Authors: Henry Louis Gates
I did not really get involved in the economic aspect of black people’s lives until I came to the National Urban League, where I in effect took the baton from Whitney Young. He had the concept of a master plan for the inner cities, and I don’t think he was wrong about that. It never happened, but he was the first to articulate it. I did not follow up on that; I talked about things in other ways. But I had come to understand some fundamental economics not from studying in college, but from my mother, who had a very successful catering business in Atlanta. My brother Windsor and I worked for her at the parties she catered and were paid as though we were her employees. Her business was also how I got my first exposure to lawyers. But when I went away to college, my mother wrote me every day for seven years. Every day. Some letters were short, some were long, some were sad, some were glad, some were angry, depending on what was going on, and they were always newsy about the church, about the neighborhood, about the family. However long or short, angry or happy the letters were, she always wrote two things, and the first was about economics. She would always write somewhere in the middle of that letter, “Son,” comma, “if you make a dime, save two cents.” That was her philosophy. And she’d never heard of Adam Smith.
The other thing my mother always wrote she put at the end of the letter. She would write, “Son,” comma, “if you trust Him he will take care of you.” That was her basic view of life. It was a simple faith that was a guide, a steering wheel for her life. It was so ingrained in my mind that it came to me at one of the times when I most needed it, though in the shock of the moment I wasn’t sure I could believe it. I didn’t pray, because the more you are in shock, the more you think you are gone. But obviously, a lot of other people prayed.
It was on May 29, 1980, Fort Wayne, Indiana. I had addressed the Fort Wayne Urban League’s annual Equal Opportunity Dinner at the Marriott Hotel. Later that night, I had gone to the hotel bar with a group of Urban Leaguers. A member of the local board then invited me to her home for a snack and coffee, and drove me back to the hotel. As I got out of her car, I turned around to go and something hit and I went up in the air, then fell down on the ground. It was sort of an indescribable force that just has this impact on your back, knocks you off your feet and down on the ground. I was hit in the back with a bullet from a .30-06 hunting rifle that’s used to shoot buffalo. People in the motel started making noise, and I lay there. I felt blood leaving my body and soaking my shirt, and I mean I thought day was done! That’s why I love the sound of sirens. There’s nothing like the siren, and if you’re lying there thinking that this is all over and you hear the siren, the siren suggests hope and it suggests help. I was in Parkview Hospital for ten days. Then President Carter sent a plane for me to Fort Wayne, brought me to New York, and I was in New York Hospital for eighty-eight days.
What is interesting about being shot is that some good comes out of everything. Dr. Robert Stovall had attended the dinner that evening; he was a member of the board of the Fort Wayne Urban League. When he heard I had been shot, he rushed to the hospital. Why exactly he was there, I don’t know, but he was there and he saw it was me and this white surgeon was on and it was his time to operate, on whoever was there in an emergency state and needed an operation. Dr. Stovall says to the white doctor, you cannot operate. He said, only Dr. Towles can operate, the black doctor. And he called Jeffrey Towles and said, you have to come here right now. Towles said, it’s not my time; I’m not on call. And Dr. Stovall says, this is Vernon Jordan; you have to operate on him. Towles says, not my time to operate, goddammit!
Jeffrey Towles grew up in a small town in West Virginia. His mother was a single parent who worked as a cleaning lady, and one of the places she worked was a doctor’s office at night, when she had nobody to take care of him. So this kid, Jeff Towles, would go with his mother, and as she cleaned the doctor’s office, he just sort of went through the books, and he liked the diagrams. Then he went to school at West Virginia State, where Dr. John D. Davis was president, and left West Virginia State, went to medical school, and did his residency at Detroit General Hospital. The night before the trial, when I testified in South Bend, Indiana, on the shooting, he said, at Detroit General I saw all kind of injuries. He said, I never saw an injury like yours, and he said, based on what I saw when I saw you, I thought you would not live. But he saved my life. The same little kid who went with his mother to clean the doctor’s office, this black kid saved my life. Because Stovall said to the white guy, you cannot operate. Now, it wasn’t based on race; it was based on competence. He thought Towles was a better doctor.
