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Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black[…]

“There’s a multiplicity of experiences.”

Question: How is the Black American experience changing?

Harris-Lacewell: Well I would say that it’s . . . that there are many experiences of being Black in America, but that’s probably always been true, but it’s maybe more true now.  So if there’s change, that change is probably toward multiplicity of experience.  Whereas in an era of Jim Crow, you may have found more sort of commonality of experience.  But even then my bet is that sort of the best historians keep finding that the multiplicity of experience was true all the way back, right?  And sort of the farther back you go, the more that you find that there were all of these divergent ways of being Black.  Now that said . . .  So I wanna say on the one hand there’s a multiplicity of experiences.  There’s different ways of being Black.  So to be, for example, an African-American living in Mississippi from a long traditional family that was once enslaved in Mississippi and is now sort of part of, for example, agricultural work in the state; or quite likely petro chemical work in the state of Mississippi; to be coping with single parenting, Southern identity, poor public schools; that’s very different then, for example, being the child of West Indian parents living in New York City with access to some of the best private schools in the country; and towards a much shorter history in the U.S., although still from a legacy of slavery in the Caribbean, right, but with a very different kind of history here.  And it would be wrong to suggest that the West Indian second generation kid at the private school in New York is fundamentally, and completely, and unalterably different from the multi-generation Black agricultural or petro chemical family in Mississippi, but they are different.  And to suggest that there is one . . . the Black experience when you have that many divergent ways of being Black I think would be wrong.  But, right . . .  But that said, it is still true that on public opinion, on economic options, on life chances, over and over again it is race and not region, educational status, income . . .  It is race that’s the primary dividing line between your likelihood of sort of having a good set of life outcomes and a poor set of life outcomes.  So in that sense, in the fact that there’s still this huge gap between the White and Black experience, things are not much different just in the sense of there being a big gap.  But there is a lot of difference in the kind of diversity of life experiences that Black Americans have.  I mean Barack Obama is running for the U.S. presidency.  And despite what Stanley Crouch and Debra (40:39) Dickerson say, he’s a Black guy.  And he’s really running.  He’s not just running an insider campaign for the purposes of, you know, pushing the party to be more responsive.  That’s what Jesse Jackson was doing.  It was a brilliant strategy, very important.  Thank God for Jesse Jackson.  But that’s not what Barack Obama is doing.  Barack Obama is actually running for the U.S. presidency.  That is different.  That’s not what was true in 1965.  But although that’s different, it’s still true that if you’re a Black boy born in Chicago, you are much more likely to end up in jail than end up running for the U.S. presidency. And so we have to keep sort of both of those realities next to each other.