Over the past several days a strange characterization of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has emerged. Many are portraying him as a radical who easily and inappropriately appeals to race as an excuse and explanation. This image of Gates is inaccurate. In fact, more than any other black intellectual in the country Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was an apolitical figure. This is neither a criticism nor an accolade, simply an observation.
Gates is the director of the nation’s preeminent institute for African American studies, but he is no race warrior seeking to right the racial injustices of the world. He is more a collector of black talent, intellect, art, and achievement. In this sense Gates embodies a kind of post-racialism: he celebrates and studies blackness, but does not attach a specific political agenda to race. For those who yearn for a post-racial America where all groups are equal recognized for their achievements, but where all people are free to be distinct individuals, there are few better models than Professor Gates.
Gates is largely responsible for the institutional investment in African American studies made by premier universities over the past two decades. Student activists and faculty advocates led the massive black studies movement of the 1960s; a movement that created substantial changes in course offerings, faculty recruitment, administrative structures, and student retention at many state universities. But the country’s most privileged institutions remained largely untouched by this populist era of race and ethnic studies.
Rather than relying on techniques that mimicked the Civil Rights Movement, Gates helped innovate and perfected a market strategy for African American studies.
Gates used the inherent competitiveness of Ivy League institutions to create a hyper-elite niche for the very best black academics. His strategy improved the market value of black intellectuals throughout the academy and the public sphere. At one point Gates assembled a "dream team" at Harvard that included professors Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah, Michael Dawson, Lawrence Bobo, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Lani Guinier and William Julius Wilson.
For a fleeting moment Gates was the curator of the world’s best living museum of black intellectual life. His Harvard cohort sent other prestigious schools into a competitive scramble to assemble their own collection, initiating a gilded age of black academia.