The spirit of my mother, the commitment of my father—these are alive in our people. We have the determination to take on the poverty and ignorance that remain. The existence of the black underclass is the next fortress that has to be attacked, with the same kind of vigor we used to attack segregation in the 1960s but with different methods. I’ve never been into assessing blame. When the house is on fire, I think you call the fire department. I don’t think you sit around and ask, who did it? You can do that at some other time, but I think you call the fire department. And I think that on the issues of poverty and ignorance, we need to call the fire department.
Poverty and ignorance in this country have to be attacked if we are to survive as a country. It is not in our own enlightened self-interest to have 37 or 40 percent of any group of kids, black or white, in America in this day and time who are uneducated, unemployed, and unaspiring. It’s morally wrong, and it’s a burden on the commonwealth. And so the commonwealth has a responsibility, as well as the citizenry, to do something about it. It is not just the obligation and responsibility of the Civil Rights Movement as it is now defined, but it is everybody’s obligation. It’s in everybody’s enlightened self-interest to do something about it.
Frank Raines, chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, says that home ownership is vitally linked to employment and business productivity. “This isn’t a zero-sum game where because a black person gets a job, it means a white person didn’t get a job, and that’s the whole story. That’s not the way capitalism works. When one person gets a job, he starts buying things, and this creates the potential for more jobs.”
I grew up in Seattle, in a working-class family. There were seven kids altogether. My folks were both janitors. One of them worked for the Seattle Park Department; the other worked for Boeing. I went to public schools and was active in everything kids are active in, from sports to student government. And then I got a scholarship to Harvard, and that sort of set me off into the world.
There were a lot of things we didn’t have when I was growing up, but we always were able to eat. There were some tough times. My dad was hospitalized for periods of time for very severe depression, and when he was gone, we were on AFDC and didn’t have a lot. I remember my mother used to give us two dollars and send us off to the five-and-dime store to buy our Christmas presents. And that was Christmas.
When my father would get out of the hospital, he didn’t have a job, and so he would go off to the bean fields south of Seattle and I’d go with him sometimes. There was a truck farming area that’s now covered over with shopping centers. To get to the farming area, you’d leave the house at three o’clock in the morning, drive down to skid row, and catch the bus, and as soon as the sun came up, you’d be out in the bean fields. You’d pick beans all day. You’d do that for eleven or twelve hours, and a grown man could earn ten dollars in a day and a kid could earn five, six dollars. You got two and a quarter cents per pound. So we had a lot of beans sometimes because you could take home all the beans you wanted. But through this my parents stayed together. They owned their own home and they provided the basics, so I think of us as being a working-class family, meaning that when bad things happen, you’re on the edge, and when good things happen, you have a good Christmas.
I didn’t ever imagine going to Harvard. Harvard sort of came to me. I didn’t know anything about Harvard except that President Kennedy went there and that meant it must be a pretty special place. A Harvard recruiter came to my high school. Harvard was then trying to become more of a national university, to expand beyond being a New England university with all these prep school students, and so they started going out and actually recruiting. It’s a little hard to imagine now when they have so many applicants, but Harvard was out recruiting. Jack Reardon, who’s still at Harvard, came by my high school, and the counselors got a few of us together and he started talking about this place called Harvard. And then there were some young Harvard alumni in Seattle who also became involved. So for me, going to college was a big deal. I was the first in my family to go to college. The idea of going to Harvard was totally beyond anything I had even thought about.
I can’t even imagine how my parents raised all these kids. At their peak my parents earned $15,000 a year each—at their peak—and it’s just astounding to me. Their combined income wouldn’t have paid for one year of college today. And so what my parents did was remarkable.
