tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS August 27, 2016 4:30pm-5:01pm PDT
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also, by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith. he's a celebrated academic, author, and critic, an emmy-award-winning film maker who's latest pbs documentary series is and still i rise: black america since mlk. he's henry louis gates jr., this is overheard. let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen of the nations in africa? you can say that he made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the stake, are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you actually.
this is overheard. (cheers and applause) dr. gates, welcome. - thank you. - so nice to see you sir. - it's an honour to be back in austin. - oh my god i love what i have seen of the series. i love it. - yeah? what do you like about it? - what i love about it most is that it takes a subject that we think we know something about. the experience of black america since martin luther king at a moment when we need to be talking about race in this country in a serious and sober way and it looks at the political, the cultural, it looks at every conceivable aspect of life in this country and it just comes alive. it just jumps off of the screen. the first couple of times i looked at clips of this series i though i wanna see the entire thing right this minute. - ah that's great. - it may be the best thing that i've seen you associated with and i just cannot wait. - thank you. to see the entire thing. - well in a sense it's a documentary autobiography of our generation. so our conceit is, what if mlk woke up? - right, what if malcolm x woke up?
- and they came right here and said evan. - how's it going? - what's happened? - right. oh my god, they'd be miserable. they would be so unhappy at what they'd see, right? - yeah and when you think about it, it's paradoxical. there's a narrative now - [evan] yeah of course. - a narrative that obtains that this is the most racist time in american history or there are 42 million african americans who are all suffering from racism. - [evan] yeah. - in an equal way. but that's not true. it's, to paraphrase dickens, it's probably the best of times and - [both] the worst of times. - right. - why would i say that? because the black upper-middle class, if we measure that by the percentage of black people making over a hundred thousand dollars a year, has quadrupled since the day mlk died. and the percentage of black people making over 75,000 dollars a year has doubled. - yeah. - since 1970, 1970, two years after mlk. - so there has become a black middle class as a fact of life in america. - a black middle class but at the same time
the percentage of black children living at the poverty line in 1970 was 40%. you know what it is today? - it's 45%? - no 38%. - i was close i was thinking higher. - so yeah no but if you round it off. - it's basically the same. - yeah and that's a paradoxical result because you would think intuitively that if the percentage of the black upper middle-class, middle-class rose, the percentages of the lower classes economically. - [evan] naturally, organically. - would go down. - [evan] would go down. - but they've stayed the same. and the difference is affirmative action. when i went to yale, and i started yale in 1969, i started with 96 black men and woman. the class of 66 at yale, if i'm remembering correctly, had six black men to graduate. and, you know who's in my class? who showed up with me? - hmm? - oh unknown people, i don't think, you might not have heard of them, ben carson, you ever hear of ben carson? (audience laughs) - oh is that right, yeah? i hear he's a doctor. - yeah he's a doctor. - well apparently he's not a politician. - part-time.
oh ha, ha, oh. - oh snap. - with these hands right? - right, yes, yeah. - sheila jackson lee. - right congress woman from texas? - congress woman from huston, barbara jordan's seat. - right. - kurt shmoke, the first black mayor. - former mayor of baltimore. - of baltimore. - right. - there's a guy at the law school, i didn't know, but his name is thomas clarence i think. - clarence, thomas, yeah, yeah. what ever happened to him? (dr. gates laughs) doesn't say much. - i don't know but i heard he spoke up recently. - right, right, exactly. (audience laughs) - [dr. gates] he's found his voice. - he had lost the power of speech for 10 years until all of a sudden. - [dr. gates] until, yeah. - he started this. - yeah his best died and he left him the capacity to talk. (audience laughs) - i'm hoping they edit all this out. (dr. gates laughs) you know what but that's an amazing group. - and bill and hilary. - and then the clintons. - and bill and hilary. - were also. - they were at the law school. - at the law school. - with clarence. - at the same time. - that's amazing. - yeah. - so because of affirmative action, i would have been an educated person. - yeah. - probably a doctor, i was raised to be a doctor. - yup.
