The Black Generation Gap

Are young African Americans naive about racism or more confident than their elders? In an excerpt from his latest book, The End of Anger, best-selling author Ellis Cose examines attitudes across generations.

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Ellis Cose (Steve Kramer)

During a long conversation, I asked psychologist and Columbia University Provost Claude Steele whether the perceptions of young, ambitious blacks had fundamentally changed since the early 1990s, when I wrote The Rage of a Privileged Class. The well-credentialed African-American achievers I interviewed for Rage were often fuming. They feared they would never be permitted to breach America's glass ceiling, no matter how talented they were or how hard they worked. Young blacks now, I suggested, were less likely to feel that way.

Steele was not sure but said, in essence, that different generations quite naturally experienced the world in different ways: "You are formed in an era, and it gives you the lenses through which you see things."

I was not making idle conversation. Months of sifting through data had convinced me that today's African-American achievers are significantly more hopeful than their parents. They are more likely to believe the American promise, and less likely to see barriers blocking their way.

As part of my research for The End of Anger, I designed and administered two surveys. One was of African-American alumni of Harvard Business School, and the other of alumni of A Better Chance -- a program that sends talented people of color to some of the most selective secondary schools in the country.

As I studied the 500-plus questionnaires that people filled out at my request and reviewed the transcripts of the more than 200 interviews, I saw generational trends too strong to ignore. So I ended up dividing my respondents into generational cohorts. I designated blacks Gen 1 Fighters, Gen 2 Dreamers and Gen 3 Believers. I labeled their white counterparts Gen 1 Hostiles, Gen 2 Neutrals and Gen 3 Allies.

Generation 1, in my taxonomy, is the civil rights generation -- the generation of those who participated in or simply bore witness to the defining 20th-century battle for racial equality. It is the generation (born in 1944 or before) that forced modern-day America to acknowledge that blacks are real human beings.

They ushered in a new age, fighting not only on the civil rights battlefield but also in law firms, corporations and segregated communities. But in breaking through the walls that Jim Crow had built, they got scars, deep and painful, which left many of them unwilling to fully trust in the kindness and goodwill of whites.

Gen 2s (born between 1945 and 1969) did not, generally speaking, play a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. But they were, without question, the children of "the Dream." They took Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to heart and pushed America to make them come true. Gen 2 "Dreamers" were the first and second waves of African Americans to pour into universities, corporations and other institutions that previously excluded them. And many ran into a wall of prejudice once they arrived.

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Gen 3s (born between 1970 and 1995) came of age in an era when Jim Crow was ancient history and explicit expressions of racism were universally condemned. Many of the more privileged were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and, from the beginning, attended predominantly white schools.

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