One of my earliest jobs was cleaning up. My father built our house. And when I say he built it, I mean he built the house. He dug the foundation with a shovel; he poured the concrete. He bought a house owned by the Highway Department. They were going to tear it down, and he dismantled it—took the nails out of the boards, brought the boards over, and built his house. And he built it as he could earn the money, because no one would give him a loan. He built the house by taking second and third jobs, and sometimes we would go with him and help on the second and third jobs, cleaning up offices and other things. As he got money, he bought more material and built more of the house. It took him five or six years to build this house. But he wanted it, and he decided to build it and did it step by step.
I’m still building houses with families. It’s very inspirational being in a job like this where with our help, a guy like my dad now can get a loan because we would make that possible for him, whereas when he was coming up, there was nobody out there who was offering help to people like him.
Today there are black CEOs in four of the Fortune 500 companies, but this does not mean that the job of integrating the power establishment is over, by any stretch. What it means, I think, is that it takes thirty years to make a CEO—thirty years of education and experience and trying, of being tried out at different jobs. Most blacks were not allowed into the major business schools and weren’t allowed into major corporations until thirty years ago. So it’s not surprising that once people are given a chance, thirty years later up will pop some CEOs.
What the emergence of blacks into the position of CEO at a few corporations really says, I think, is what a tremendous achievement it was to finally get on with the work of integrating former slaves into America after a 120-year hiatus. We went from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Revolution over a century later because the promise of the post–Civil War constitutional amendments was nullified. People just said after the Civil War, we’re not going to do it, this equal opportunity thing. Forget about it; we’re not doing that. And it was okay for them to do this, to abrogate these promises. Politically, they were allowed to do it, and so the aspirations of former slaves were totally eliminated. You had a few people who would pop up, but systematically, access to education, access to capital, access to property was just denied. We got to the 1960s and all that really happened was that the political system said, we’re actually now going to enforce the promise that we made back in the 1860s.
And all of a sudden things started happening. Black folks started happening at Harvard and Yale, not because there are more who could do it now than in the prior hundred years; it’s just that all those people back then had been stepped on and held down. My father might have been somebody if he’d had a chance to get a higher education, if he’d been allowed into the unions. He might have been somebody. The guy was hardworking, smart, but the system didn’t make that possible for his generation. So it’s making it possible now.
The financial firms on Wall Street are still predominantly white by a wide margin, but there are a few minorities there, more than there were. I was the first black partner on Wall Street, back in the 1980s, and I didn’t make
or the other black magazines. Back in those days, African Americans didn’t pay that much attention to Wall Street because it was so far out of the mainstream for most blacks. Wall Street still has a long way to go, but we’re seeing a lot of progress.
You can see the progress if you look at a company like Fannie Mae, where we’ve tried to pride ourselves in our efforts to look like America. We don’t mean look like America as adjusted by this and that factor; we just say look like America. This is a company where the majority of the employees are women, where 40 percent of our officers are women, where 25 percent of our officers are minorities—about 14 percent are African American. And we try to hire the best people we can. We have the luxury of having only 4,500 people, and so we look for the best people and we find them. If you look, you actually can find folks. And so we’ve got women and minorities running major operations in this company. This is not a situation where there’s a black guy who’s a CEO and that’s it in the company. It’s indicative of what we try to do. Not every company has been as successful, but I think they can be if they work hard at it.
There are no guarantees. You don’t recover overnight from a hundred years of not having built up capital and educational experience. You can’t just turn it on the next day. I’ve talked about this with people and I suggest that the miracle of compound interest—what we talk about in financial terms—doesn’t just apply to money. A dollar back in the 1860s would be around ninety dollars today, at a very low rate of interest. But think about it in educational terms. If blacks had been educated three generations ago, what would the current generation look like? How many Nobel Prize winners would there be in the current generation if we’d started then? If the people had begun to have capital and could own property, how much property and capital would they have today, just simply from people adding a little bit day by day? So to me what’s happened is that we’re finally allowing the miracle of compound interest to start applying to black folks—the accumulation of wealth and the accumulation of social capital.
