(The Root) — They could have been lining up final putts at Mink Meadows Golf Course or stuffing clams for a "5-7" with friends. Instead, the several hundred vacationers swarmed into the Old Whaling Church on Martha's Vineyard Thursday evening, clutching some of the most coveted tickets of the island's summer season. For those with hearty appetites for conversations on race and politics, there was no place they would rather have been than on the hard wooden pews of the 2013 Hutchins Forum, hosted by Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. They came to be energized by leading lights in journalism, politics and academia. They were not disappointed.
"One Nation: Diverse & Divided" was the theme of this year's "Skip Gates Forum," as islanders may forever dub the event, in 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. (Hey, she's on vacation, too.) 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 a base, 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.
Never mind bridging the divisions in this great, big nation. How could we have bridged the divisions on this little stage?
The Blow-Chavez dialogue, for one, 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, barely eclipsing a wave of grumbles from audience members sporting designer polo shirts and fresh mani-pedis. Hunter-Gault hushed them up.
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: "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.