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Mary Frances Berry
Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania
“Race, Gender, and the New Political Landscape”
February 7, 2007

As we come here this Black History Month to talk about race, gender, and the new political landscape, in whatever way I wish to talk about it I was told, I would first say that we’ve made great progress in this country. Obviously in trying to have our people align reality with the goals of those great documents and promises of our national life and by those I mean the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. That is fulfilling the overall goals and purposes even if they didn’t apply to us in the first place, to perfect them we have done that. To create and preserve rights and equal opportunity for all without invidious discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement was a success. We have come a long way, put differently, in this country in moving toward fairness and justice and equal opportunity.

With all of the things that have happened and with African-American and African-American women, you have color and race as continuing issues, there are what I like to call head whims against opportunity that whoever is elected to the Congress or whoever is elected President or whoever is elected anywhere, I don’t care who it is, will have to deal with. And there are issues that are difficult to deal to deal with. If they weren’t difficult to deal with, they wouldn’t be issues still and they have been issues for a long time in this country. And there are any number of them that are out there. I call these head whims. Head whims against opportunity.

What are the head whims against opportunity? One head whim is the health crisis. Among African-Americans, there is an AIDS crisis with increasing numbers of Black women having AIDS transmitted to them, in many cases transmitted because their husbands or their boyfriends don’t tell them that they’re HIV positive and in some cases, we have people who are affected by what they call the Down Low phenomenon. And in case you don’t know what that is, if you haven’t figured it yet after all this time, Down Low phenomenon simply means people who are hiding their sexuality for fear of criticism and in the African-American community, we have a great deal of homophobia. We have a lot of homophobia in America anyway, and we have a great deal of it in the African-American community, part of it based on fundamentalist, Christian beliefs and part not, but with people afraid to say who they are and what they are so they don’t tell people and they transmit this disease and this homophobia is spread in our churches. You cannot turn on a gospel radio station and listen to its sermons or you can’t go to church in many places without hearing a sermon about the evilness of whatever, whatever.

When I was campaigning in the last presidential campaign for a candidate who I didn’t like much, but I had to campaign for him because I hated the other guy, so I campaigned for this guy I didn’t like too much, I won’t tell you who he was, he lost. Anyway, and I was out in Ohio going around to churches and I went to this one church and the minister got up and made this sermon about the evilness of people who were homosexuals and how they shouldn’t be tolerated in the church and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I stood up and I said, “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt your sermon, but I’d like to see you back in your study immediately. There is an emergency.” And of course the whole church was like nobody ever does that in church so he came down hurriedly and we went back in the study. I said, “Listen. Let me tell you something, I know something about you and if you don’t shut up talking about that, when I go back out there, I am going to stand up and tell everybody in this church. Do you want me to tell them about your sex life because I know about it?” And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.” And I said, “Well then I think what you should do probably is go back and preach the message of Christianity about receiving people. You come as I am just as I am and try to be tolerant of people and love them rather than denouncing them and driving them out of the church.” I said, “It’s up to you. You have a choice. Do whatever you like.” He went on back out there and that was the end of that.

The other thing is that we know, those of us who attend the church, African-American churches and I have been going to one since I was a child, old enough to go to church and stumble up there every Sunday. That if two kind of people stop going to church on Sunday, the church would close. If black women decided not to go and if gay men decided not to go. There wouldn’t be anybody in the church. Think about it. You look and see who is in the church. There wouldn’t be a choir. In many cases, there wouldn’t be a choir director and as I’ve just pointed out to you, in some cases, not even a minister so we let all of this homophobia interfere with our health and interfere with us being real about who we are and we need to do something about that at large in American and in particular, with African-Americans.

When a few years ago Coretta King, some people in one of the gay rights organizations wanted Coretta to make a statement in support of their cause and they weren’t able to get her to do it so they called me up to ask me if I would help them. They only call me because people always call me to ask me to help something and I was a Civil Rights Commissioner and so they said, “Do you know Coretta. Can you help us to get her to do this?” So I called her and she said, “Mary I would like to do it but the men who are around Martin told me not to do it with Martin. They said that I should stay out of this.” She said, “I want to do it because I feel like Martin would have done it, but they keep telling me to stay out of it.” I said, “I think you should let your conscience be your guide.” So she said, “If you will come down to stand with me, I’ll do it.” So I went to Atlanta and we stood outside the King Center and the press came and she got Joe Lowery finally to come stand with her. She made this wonderful statement about how Martin would have believed in humanity and the human rights of all people and from then on, that was where she was on that issue. So we need to do something about this because it’s a moral issue, but also because it’s a health issue.