The accumulation of capital and the use of that capital is clearly the next phase of what I refer to as the integration of former slaves into the society. Civil rights to me is one aspect of that integration. Access to capital and the ability to accumulate wealth through that capital is another aspect of that integration. Political participation is another aspect. We’re making some progress on all of these, but the longest haul is going to be on capital simply because we’re starting so low. Our estimate is that if the average African American had the same wealth level as just the average white family, which is something like $40,000— so we’re not talking about a lot—it would add $1 trillion to the wealth of African Americans.
For most people, what wealth means is that you’ve got the money to educate your kids, that if you get sick you don’t lose everything, and you can retire with dignity. That’s all wealth means. And for most people, wealth comes first in owning a home. Most of the wealth for the average family in the United States is not on Wall Street; it’s in their house. So the fact that the African-American home ownership rate is below 50 percent and the white home ownership rate is over 70 percent is a huge part of that lack of wealth and capital. Wealth also means the ability to have financial growth through something besides simply the labor of your own hands; that is, growing your capital and wealth by investing in companies or, as many people do in this country, by investing in your own business. But if you don’t have that little nest egg, you can’t get going. And again the number one source of capital for new small businesses is borrowing against your home. African Americans are not used to talking about wealth in this country, but it is a fundamental differentiator today in the experience of black families and white families, this wealth gap. And the biggest piece of that wealth gap is the home ownership gap.
I was just down in Atlanta with President Bush looking at a project that we helped to finance, in which a bunch of severely run down public housing was torn down and replaced with wonderful, affordable apartments, senior housing, and home ownership townhouses for teachers and police officers. It totally transformed this community. We put probably $6 million to $9 million into that one. It’s called a Hope VI project, and there are many of them in communities across the country. Some people who no longer live there look and say, I grew up there; I’m proud now. My neighborhood is now getting better. And they say that even though it’s not their house. It’s their neighborhood, and they feel a pride in that.
It’s interesting for me that when I walk around in D.C. and in neighborhoods, sometimes people cry out, “Hey, Fannie Mae, hey, Fannie Mae man.” Some of them actually know who I am. Yet if I could ask them anonymously how important is it that some black folks are running a few big corporations, people would say, these guys are in it just for themselves. This is what they believe if they don’t see any of them around, don’t see them contributing to the community.
I think the key thing, and one of the things we focus on, is you’ve got to have some tangibility to what you do. People have got to see it and touch it and feel it in their lives, and so even though they personally may not be benefiting, they know something good is going on.
We try at Fannie Mae to have tangibility so that people can see what it is that we do, but we find that it also inspires people—they say, I want to do something like that. So when people say it hasn’t affected me, I want to be able to say, well, let me tell you some of the things we’ve done in this neighborhood; maybe you heard about them. They might not know we were involved, but then you go through it and they say, oh, you guys are in that, you’re doing that, okay, I know about that one, yeah, that’s kind of a nice thing. And if you can’t bring that tangibility, then people ought to criticize you. They ought to say, well, where is it? If it’s just numbers somewhere, I can understand their reaction. We’re one of the largest companies in the world. I also have two- and three-person offices—we call them Partnership Offices—in fifty-four different places in the country, where all they do is work with people at the local level to see if we can make tangible differences. But as big a company as we are, we’re always asking, what needs doing here that will start the ball rolling? So at the same time that we’re buying a billion dollars in mortgages, we’re also working on one twelve-unit project in Tucson that people have been trying to make work for the last ten years, and we go in and say, let’s make it work for real.
conducted a poll a year or so ago in which they asked white Americans, do you think that equality has been reached now in terms of jobs, income, and education between whites and blacks? And the majority said yes. And so I did a measurement of what it would look like if it were equal. And that’s where we came up with this number of a trillion dollars of wealth, millions of new homeowners, a couple of million additional college graduates, a million more jobs. If you just were working toward the average, not looking for anything special here, just wanting to be average Americans, it would be huge in terms of the change for the black community. If we’d spent the hundred years before the 1960s working on it, we’d be a lot closer. But we didn’t; in fact, it was the other way around. Remember, this was a country in which home ownership was vital and property ownership was vital, and in many jurisdictions it was illegal to sell property to blacks.