- my momma wanted two, my momma, god rest her soul, believed that in heaven there's the father, son, holy ghost, and a medical doctor. (everyone laughs) sitting right between jesus and the holy ghost. - right, yeah. so you actually came from a family where it was assumed that you would be well educated and assumed that you would be successful. - my father's first cousin, george lee, graduated from harvard law school in 1949 and 1950, which is my birth year. - [evan] yeah. - and he married a black woman, dorthy hicks-lee, who was the first black woman to get a phd in comparative literature at harvard in 1955. - [evan] yeah. - my family story's fascinating. i'm descended from-- - this is kinda like an episode of finding your roots. - yeah. - are you going to cry or am i going to cry? - no, no. - okay, i'll try not to cry. - there was one son and three daughters. edward gates, i'm descended from edward gates. he's my great-grandfather.
and they sent the three girls to college. edward gates senior was married to maud fortune-gates. they had three daughters and a son. edward saint-lawrence gates is my grandfather. - okay. - his three sisters were sent to college at the turn of the century. isn't that amazing? - it is amazing. - it is amazing. - right. - and they said, a woman needs to have an education to protect herself. - [evan] right. - the son inherited the 200-acre farm. - what's interesting to me though and of course you're associated most closely with an institution, harvard, that is the elite of the elite, right? so it's not entirely just this. - no i'm a yale. - well i know that but now. i mean once a yaley always a yaley but you're the harvard guy now. - that's true. - but as i think about this series, and i think about the time since martin luther king to today, the stories that you were telling of black america are not the elite black america stories or at least that exclusively or mostly. - no, no not at all.
- right so you come to the task of telling the story of a black america that is in many respects not your black america. - right, well it's all my black america but black america is multi-faceted. - yeah and no more. - and that's the point. - monolithic than white america, right, right. - there are more african americans than all the people in canada. - is that right? - [dr. gates] there are 42 million african americans and somebody can, right now, you can google. (audience laughs) i think there are 36 million canadians. - yeah. - yet we use metaphors like the community for afro-america. - right. - it's country. - right. donald trump says the blacks. - the blacks, yeah. - which sound like 10 people right? - yeah, that's right. but martin delaney, i believe in 1852, the father of black nationalism said we are a nation within a nation. that was 1852. and it's true. and so we can never expect 42 million people to be in the same economic class but that's what our redirect has suggested. somehow, we were gonna dismantle de jure segregation and all of us would plunge head-long into the middle class.
it's an oxymoron. it never was going to be that way. the best outcome that we could achieve would be the class distribution within the race would look like it looks for the larger, white american community, or the broader american community. - right. - so the same percentage of people in the 1%, the same, which would be 1%. - and we would have people in poverty, as we have people in poverty who are white. - right, and we don't have that. while there are twice as many poor people in america who are white, the percentage is about half. you see? - [evan] right, yeah. more than 20% of the black community lives in poverty and it's just over 10% for the white community. - right. - but more than 20 million white americans are living in poverty. - right, well the white community had, as they say, a head start. - yeah absolutely. - in terms of getting out of poverty. - and i grew up in the hills of west virginia and on the potomac river. - right. - you know that farm is on the south branch of the potomac river, not where i was born but where my dad was born. all my ancestors back 250 years on all sides of my family
lived within a 30-mile radius of where i was born. i have a very stable and old and free black family. but the people i grew up with were poor white people. were working class white people. - right. - so i know that the patterns of behaviour that stem from structural poverty are colour-blind. - irregardless of race. - if we ever get the poor people in this country to realize that they have more in common with each other. - [evan] yup. - and that demagogues, they can resist the siren call of demagogues who make them think that their poverty is the result of the conspiracy of 12 rabbis who rule the world or all the black people or mexicans coming across the border. - rapists. - yeah or 1.6 billion muslims - right. - if they can resist that siren call. - yeah. - of evil and realize that what appears to be far too often in this country, attributable to race,
is really an economic problem. - right. - and forge alliances, they could transform. - well in fact the political power of people in poverty, if we could persuade people in poverty to avail themselves of that democratic right to vote. - [dr. gates] yes. - and they voted in their interest. - right, in their interest. - voted in their interest, you would get, and we know that voter turn-out that it tends to. - right. - but you could think about the power of, not just black poverty but white poverty martialed would change the country. - right, if they could vote their interest, as you say, instead of their fears. - [evan] right. - and right now we see this group of people being manipulated. - [evan] yup. - and they're being appealed to, to vote their fears. - [evan] well but. - and people are afraid. you've been afraid, i've been afraid. - [evan] of course. - you can't just have somebody pat you on the head and say don't be afraid. i mean, if it's your mother, maybe. - right. - okay, you know, but you need to help people understand why they're afraid. - right. - why the world is complicated. - yup. - who our enemies are and who they're not.
