The Black Generation Gap

Published on The Root

By: Ellis Cose

Posted: June 1, 2011 at 12:46 AM

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.

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.

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.

Competing with other racial groups is nothing new to them. Their identifying characteristic is their fervent — if not totally universal — belief that they personally can overcome whatever obstacles prejudice might set in their way. They don’t believe that America is color-blind, race-neutral or “postracial.” They do believe, however, that the old racial limits no longer apply and that the old racial boxes cannot contain them. And some of them are a bit fed up with the attitudes and advice of their elders.

“My personal take [is that many members] of the civil rights generation have two models for corporate business success,” said “Simone,” a 30-year-old Harvard MBA. They either advocate “complete assimilation” or adopt an “I’m successful but I’m still down” persona.  “Neither model works very well for those of us who don’t have the … history of dealing with hard-core institutionalized and blatant racism.”

Simone is weary of complaints about a glass ceiling. “It just conjures up images of being shackled and held back. How can we excel if we perceive ourselves as trapped? I’m beginning to wonder if we are the caged birds who don’t realize the cage door is open.”

“My impression is that for older generations of black people, especially in the corporate world, there was a sense of ‘I am an island,’ ” said “Amara,” a 28-year-old MBA. She sees no such sense of social isolation today. “For people of my generation, the biggest challenge is to adapt yourself to ‘the norm’ … If you’re willing to completely assimilate … people will overlook that you’re from a minority.”

Their elders tend to disagree. When I asked “Sara,” a 52-year-old utility executive, whether she thought the Gen 3s were naive, she replied, “Extremely! I have two myself. And I talk incessantly about my family history and remind them of how contacts and networks have helped position them … in their very short lives. However, they look at me as if I am speaking Greek. Their responses sometimes make me believe they think I am an angry black woman.”

“Charles,” a 60-something business consultant, observed, “People don’t realize they’re anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-woman. But it plays out in terms of evaluations, in terms of who you recruit, in terms of who you mentor, in terms of who gets the best assignments. And it’s very, very subtle. And I think the younger blacks don’t understand it.”

Those sharply different takes were evident when I compared Gen 1s and Gen 3s in my Harvard-MBAs survey. On many questions looking at racial discrimination, they were worlds apart.

When asked how much discrimination blacks face, 75 percent of Gen 1s said “a lot,” compared with 49 percent of the Gen 3s. When asked, “Do you believe your educational attainments put you on an equal professional footing … with white peers or competitors with comparable educational credentials?” 25 percent of Gen 1s said yes, compared with 62 percent of Gen 3s. When asked whether there is a glass ceiling at their current workplace, 93 percent of Gen 1s said yes, compared with 46 percent of Gen 3s.

“When competing professionally against white peers with comparable educational credentials, do you believe your race is a disadvantage?” Sixty-three percent of Gen 1s said yes, compared with 42 percent of Gen 3s. “Would you be as successful if you did not have a Harvard MBA?” Ninety-four percent of Gen 1s said no, compared with 67 percent of Gen 3s.

All of the Gen 1s said that they had been discriminated against in the workplace, and 60 percent thought that discrimination had had a significant impact on their careers. For Gen 3s, the numbers were 68 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

In the days since the great civil rights awakening, a revolution has occurred in the United States. Those uptight suburbanites who couldn’t imagine socializing with, working for or marrying a “Negro,” who thought that blacks existed in an altogether different dimension, have slowly given way to a new generation that embraces — at least consciously — the concept of equality. And that process has cleared the way for a generation of black Believers: people who fully accept that America means what it says when it promises to treat them — more or less — fairly.

Those Gen 3s may prove to be every bit as naive as many Gen 2s believe them to be. But it is also possible that they will prove their elders wrong. For their era, as Steele suggests, is not the era of their parents. Older blacks were significantly more likely than their children to come up against the likes of “Sam,” a white Gen 1 Hostile.

A retired biotech investor of 76 with a Harvard MBA, Sam never hired an African American. Blacks, he confided to one of my researchers, didn’t have “qualifications.” Sam felt that he had overcome the prejudice of his childhood because he had managed to have cordial relationships with “Nigger Gene,” a clownish employee of his uncle, and with the family’s black cleaning lady.

The whites that Gen 3 Believers are most likely to face are cut from an altogether different cloth. Many don’t believe race is a big deal. And they are more likely to encourage black ambition than to smother it.

A few years back, it was simply not possible for a sane black person to believe that he or she could ever become CEO of a big, white-controlled corporation, or for any people of color to believe that they could become president of the United States. There was no danger of being self-limited by a presumption of discrimination, since the reality of discrimination was a certainty.

Today you may do your career more harm by assuming a glass ceiling will stop you than by believing that you can crash through. So many young black achievers are saying, in effect, “I’m going to take my shot.”

Adapted from The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage by Ellis Cose. Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2011 by Ellis Cose.

For another take on the issue, see Cose’s Q&A with Uptown magazine online.


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