Gates Forum: ‘1 Nation, Diverse & Divided’

At this year's forum, a distinguished panel discussed what's causing so much tension in modern America.

Lawrence Bobo (Harvard.edu); Linda Chavez (Wikipedia); Charles M. Blow (New York Times)

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: “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.” She cited the civil disobedience group of asylum seekers known as the Nine Dreamers. Few in the audience had heard of them before. In fact, by Hinojosa’s call for a show of hands, only six Latinos were present.  

Chavez: “I’m an integrationist. When people live, work and go to school together, prejudices disappear.”

On at least one issue, the two women had earlier found some backstage kumbayah, agreeing that immigration reforms have fallen short of the mark.

Hinojosa: “Under President Obama, more people have been deported from this country than ever before in history. I don’t know that he’s truly sensitive to these issues.” 

Chavez: “George W. Bush was more simpatico.” She added: “I don’t pronounce that word as well as Maria does; I didn’t grow up in Mexico.” 

Once the old heads ended their conversation as divided as they started, 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 free lance writer, public radio essayist and real estate broker living in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.

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