what forces are really working to cause the country discomfort. - yeah. - but that takes a leader, that takes an-- - but, but, but of course dr. gates the fact is that politically the white community, whites, not monolithic in how they vote. the hispanic community has tended to be more one party than another but not overwhelmingly so. i think 71% was the percentage that president obama received of the hispanic vote in 2012. he received 73% of the asian american vote but 93% of the african american vote. - right. - the african american vote has been much more so than white, or latino or asian american monolithic politically. - right. - has that served the black community well? - that's an interesting question. did you see the saturday night live skit when they're interviewing a black woman saying what would it take for you not to vote for barack obama? - yes, yes, yes, yes. - and then they go like. what if he became jewish? they said shalom, barack. - exactly. (everyone laughs) - adjust your yamaka.
(both laugh) - yeah, right. - two interesting questions, ken and i, ken burns and i had dinner last night. - ken burns has another series on pbs soon. - [dr. gates] that's right about jackie robinson. - about jackie robinson which he says is as much a race, or more a raced film than a baseball film. - it's true and you know much of ken's work. - [evan] deals with race. - the subtext is race without a doubt. but i remember vividly, i was 10 years old when jfk and nixon squared off. - [evan] yes. - and my parents were republicans. many black people were republicans, we're still the party of lincoln. and there was a liberal wing of the republican party. and jackie robinson begged presidential candidate richard nixon to intervene when martin luther king was in prison. - yup. - and there were black democrats lobbying jfk. - [evan] right. - and nixon refused to do it, jfk did it. daddy king, who had committed
all of his tremendous resources. you know, when a black preacher, particularly in the old days, says the lord spoke to me and said we should vote republican, it was yes, republican. (audience laughs) well he had done that. - yeah. - but after, jfk intervened to get martin out of jail, daddy king said the lord spoke to me again. (everyone laughs) - he said, hold on. - yeah. - wait a minute. - that roman catholic boy is not so bad. - i guess the question is often asked, you know i live in the state texas where the latino population will soon be in the majority. - [dr. gates] yes. - and has tended to be much more democratic than not and there are people in the rio grande valley who say the problem is the democrats have taken hispanics for granted. - right. - and have given an opening for the republicans to come in and i wonder in the african american community if there's a version of that. obama not withstanding. - no that's absolutely the case. - you have an election cycle coming up in which you'll have either bernie sanders or hilary clinton. - right. - against a republican candidate to be named as we sit here. and is the black vote, necessarily up for grabs,
since coming out of the administration of the first black president or if believe bill clinton, the second. - yeah. (dr. gates laughs) - is there an opportunity for the african american community to say wait a minute, we're being taken for granted and is it beneficial to us to be part of one party or another? - the short answer's absolutely yes. if we were a swing vote. - being such a large group, we could. - you'd change the election. - affect or determine the outcome really. that makes you a very powerful broker. and we could do better than we have done. - [evan] have you been well served-- - but with barack, i mean my god, you know black people, for the brother, they were. - again, shalom. - yeah, even in the barber shop people if they're critical and there are a lot of criticism in the black community. - right. - and president obama but people, even in the barber shop, they whisper. it's like when we were talking about white people it's like well the white man. (dr. gates laughs) you know, because we were afraid that, you know. - somebody would hear. - we were so paranoid. - yeah. (evan laughs) - we were so paranoid we thought big brother was listening - [evan] yeah.
