Gates Addresses Ethnicity, Class
"All politics at some level is about identity politics," said W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. in a speech yesterday at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Gates, director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, spoke to over 350 Harvard students and members of the general public as the kick-off speaker for a series of lectures sponsored by the Harvard University Program in Ethics and the Professions.
The Program in Ethics and Professions seeks to promote the teaching of ethical issues in public and professional life, according to its Web site.
"We're very excited about this program," said Administrative Director M. Jean McVeigh. "One of the goals [of the program] is to show how ethical tenets are applicable to everyday dilemmas."
In his speech, Gates focused on the ethical issues that have developed around ethnicity, identity politics and class.
"Identity is always fluid, always changing with respect to other identities," Gates said. He spoke of his own search for identity as a student at Yale. "In Piedmont, [Gates' hometown] I learned to be a Negro. At Yale, I was determined to learn to be black."
As part of this quest, Gates said, "I had a two-foot Afro. It was the baddest Afro at Yale."
Drawing from his personal experience, Gates told the audience, "I don't think we should say, 'Express Yourself' as Madonna did. I think we should say, 'Invent yourself.'"
Gates addressed the conflict between personal identity and political image. "A distinctive trait of America is that we think of ourselves as a plural nation," he said.
He spoke out against the current tendency to divide American politics along ethnic lines. "I have spoken of political identity. Too often one has to assert oneself in the political arena as a woman, as a Jew, as a color."
To combat the tendency towards ethnic isolation instead of integration, Gates called for a rigorous multicultural curriculum in the public school system. "America has been multicultural from the get-go," he said.
Switching direction, Gates focused on the ethical dilemma concerning socioeconomic inequality in America. "Democracy today in our country is experiencing a crisis, the crisis of class," he said.
Gates cited the fact that 45 percent of all black children live at or below the poverty line. Gates pointed to both cultural and behavioral reasons for the overwhelming poverty of many black families. "We must erase the painful gap between those of us who are on campus and those of us who are left on the street."
Speaking directly to his peers, Gates said, "We have to stop feeling guilty about our success. We need to feel committed to service, not to guilt. We, as a people need more success, both collectively and individually."
Gates urged those present to lobby for social programs that strive to improve the lives of the impoverished. "For what is at stake," he said, "is the survival of our country and the survival of the black people."
Recognizing the diversity of his audience, Gates urged all members to "learn to find the rough magic of the cultural mix" and ended with the advice: "We must strive to live by Martin Luther King Jr.'s credo, 'None of us is free until all of us are free.'"