The American generation gap transcends race

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It was the whisper heard round the world. And even now, no one seems quite certain what that whisper means.

Here was the aging lion Jesse Jackson, sitting in a TV studio, waiting to appear on Fox, forgetting the cardinal rule of TV studios: Always assume the mic is on.

Dissing the young cub Barack Obama in a crude and anatomical way. Beyond the obvious admonition - "Shut up around microphones!" - there's such rich texture here.

It's the story of one generation reluctantly giving way to another - half-supportive, half-suspicious of how the new folks will honor the past. There's fear of irrelevance, fear of mortality, fear the new ones will arrive in the promised land and forget who helped to get them there. It's a classic generational narrative, not limited to African-Americans, but as deeply steeped in that tradition as anywhere.

There's a huge new study out commissioned by the media company Radio One that shines a fascinating light on the complex nuances of black America. The data add a "yes, but" to almost any presumption you might have.

Most blacks say they still struggle with discrimination. Seventy-two percent believe it's important to teach their children to deal with prejudice. But African-Americans aren't nearly as dejected by that as some racial theorists would proclaim.

Seventy percent have a plan for the future. Fifty-four percent are optimistic about what's coming next. Sixty percent believe "things are getting better for me." At a time of general blah in America, these numbers come as pleasant surprise.

Yet whatever you say about black Americans, there's almost always a caveat. Even a phrase like "the black community" doesn't mean any one thing. In fact, its members can't even agree on what they want to be called these days: 42 percent say "black," 44 percent say "African-American."

All of which is to say, at the moment of hope and apprehension, as a torch is passed uneasily from one generation to the next: Be suspicious of all the old stereotypes.

The mics are staying open. The answers will remain complex.

• Ellis Henican is a columnist for Newsday.

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