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2013 ‘Skip’ Gates Hutchins Forum in Martha’s Vineyard: ‘One nation, diverse and divided’

Shelley Moore Christiansen

For those with hearty appetites for conversations on race and politics, there was no place on Martha’s Vineyard to be than on the wooden pews of the Old Whaling Church to hear the 2013 Hutchins Forum, hosted by Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research.

“One Nation: Diverse & Divided” was the theme of this year’s “Skip Gates Forum,” as islanders may forever dub the event — a reference to its founder, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. also the editor-in-chief of The Root. As director of the Du Bois Institute, Gates initiated the annual debates on the Vineyard back in 1995. Benefactor Glenn H. Hutchins bankrolls the forum that now bears his name. Admission is free.  

Thursday night’s bipartisan panel included New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow; public broadcasting talk show anchor Maria Hinojosa, who also operates her own media production company; Linda Chavez, syndicated newspaper columnist, political analyst for Fox News and former White House director of public liaison under George H.W. Bush; and returning panelist Lawrence “Larry” Bobo, Harvard sociology professor and founding editor of the Du Bois Review.

Returning moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault kept the mood lively. Her directive to the panelists: We’re still divided as a nation — politically, racially, economically. “Trayvon put our divisions in stark relief,” she noted. What’s causing those divisions today?

The conversation covered many bases, ranging from immigration reform, stop-and-frisk laws and the legacies of slavery and discrimination to the politically polarizing “cable-ization” of television news. Hunter-Gault pressed the panel on how to bridge those divisions.

The Blow-Chavez dialogue nearly rivaled the famous Booker T. Washington-W. E. B. Du Bois debate. 

Blow: “First, people must acknowledge the structural, systemic bias that still exists in this country. People asking me to forget the impact of history is the biggest impediment.”

Chavez: “The problems within the black race stem from family structure and children being born out of wedlock.” She hastened to add that the rule applies to families of every race.

Blow: “You can never talk about the breakdown of the black family unless you acknowledge that this country has endeavored for years to break the black family down.”

The audience applauded. 

Chavez: “You can’t change history; you can only change yourself.” She cited her own boot-strap rise from a dysfunctional home to personal achievement. “We’ll do better as a society if we teach our children that.”

The audience applauded that, too.

Chavez also mixed it up with fellow Latina Hinojosa, an odd couple if ever there was one. The occasion of the forum was their first personal meeting. 

Chavez: “I believe in the promise of America and what this nation can accomplish when it responds to its higher angels.”

Hinojosa: “[Is the] assimilation model working well for Hispanics? Sorry Linda, I disagree. It’s people putting their lives on the line that will make this country better.”

The two panelists ended their conversation as divided as they started, then Hunter-Gault introduced the future: Amaree Austin and Clayton Gentry. Austin is a rising sophomore at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Gentry is a 2013 cum laude graduate of the same storied institution.

Austin is African American; Gentry is white. They both recently participated in the Memory Project, a collection of essays about their elders’ experiences in the civil rights movement, most notably in the events surrounding the segregation of their high school in 1957 by the “Little Rock Nine.”

“I’ll be honest,” said Austin. She checked with Hunter-Gault: “Can I be honest?”

“Sure, everybody else is,” said Hunter-Gault. 

“A lot of teens need to think about what happened back then. They have to understand what we don’t want to go through again. We need to prevent that, because that was not OK at all,” said Austin. “I tell my peers: ‘This is about our future,’ but they think, ‘Oh, these things happened way back then.’”

Gentry said, “I used to think discrimination was about white folks being against black folks in the ‘60s. Now I know the word ‘other’ or ‘outsider’ can be used by anyone. I’m not going to say I’m as disadvantaged as a black 18-year-old male, but just because there are no Jim Crow laws doesn’t mean that whites, blacks and Hispanics don’t notice differences or have prejudices anymore. I know I still carry some of that, but I can better combat it when I’m aware of it.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

Shelley Christiansen is a freelance writer, public radio essayist and real estate broker living in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.