There are other health issues – all the people who don’t have health insurance. There is the poor mother, very often some of these people who are working class people who make very low wages and I have to tell you that the new minimum wage that is about to be implemented in the Congress is not a living wage. You try to live on that with a family. It’s a start, but it’s not a living wage. And there are these people who are in that category who have children and many are poor mothers who when she hears a sick child cry out in the night wonders whether the child is fifty dollars sick or a hundred dollars sick or where will she take that child to have that child treated. And if she takes the child to the emergency room in some of the communities around this nation, she will find that it looks like a third world nation if it’s not closed already in her neighborhood with people laying around, waiting for hours for somebody to wait on them which is a very real matter, which in part relates to how low the United States is on the index of child welfare throughout the world in a new study that just came out because of what we do and don’t do about the health of children and the health of other people in our society and adults too. We clearly need to do something about that policy and the next president, whoever that is, Congress needs to do something about this issue and it will not be easy.

There are other issues – jobs, outsourcing, and the impact of globalization -that have to be handled. They were political issues in the Congressional elections and a number of people who got elected in Ohio and other places, Pennsylvania and around, got elected on these issues. These are very difficult concerns to unravel and figure out what to do. Some years ago, I and other people encouraged young African-Americans to go to college and major in Computer Science. We kept telling them, don’t major in History. Don’t major in Literature, major in Computer Science and many of them did that and now the Computer Science jobs are going.

There is the institution of immigration reform, which is not easy. We talk about easy answers to things. You know there are voting rights. We keep having glitches. In the 2000 election, I went to Florida, took the commission and we investigated the Florida debacle in which lots of Black people and Latinos didn’t even get to vote. You are talking about chads and all the rest of it. These were people who had the right to vote and were registered to vote and nobody would let them vote. And found that out by subpoenaing people and getting records and asking the Justice Department to move on it and they never did. We got the Help America Vote Act passed, but clearly it hasn’t solved all the problems. We saw that in 2004. We are seeing it in bi-elections and with equipment and everything else and we still haven’t gotten that straight and Americans do not have a Constitutional right to vote. There is nothing in the Constitution that gives us the right to vote. It’s up to the states to figure out how to do that. We need a Constitutional right for people to vote.

Katrina and Rita. The disgrace of what happened and all of the promises that were made to people, it breaks your heart. I go to neighborhoods where people have gotten their houses gutted out and cleaned either by volunteers or their own efforts and are waiting to rebuild and have been told that they are going to get their money to do that and they haven’t gotten a dime. This is moral issue as well as a political issue and it’s going to take the money and time.

Now we have the issue of education, which is another head whim. Education. We have been talking about how crummy K through twelve education is for lots of students in this country for years and there is a thing about teachers in this country. First of all, we should know that, and you know this, it’s a university. If you don’t have good teachers, that is teachers who are interested and who know a lot and can teach, as opposed to knowing a lot and not able to teach or able to teach and don’t know anything. That’s the first thing you need to have. And that teachers need to have enough time and space to give attention to the students. That is if you have too many students. It’s one thing if you are in college and you just stand up and lecture and don’t care who’s in there anyway, but if you are going to interact with students, you can only have a certain number because there’s only so many people that you can interact with. And so you’ve got to have an optimal number and that you have to have an environment that’s safe and where it’s not raining in the room or it’s not too cold. These are just like fundamental things that anybody who had common sense would know, but that the failure is to provide those things. So we don’t do what we’re supposed to do.

Now we have No Child Left Behind, which a teacher I know calls ‘kiss my behind’, that’s what she calls it. Where it has phrases and the next administration is going to have to do something about this. Phrases, you know ‘every child can learn’. I love that. Every child can learn no matter what color or whatever. And it even categorizes children by race, ah, in this day and age, and you are supposed to report on what they know and what they don’t know and test all of that. Now I am as much in favor of testing as the next person. I test the students that I teach, but I see no sense to test people to prove that they don’t know what you didn’t teach them. I don’t get that. If I didn’t teach it to you, I already know you don’t know it so why do I need to test you to show that? So you have some problems with that and all of the accountability measures and the resources that go into it.