- and the irony is, when all of the, after watergate and all the tapes, they were right. - it turns out. - they were listening. (everyone laughs) - it was worse than we thought. - but you acknowledge, i mean obviously the, again not speaking monolithically but the african american community is largely with the president right. - [dr. gates] yeah, yeah. - but there are also people who ask, it's amazing to even think the words are gonna come out of my mouth, is he black enough? right, people have asked has he actually been good for the black community? - what happened though was that remember, in the state of the union, you're a liar. unprecedented in the history of the united states. - indeed. - and i say that, i cite that as a metaphor for the degree of opposition against this poor man. - and you think it's because of race. you know this is a common place to say you lie, was because of race. we're not gonna consider the supreme court nominee you put up in the last year of your term even though it's perfectly legitimate constitutionally for you to propose somebody because you're a black president. i mean you've heard across the continuum,
race has been identified as the reason for a lot of the-- - i think that's too simple. i think it's some things. - you think it is too simple. yeah, yeah. - i think it was deeply rattling to a segment of this population to have a black man in the white house because that was symbolic of a transformation into society that left some white people at the bottom of the economic scale. james baldwin was eloquent about the fact that the way that white immigrant groups became american was to become white and the way to become white was to subjugate black people or embrace racist ideas about black people. you always knew that there was somebody under you. - yup. - you'd stand on someone's shoulder. and because of affirmative action. obama is just the end result of the transformations that began in 69 when i showed up with those 95 other kids at yale and similar seem to play themselves out
throughout the country. the election of a black man is just the end result of the social transformations wrought or set in motion by affirmative action. - yeah but you know that for him, the pressure is enormous. it's almost impossible for him to succeed because the expectations are so enormous right. - [dr. gates] yeah. - being the first, everybody invests in him, they project onto a blank screen how they view how this should go and it's almost impossible to be that person and satisfy. - it's one reason that i admire him so much because i look him, he's aged, as each person in that office has aged. but he's kept his sense of humour, he's got his swag, you know it hasn't crushed him. look at president carter who aged so much. - in just four years. - yeah he looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. - right. - and of course the president does but barack obama has worn it very well and look at michelle, she looks just as young, as vibrant. i'd vote for her. - would you actually? - yeah, i mean, give it up. (audience applause)
she's my hero. - kind of a claire underwood house of cards kind of vibe. - yeah. and i think that historians they will, some of the things he's doing now like pardoning people who clearly shouldn't have been in jail. - [evan] yeah. - but he's doing it in his seventh year, in his eighth year. - right. and you know what's funny is this is identified as his i don't give a blank period. - yeah, that's right. - but in fact based on everything he's done, he very clearly gives a blank. - he does. - don't you think because he could just be coasting. - right. - right? - but i think that-- - he's not. - he could have, historians will ask had he done some of these bold things that he's doing now, earlier, would it have changed? - could he have done them earlier though honestly? - yes he could have done that. he's done that with a stroke of a pen. these are all things. - right. - he's done with an executive order or a series of executive orders. but then he was worried about florida and certain elections then he decided it was more important historically to open up cuba.
i, in full disclosure, my partner, my girlfriend, is a professor who's a cuban citizen. i've been going to cuba because i made black and latin america for pbs. - you understand though that many of the things he's done of late, has he done them in the first term, it wasn't just about florida and cuba. - he wouldn't have had a second term. - he wouldn't have had a second term or he would have had a harder time making the argument as he has now that at the end of six and a half or seven years of anything i do them saying no to because i did it, i've had to take the step of. - look when the republican caucus had that press conference to say we are going to do everything we can to keep this man from fulfilling his agenda and being a one-term president. that is, that's cold. - so, but i wish that he had a little more lbj in him. - he doesn't have, what did jonathon alter say, he doesn't have the schmooze gene. - no he doesn't. - and he doesn't really look to use his powers of the office or persuasion to necessarily get up in people's grills. - exactly. and many of the people who love him the most have advised him to use the perks of the office
to seduce, which every president, it's a big thing you go in that oval office. it's a big thing. - sure. - when the president, when they call and say you're invited to dinner. - regardless of what party you are, if the other guy's at another party you still go, well the president called. - look i've known people who couldn't stand the president until they played golf with him and then they go man that's a brilliant guy. - turns out. so very quickly, let me ask you to pivot and then i want to come back to the film. so we have an election coming up. let's assume that the trend line is going to continue and that the african american community will more likely land d than r. we still have an open election. we haven't decided who the candidate is. will it be, should it be, from your perspective, secretary clinton or senator sanders? do you believe that the african american community has a good choice in one or the other? - well full disclosure i can't answer without bias because i'm friends with president clinton. - i understand. - i know them much better. - but i think. - than i know the obamas - you can also stand back and say, if the african american community ends up with senator sanders
who has been criticized over time, for not having enough of a weigh into the black community, right? are you comfortable with one or the other? - well i'm more comfortable with hilary clinton but i think that senator sanders, i just don't see how we can have free tuition for everybody. economically, his positions, while they appeal to my heart, i don't understand how we can. - they bonk up there. - yeah, i don't see how we can write the cheque. - so you're a pragmatist? - yeah - in the end on this. - yeah i'm very pragmatic but i love the things that he says and i think that he's been very valuable in pushing hilary to the left. - right. - and that's been important. - [evan] yeah. - and also, an amazing bellwether of how much unrest and descent. both trump and bernie sanders. - yup. - are bellwethers of how much discomfort, how much unease, how much fear, how much desire for change there really is out there. - well they're two sides, weirdly of the same coin.
