Saturday, July 11, 2009

On Moving Forward - Generational Shifts

I would suspect that most generational shifts are hard to recognize when you're in he middle of them. But based on some of my professional experience as well as watching electoral politics in this country, I think we're beginning to see some generational shifts in the African American community that are affecting all of us.

Certainly the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States gives the nation and the world an opportunity to see this new generation of African American leadership at work. As I've tried to watch and capture what that change indicates, I see that Obama has signaled many of the subtleties in speeches he made both on the campaign trail and since he's been in office. 

Perhaps the most dramatic was when he gave what we've now come to call the race speech. In it, Obama went wide and deep in laying out his view of the racial tensions that continue to exist in this country. But ultimately, there was a theme that developed about where we need to go. In the midst of acknowledging all of the very real conflicts that exist around racism, he talked about what we need to do to move forward.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. <...>

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American. <...>

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.<...>

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.


I heard many of these same themes in Obama's Cairo speech. Again, he laid out the particulars of why the various tensions exist both in the Middle East and with the rest of the world. But he calls on us all to find a way to work together and move forward.

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

This is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.

The message I hear is that we need to acknowledge the past and the tensions it has brought us. But we also need to find a way to move forward...together. If we're ever going to get beyond the stalemates of the past, it will be because we are able to recognize the stake we have in each other - regardless of our past grievances - and find a way to move forward in addressing our common interests. And this applies to our relationships with other countries as well as to those we have deemed to be "other" here in the U.S.

But I've also noticed that this kind of message is not just coming from Obama. Way back in August 2008, Matt Bai wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine titled Is Obama the End of Black Politics? In it, he examined the generational shifts happening in political leadership within the African American Community.

Black leaders who rose to political power in the years after the civil rights marches came almost entirely from the pulpit and the movement, and they have always defined leadership, in broad terms, as speaking for black Americans. They saw their job, principally, as confronting an inherently racist white establishment, which in terms of sheer career advancement was their only real option anyway.<...>

This newly emerging class of black politicians, however, men (and a few women) closer in age to Obama and Jesse Jr., seek a broader political brief. Comfortable inside the establishment, bred at universities rather than seminaries, they are just as likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it.


One of the emerging African American leaders that Bai profiled was Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He is a fascinating young man who was also interviewed by Bill Moyers back in March 2008. You can watch the video of this interview here (25 minutes). As I recently watched this interview again, I was struck by some of the same themes we've been hearing from Obama.

Well, I don't want us to be an America that is sanitized, homogenized, "deodorized" as a friend of mine says, and forgets about race. The richness of America is that we are diverse. We're not Sweden. We're not Norway. We are a great American experiment. And as soon as we start trying to forget race or turn our back on race, number one, we don't confront the real racial realities that still persist. But, number two, is we miss the great delicious opportunities that exist in America and no where else.

So, I don't want to be a race transcending leader. I want to be deeply understood as a man, as African- American, as a Christian, all that I am. But, ultimately it's a portal to punch through to a deeper and more textured, more nuanced understanding of the beauty and the brilliance of America. So, that involves a difficult conversation -- not a sound bite.<...>

What I'm trying to say is that you can get so caught up in looking for blame. Who's to blame? Is society to blame? Is it white folks to blame? Is it the prisoner himself to blame? But at some point in America, we're going have to get beyond blame and start accepting responsibility.<...>

But, I'm already getting fatigued with the conversation, and feeling that there's a dearth of action. That it may be in vogue right now because of this presidential election to talk about race, to study and to flip it over. But at the end of the day, is it gonna motivate action? We had the courage to deplore the reality in which we live, but will we show the equal courage to do something about it? Not wait. Not point a finger. Not sit and have debates about a divided America. But, to get into the trenches, to roll up your sleeves, to do the hard, difficult work it takes to manifest the greatness of this nation.


Yep...that's what resonated with me...roll up your sleeves and do the hard, difficult work. Its exactly what I'm hearing from the emerging African American leaders in my community. They too are tired of talking about things and arguing over who is to blame for the problems that exist. They just want to get busy working together to fix it. And any partners that are ready to do that are the ones they're looking for.

I think I'll leave it to others to compare and contrast this attitude to previous generations. But as a boomer myself, I think it behooves us to take a look at this and begin to understand what it is these young leaders are saying and where its coming from.

What I hear most of the time is an honoring of what previous generations have accomplished, but also an awareness that the job is not done and that different approaches are necessary for them to take on the tasks that are in front of them today. And while I don't think that we should just abandon all we learned about the struggle and abdicate our role in it today, we need to hear what these young voices are saying and take it to heart.

To close, here's a beautiful piece that was written by a leader from the Civil Rights era reflecting on his experience of Obama's inauguration. I think it captures his recognition of the passing of the torch beautifully. From the Rev. Gordon Stewart, who marched with King in Chicago and experienced race riots in Illinois and Wisconsin:

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy... and hope... that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.