People say don’t need to throw money at the problem at the same time they are throwing money at whatever problem that they seem to have. And people who send their children to good private schools know why they send them there and the good private schools are very expensive I am here to tell you. I don’t mean little fly by night, jackleg private school on the corner. I mean St. Alban’s. These schools costs money and they cost money because it takes resources to do what they do and the main thing that students get there that their parents want for them is attention. Everybody needs attention. You need it and you grown. Kids love attention. They don’t like people to not know who they are, know what they did, or anything else whether it was good or bad and the parents pay for that. And the parents who go to Saint Alban’s and they can ask about Johnny and the teachers can tell them chapter and verse everything Johnny did from when he belched to how he went and what we ate and all the rest of it what he knows and what he does not know. So we don’t do any of that and yet we say we are going to improve the quality of education for everybody and even when the test scores come out and when they are compared with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they show that not much progress has been made on NCLB. We still get statements made by people about the great progress that has been made, which is what we do all the time. So until we get serious about teachers and we say we don’t need to pay teachers a lot because they shouldn’t be teaching just to get paid, they should be doing it because they like it. If we want good people to do any other kind job, we pay them money so I don’t understand what there is about teachers where you are not supposed to pay them any money, but anyway. We pay university presidents a whole lot of money and superintendents of schools and everything else.

The other thing is in higher education. This major problem on issues of race and diversity in higher education. We had in Michigan after winning the Michigan case people of Michigan passed this referendum, which outlaws affirmative action. Now the new governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick said something about their same-sex marriage amendment, which I think applies. He said that he was not in favor of a referendum to see if they overturned the same-sex marriage in Massachusetts because he didn’t believe that the rights of minorities should be overturned by majorities by voting. They should not be at risk from minorities’ rights by voting by majorities and I think that’s right. And in Michigan, that is exactly what happened. I mean if you had asked a majority of the White folk in Nashville, Tennessee where I come from, if we should get rid of Jim Crow, they would have said no. So if my rights had to be at risk based on whether they wanted to change, then I’d be in big trouble and that’s true of any minority.

The whole theory of our Constitution, which Mr. Jefferson understood, is the theory that minority rights and James Madison, from this state, as he stated in the Federalist and elsewhere, that minority rights should be protected. He wasn’t talking about colored people. Minority rights should be protected against majorities. Many people go to extremes and may suppress them and that’s what the Bill of Rights is about and that is what the judiciary system is supposed to do, but there is no way that we are going to increase the number of African-Americans and Latinos in higher education both on the faculty and in school unless we give attention to these issues and we have to look at the whole person, the whole student and try to figure out who can benefit from being in a place like this and have them come and train and educate them.

And also, as many higher education leaders understand and they are conflicted because they don’t know what to do, that given the demographic reality of what the population of this country looks like and is going to look like, if they don’t educate African-Americans and Latinos, they are going to be left out of the people who are the leaders in this nation the future because given the way the country is going, a majority of the leaders are going to come from people of color, it’s just that simple. And they won’t all be Asian Americans. They will be people – Latinos, African Americans and the like and something has to be done to educate people.

The other incongruity that is taking place is that most African-Americans who want to go to elite higher education are going to have to go to make sure they go to private universities and not public ones because private universities are the places that are closing down. Berkeley now has almost no African-American students. Stanford has lots and lots. The fewer Berkeley has, the more Stanford has. The fewer U.Va. has, the more we have at Penn and at the other Ivies so that it’s also going to be another incongruent situation, which is unstable and cannot last. It’s not stable, it cannot last. That you are going to have taxpayers paying to support public universities that they can’t attend and at some point, they are not going to do it. Why should you, if you are Latino families in California and nobody in your family can go to Berkeley, why should you pay taxes to support Berkeley when you have to pay taxes and send your child to a private university? You might as well just support the private university and let Berkeley fend for itself and that is one of the realities of it, that the private universities are going to take up the slack.

In the 19th century, before the Civil War, African-Americans who were called “free-negroes” had to pay taxes to support public schools in the cities in the North, but they couldn’t send their kids to them. They had to set up their own schools to send their children to. At the same time that they paid taxes to support the schools that the other people could send their children to. So what we are going to do is we are going backwards to this same situation and then the Supreme Court has a school desegregation case coming up. They’ve heard an argument on and our expectation is they will declare voluntary K-12 school desegregation unconstitutional on the Grounds as Ruther Bader Ginsberg often says is one of those incredible ironies that the Fourteen Amendment that was designed to have remedies for discrimination against African-Americans can’t be used for discrimination against African-Americans. If you try to use it then you are harming White people, therefore you can’t use it for discrimination against African-American remedies and even the people in Louisville and Seattle are being told they can’t even do it voluntarily if they want to desegregate and we expect that decision to come down from the Supreme Court.