they may have more in common. - they are. - with one another than they do with the people in their own party. - right, and unlike many of my friends, particularly at harvard, i never underestimated donald trump. - never did? - never, no i thought donald, i was around when people underestimated ronald regan running for governor of california. - yeah, right. - people forget that there were mocking. - you gotta have a long memory. - there were mocking commercials and a b actor and he was a very good governor and many people think he was a fabulous president. and donald trump, i think it's more interesting and more challenging, rather than to demean donald trump, is to understand his appeal. and i think it behooves the democrats and i think it's too late for the republicans but if i had been running in the republican party against donald trump, i would have tried to analyze what his message was, how he's delivering it, to whom he's speaking, and figure out how to tap into that. - instead of waiting until the end and going like this like rubbing your eyes and going. - and they mocked him.
- which they pretty much did right? - yeah and they mocked him in the way the black people know that we have been mocked historically. - that's interesting actually. that's interesting. - i think that we have this button. - [evan] yeah. - if i could speak collectively. - [evan] yeah, yeah, yeah. - as soon as someone's being mocked or traduced like that it makes you more sympathetic. because it's a way that many of us have been treated historically like oh he's black. no, donald trump's a smart guy. - don't dismiss him. - no don't dismiss him. i don't understand it because my sense of him before this campaign was that he's a liberal new yorker. - right. well that's something that you and ted cruz have in common. (everyone laughs) - yeah, absolutely. - i think you both had that sense. we have 30 seconds left, very quickly, so the question that you posed at the beginning, if martin and malcolm were alive what would they say about the world today, what do you think they would think? - i think they would be astonished at how much progress that we have made without bloodshed being spilled. - it would be a positive.
- overwhelmingly positive. - right. - and then i think they would say that two things had to happen. it's incumbent on the society to continue those programs that affect the structural causes of poverty. things like affirmative action, obamacare, healthcare. - social safety nets. - yeah, social safety net. but, and this is the area that's more difficult if you're black. it's incumbent, martin luther king and malcolm x were very much self-help people. they would speak to the black community and say no white man or woman's gonna come in riding on a white horse, and say that ship has sailed. you have to reach down, bootstraps. there's no excuse for not knowing the abcs. there's no excuse for not knowing the multiplication tables. there's no excuse for having a baby when you're a teenager. - yeah, personal responsibility. - you know, if this makes me conservative then that's how i was raised man. you know that we were taught that,
my father would say you have to be 10 times smarter than the white boy. now, maybe we're not 10 times smarter but we knew that you had to show up. you had to show up, you had to be prepared. you had to do your metaphorical homework. and every american has to do that. you can't just use racism or slavery as a crutch anymore. it is incumbent upon you to make it and to show that you're equal because if you do, if you do show up, there's a place at the table for you in american society. - indeed. - i believe, don't you agree? (audience applause) - that's a very hopeful place to end, good. well dr. gates i've got the popcorn popping already waiting for this film. the whole thing's gonna be so great. - thank you. - what i've seen is so great. i wish you great success, continuous success on pbs, at harvard, and elsewhere. thank you so much for being here. - thank you. god bless you. (applause) - [voiceover] we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at klru.org/overheard to find
invitations to interviews, q and as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - johnson and johnson and coca-cola, they were our first two sponsors. and the whole pitch was how would you like your product being associated with the whole world knowing what tribe or ethnic group oprah winfrey is from. and you know what it was like? it was like, see that, imagine that ceiling opens up and a giant atm machine slowly. (audience laughs) - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also, by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and, by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation.