of many things. But the other thing that is often evaded is the fact that if you look at the statistics carefully, you realize that what’s happened since 1968 is that the black community has split in two: that there is now the biggest middle class black community and the largest black underclass that we have ever had.

Under segregation, we all had a certain measure of equality or inequality—before the law. So that our community had more of an organic connection than it can possibly have now, when the black middle class who lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem now lives in Scarsdale and New Rochelle. And the unity of black culture becomes commodified through symbols such as black talk, black walk, black art, black music. But listening to rap music, or wearing dreads, or wearing dashiki, or whatever it might be, in Brookline is a fundamentally different thing than doing the same procedure, adopting the same practice, in inner city Brooklyn.

Yet our language, our rhetoric, suggests that there is a unified black community. It is delusional. We have denied the category of class. And class does make a big difference. And it is self-deceiving of black middle class people not to admit that. It is not to leave behind the people in the inner city. I think it is our responsibility to do something about it. But we won’t get there by pretending that we are all the same.