We are becoming, in many ways, an entertainment industry and other things. We are becoming more integrated. In other ways, we are becoming less integrated than we used to be and then finally, the head whims, there’s the war. That war in Iraq and the same arguments that are given now to create a situation so that we can go to war with Iran. The war costs money. The war shows another kind of head whim, how we don’t get information or we don’t understand anything. We treat seriously such things as there are weapons of mass destruction. There were people who at the time knew the arguments didn’t make any sense. So what we have is a quagmire that we can’t get out of. I was a reporter as a student in Vietnam so I know quagmires when I see them and I know death and dying in war at first-hand when I see it. Quagmire is what we are in.

We are drawn into a war by lies, we are in it and then we’re told we can’t get out of it because things will be worse even though we did something to make them worse and now we have a refugee crisis for people who weren’t refugees before, but we created a crisis so they are refugees. Then we have to do something about the fact that they are refugees. So here we are caught and now thinking about starting another war and the money, the billions of dollars, which could have been spent on healthcare, which could have been spent on really funding No Child Left Behind. Which could have been put on taking care of the aftermath of Katrina and Rita. Which could have been spent for so many things, not being able to spend it and there we are with this war. With civil liberties being, people suffering oppression in ways that one would not have imagined before.

Now what do we do about all this? There’s always the ‘what do you do about it?’ and the political landscape of what you do about it obviously because you pick yourself a horse, a candidate and you ride it and you hope that that person can do something. For example, I think that if Bill Clinton had been president all during this period, or somebody like Bill Clinton, we wouldn’t have had all the problems around affirmative action because he managed with Mend it Don’t End It in ’96 and ’95 to save affirmative action after the decision by the Supreme Court because he exercised leadership. There are a lot of things about Bill Clinton I don’t like and he knows the ones that I don’t like because I’ve told him. He’s clear about that, but that I did like about his leadership on that issue. If we had leadership again we might be able to do something about it.

We have a bad Supreme Court. We have people seduced and taken in by the fact that during the confirmation hearings, these are nice guys. So why don’t we just put them on the Supreme Court? They are lawyers. They went to Harvard or someplace and they are nice guys and they are smart and oh look at his nice family. Look at the kids, you know let’s put him on the Supreme Court when this is serious business. So I say to you, behave politically, act politically – that is one thing you can try to do to try to elect somebody that will show leadership and don’t ever believe that voting isn’t important. I go places all the time where young people argue with me that voting doesn’t make a difference and they are going to do X,Y, and Z. They are going to go in business. I say, “What do you think regulates business?” “What do you think politics has to do with that and the environment in which you can get a loan or not get a loan?” Well they hadn’t thought about that so vote. Run for office. Support somebody. Do whatever’s necessary on that.

Also do something yourself voluntarily to try to make things better. I believe in that, but we also need a movement. Most of the great change that has taken place, any social change in this country or anywhere else has come as a result of a social movement if you think about it. It is the squeaky wheel that gets rolling, the social movement, and while it may be true that the moral arch of the universe ten stoic justice, sometimes I wonder if that’s right, the arch seems to move a little better if you have a movement and some juice behind it. We have not had a movement since the Civil Rights Movement that died in the mud of Resurrection City after the Poor People’s March. The only thing that comes close to it in the African-American community is all those young people who work on things like reparations and seem to be energized and moving and all the rest. So I think that we have to think about what we can to do voluntarily. What we can do politically. What we can do in our communities to work together to solve some of our internal problems without saying “Bill Cosby was wrong.” My colleague Michael Eric Dyson is wrong. He’s wrong, not Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby is right. We have internal problems in the Black community with kids killing kids, people killing people, and people doing all kinds of things. White people do too, but I am talking about Black people. And so we do need community action and programs through churches and organizations and the like to try to deal with these issues. Where he is wrong is to de-emphasize what we need to do in terms of policy in the society at large. And I say that young people will have to do this because every time change has occurred, somebody has gone through the fire and the question is who is going to go through the fire this time. Put differently, each generation must make it’s own dent in the wall of injustice. Everybody’s got to do it so our task is helping ourselves and each other so that we can spread the idea of liberty and justice for all and make it a reality in our community and our nation and in the world. Thank you very much.
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