The first black president of the United States and his family hunkered down at one end of a small island, and some of the best and brightest African Americans gathered at the other end: so close, but yet so far away. Maybe it reflects the breadth and range — and the limitations — of what it means to be black in America.
On Thursday night last week, several hundred casually — and often elegantly — dressed African Americans (with a generous mix of people of other races) crowded into the 170-year-old Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard for a serious discussion. The event was the latest incarnation of an event that has become a summer feature on the resort island seven miles off Massachusetts' Cape Cod.
On the far side of the 67,700-acre island, President Barack Obama and his family vacationed, with one outing for books drawing an enthusiastic crowd of supporters (after all, this is Massachusetts) that applauded when the heavily guarded president and his daughters came out of the Bunch of Grapes bookstore, waving and smiling. In his current mode of shunning the issue of race, the president would have been unlikely to join the discussion taking place less than 10 miles away.
For each of the past few years, Harvard professor (and The Root's editor-in-chief) Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research have enticed a cross-section of scholars, journalists and pundits to take time out from their busy schedules or their coincidental vacations on the island to talk about a big issue. This week it was about the phenomenon of the growing incarceration of black men.
The panel included Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at the Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow, who noted that while crime rates have not increased substantially in the last 30 years, incarceration has grown 500 percent, with the brunt of the increase falling on black men, who now make up half of the 2 million men in U.S. prisons. "The mass incarceration of poor people of color has operated to create a caste-like system in which millions of people are locked into a permanent second-class status for life, highly reminiscent of what we supposedly left behind," said Alexander.
She cited statistics that in 2004, the number of African Americans involved with the correctional system (in prison, probation or parole) was greater than the number of black slaves in 1850. Alexander argues that the tougher laws that created this phenomenon were a backlash against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Her book was excerpted by The Root earlier this year.
Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, cited the way police in New York City, who have stopped millions of blacks and Hispanics under a stop-and-frisk law, will urge young men to take marijuana cigarettes out of their pockets before they are searched to avoid tougher penalties. In fact, taking the joint out turns what would have been a noncriminal violation worthy of a ticket into a misdemeanor arrest and a police record. Blow says the price of processing 40,000 such arrests in New York each year is paid for by a federal program that the Obama administration continues to support.
A day earlier, Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree and his Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice hosted their own forum on the island, entitled "Race, Religion, and Reason," at the local high school. The local papers report a lively debate about the danger of young African Americans in prison as ripe for recruiting by al-Qaida, a peril proposed by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Asuza Christian Community. Others, including Princeton University's Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Prof. James Jones of Manhattanville College, a practicing Muslim, debunked the idea. "Al-Qaida is more likely to recruit on college campuses than prisons," Jones was quoted as saying in the Vineyard Gazette. "Most of them [in prison] don't even know where Saudi Arabia is."
Harris-Lacewell says the demonizing of Muslims is the result of a lack of ideas and policies from the Republican right. President Obama, she said, is the victim of an attempt to cast him as anti-American. "And at this moment, the easiest way to say 'anti-American' is not to say 'black' but to say 'Muslim,' " the newspaper reported Harris-Lacewell as saying.
The president may have been grateful for such support, but he was not saying anything. He has kept his distance from racial issues and from gatherings of African Americans this year, despite their unwavering support. It is part of the calculation, in his camp, apparently, that to be president of all the people, you can't be too close to some of them. He has enough problems convincing a significant segment of white Americans that he is an American, not Muslim and not anti-American.
The setting for such serious discussions is somewhat incongruous. Martha's Vineyard has been a playland for the well-to-do from Massachusetts and much of the Northeast for several generations. But unlike other resorts like New York's Hamptons, it is far more integrated. Black middle-class families enjoying the beaches, shops and restaurants are fairly commonplace. The town of Oak Bluffs has long been a haven for African Americans, and some black families own elegant homes in prime locations that have been in their families for generations.
So as the weekend ended in rain, African Americans returned to the serious business of vacationing, and the president and his family continued their own low-profile vacation. There is plenty of time to return to continuous controversy over his religion, his avoidance of race and the issues that confront African Americans, rich and poor, in the fall election season ahead.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.