Melissa Harris-Perry says different perceptions of history separate blacks and whites.

In the early 1960s, Robert Kennedy boldly predicted that in the not-too-distant future a black might be elected president of the United States. Such a prospect seemed far-fetched at the time, and even more so after the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders famously concluded in its landmark 1968 Kerner Report: “Our nation is moving toward two societies—one white, one black— separate and unequal.” Forty years later, Barack Obama’s candidacy has triggered a reassessment of race relations in America. Melissa Harris-Perry, a Princeton associate professor of politics and African-American studies and author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought spoke with journalist Tom Fields-Meyer about what unites—and continues to divide—blacks and whites.

Have things changed since the Kerner Report?

It’s always a bad idea to say, “Everything is just how it was in the past.” It is almost always wrong. But it is surprising how durable those two societies are. African Americans and whites continue to live very segregated lives. For the most part we don’t go to school together. We often don’t work together or live in the same neighborhoods. We don’t worship together. African Americans have very different life experiences in everything from infant mortality to income to the likelihood of getting a job. We are not in the same place as 40 years ago, but we might be in a more shockingly similar place than any of us would like to admit.

How does that affect the way individuals perceive the world around them?

One of the most durable findings in empirical public opinion research is that there is not just a gap between African Americans and whites. Perceptually, there is a chasm. Black and white Americans perceive everything differently—from whether King Kong is a fun family movie or fundamentally a lynching film, all the way to whether O.J. Simpson was guilty or innocent, up to whether what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was fundamentally about race. It’s more the rule than the exception that African Americans and whites see and experience the world across a vast difference in perceptions.

What’s an example?

Many white Americans thought it was insane that Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright had once asserted that HIV/AIDS was a government conspiracy to kill black people. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that part of the reason that this is a relatively broad conception among many African Americans is rooted in the historical experience with the medical system in America. It’s rooted in the Tuskegee Experiment, in the realities that we see black women dying of breast cancer and black men die of prostate cancer at much higher levels than whites. It’s not a crazy place; it’s a place of different historic memory and collective memory.

How do you view Obama’s call for a national conversation about race?

It’s not as though he’s the first person trying to encourage that conversation. Frederick Douglass was a key figure who said, “We, as a nation are going to have to open this wound and clean it if we are going to address it.” He made the call specifically around the question of slavery and freedom. It’s one thing to talk about slavery; it’s another to talk about race. I heard Obama’s call as a question of why we still have those feelings and policies and political choices around race when it seems like we shouldn’t be having them anymore.

Where do these ideas about race come from?

In the context of enslavement, the child took on the status of the mother. If she was free, the child was free. If she was enslaved, the child became enslaved. It became a one-drop rule: If you had a black ancestor anywhere, you ended up being black and also enslaveable. Homer Plessy, the litigant in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, was not black in any identifiable sense. When he boarded a train designated for whites only, he actually had to tell the train conductor that he was breaking the law. When the courts decided in Plessy “separate but equal,” they also decided that Plessy was black—reasserting the one-drop rule of American racial history.

Is that still the case?

In some ways Barack Obama’s campaign is a very liberating, post-racial campaign that is freeing up the fetters of separate but equal. But at the same time it’s reasserting in the 21st century the one-drop rule by establishing that Barack Obama— the child of a white mother and an African father—is considered black.

You have written that among African Americans, political talk is embedded in everyday talk. What do you mean?

Most of the times when we are talking about politics we are not talking about presidents and senators and elections. If you say, “Why are things here on the South Side of Chicago not the same way that they are downtown?” Whatever the answer is, is actually political, even if what it sounds like you are doing is just trying to understand your neighborhood. That conversation about power might turn up in the way that we talk about sports, in the way that we talk about personal, familial, sectional politics, or in the way we define problems.

What about the political discussions we see on cable news shows?

A sense of disfranchisement has created a kind of suspicion among black folks about whether or not the press constitutes a reasonable authority. You might actually see your barber, or your smart younger sister or your really fiery preacher, for example, as being more legitimate sources of political information. If you think about the distortions of black life experience—black criminal assertions around lynching, the coverage of race riots throughout the 20th century by the white press—there is a sense that often the press doesn’t tell us “the truth of what’s going on in the black community.”

Why does the church play such a central role as a political institution for blacks?

The church was the one space coming out of slavery that was acceptably autonomous. I mean, if you are black in America, even today, you almost always work for someone who is not black. But if you are a minister in a church, your income comes entirely from black people. So that autonomy makes it a particularly important place, because you are not holding to a broader power structure. You are only accountable to the African-American community. It does have the ability to fulfill this kind of prophetic mission of speaking against things that it may see as wrong, because basically it doesn’t have corporate sponsorship. It is financially autonomous in ways that make it politically powerful.

Is that why you recently enrolled as a student at Union Theological Seminary?

It’s about a question that’s new to me: How is it possible that African Americans who were enslaved—who were unlikely, either themselves or their children, to ever be free, who were living in a context that we almost can’t even imagine—how is it that they looked around and said, against all empirical evidence, “Actually, God loves me”? What lesson lies in that experience for the rest of us about the capacity to understand our relationship with the divine, within the context of suffering? I am not the first person to ask that question, but it’s the personal project in which I am engaging.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here