What is the White community’s biggest misconception of the Black community
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 Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). And she is currently at work on a new book: Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. Her academic research is inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges.
Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. Professor Harris-Lacewell's creative and dynamic teaching is also motivated by the practical political and racial issues of our time. For example, her course entitled Disaster, Race and American Politics explored the multiple political meanings of Hurricane Katrina. Professor Harris-Lacewell has taught students from grade school to graduate school and has been recognized for her commitment to the classroom as a site of democratic deliberation on race.
Question: What is the White community’s biggest misconception of the Black community
Harris-Lacewell: Well I mean what we know is that Blacks and Whites see the world vastly differently. I don’t want to say that one group is misperceiving the other, because I suspect that there’s a little bit of truth to all of our misperceptions of one another – that they grow out of seeds or kernels of some part that’s true, but that we fail to ask the question, “What truths are missing?” So I’ll just give you a quick example of that. Sometimes we talk about hip hop music and the ways that hip hop is misogynist and nasty towards Black women. One of the central elements of that is calling Black women “gold diggers”. It’s suggesting that when Black men get rich as hip hop artists or as athletes, that it’s somehow Black women who are benefiting from it, right? They’re taking the money and the status. And I always say, “Come on now. What truth is missing there?” When Black men get rich from entertainment and from athletics, who gets rich with them? My students kind of stare at me, and I say, “Come on! Who gets rich when Black men become rich through athletics and through hip hop music? Is it Black women who get rich with them?” And they go, “Oh no. Actually it’s White men.” Right? So it’s all of these White men attorneys and promoters. They’re the ones who get rich, so who’s the gold digger right? So in other words it’s not as though there’s no story there, but we often sort of missed the rest of the truth. So I think the same thing is true across the racial divide, right? That sure, are there White people who are nasty racists? Absolutely, right? But there’s a lot of other truths that are missing there. Are there Black men who are frightening criminals? Absolutely. But there’s a lot of truths that are missing there, right? So what we do know is that Blacks and Whites perceive the world vastly differently on a number of different topics. So we can look at not only racial issues like support for affirmative action. You have African-Americans . . . A majority of African-Americans, poor and middle class, who are supporting affirmative action; a vast majority of Whites not supporting affirmative action. You can look at attitudes toward the past presidents – George W. Bush before 2005 getting a great deal of support among White Americans; almost no support at all among African-Americans. Ronald Reagan – a great deal of support among White Americans; very little among African-Americans. Similarly, right, a minority, although a plurality of White Americans having a strong support for Bill Clinton; vast majority of African-Americans showing strong support of Bill Clinton. Hurricane Katrina is a great contemporary example. Black and White Americans both extremely angry about how the federal government responds to Hurricane Katrina in 2005; but when you ask White Americans about why they’re angry, they tell you things like, “Bureaucratic insufficiency.” Or, you know, just sort of not doing the right things, and state and federal government getting their signals crossed. When you ask African-Americans what they’re angry about, they say, “The government hates Black people,” right? “That we were allowed to suffer and die because of race.” So everybody angry, and yet two very different stories about the driving forces. So there are these very real perceptual differences, but I think when we . . . when we think about the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness questions, these are in part about perceptions and public opinion, but also a great deal about structure. So for example, universal healthcare would solve the problem of healthcare access for Black Americans, but would also, by the way, solve the problem of healthcare access for White Americans, right? So what is good in this case for Black people is good for the country generally. If we think about wealth, right – the sort of argument that I made about the vast differences in wealth – well you know that wealth gap is a government created entity. When you look at America in about 1935 or 1940, there is no substantial, thriving, White middle class. There was mostly a White working class and a White ownership or wealthy class. That middle class, that wealth gap right now, is driven primarily by the beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill, the FHA, the Interstate Transportation Act. So in other words in the years following World War II, our federal government looked out at the greatest generation and said to its citizens, “You served your country well. In response, your country is going to invest in human capital through the G.I. Bill; in hard capital through the FHA, which will provide for you and your family moderately priced homes in good communities and neighborhoods where you can send your children to reasonable public schools. And by the way we’ll build high quality interstates between your homes and these new suburban communities, and into the cities where you will be able to actually come in and work and then return to your homes.” That . . . Those sets of policies – of human capital . . . Excuse me – human capital, transportation, and hard capital in the form of housing were very real, government-based investments into a population, and overnight one generation – 20 years – you had a middle class that did not previously exist. But because of the way those federal laws were written, they allowed state governments, particularly in the South, to not make those lending decisions, not make those G.I. Bill investments with African-American soldiers who had served. So what that means is that right at the moment of investment which has now grown over the generations – this is a large part of that 11 times wealth gap – is a result of really, really terrific government programs that invested in their people. What we need is the same kind of investment now targeted specifically at those groups that were left out. So you just say, “Look, we’re gonna invest in your human capital through college education,” right? “Forgivable grants instead of these high priced loans that force people to go into jobs in order to pay them back. We’re gonna make sure that you can have moderately priced, good housing in communities that have reasonable public schools. And by the way, we’re gonna invest in the transportation infrastructure to get you to the jobs where they need to be.” We’ve done it before. We could do it again. And again within 20 years, 40 years I suspect we’d see huge returns on that kind of investment.
Who benefits more from the success of a hip-hop artist? Black women, or white men?
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