today in black history

May 27, 2024

Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, founded by the Quakers, established in 1837, is the oldest historically Black college.

Politics of Old Must End for Change to Begin

POSTED: August 29, 2008, 12:00 am

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Now that the Democratic Party primary elections are over, the real work to create and realize a Barack Obama presidency begins. Many people think that race will be a major issue over the course of the campaign. I am not naïve but I think it will play far less a role than the issue of generational change. I believe that is the real change that is at hand in America. In fact, the world is changing; it is getting younger, smarter and more interconnected. Globalization is not just economic. It is social and cultural as well.

The message of the Obama presidential nomination is a message essentially from younger people that the old paradigms are crumbling. Race driven behavior must ultimately give way to thought driven behavior. But the transition won’t be easy. Many of us have grown a wee bit too comfortable in our racial silos and believe the cocoon-like comfort they provide offers our best opportunity to survive and thrive. This widespread belief makes itself manifest in our daily cultural, social and political processes.

An Obama presidency threatens many old norms about race that are predominantly held by the generation preceding him. “Old people with old ideas” are sometimes reluctant to make the arrival of a new generation of leadership anything but a painful breach birth. This generational rift highlights a worrisome contradiction in the African American political community. On the one hand we are uniquely proud of what Senator Obama has accomplished and readily take ownership of his nomination. On the other hand we are fiercely resisting the emergence of young Black and Latino leaders in our midst. This kind of duplicity will always play itself out as increased powerlessness.

Just a week ago in my home state of New Jersey, there was a struggle over who would be chairman of the Essex County Democratic Party; one of the most powerful Democratic county organizations in the country. The choices were clearly generational. Though feigning otherwise, most in the older generation were unwilling to consider hoisting the younger aspirants to leadership. Among us older African Americans considering a “change” in leadership, there was a clear, though unspoken, lack of confidence in the young folks, even though they were smart, experienced, well trained and well connected. The old folks supported themselves and each other. And despite much fiery rhetoric about systemic and institutional change, in the end the entire hubbub turned out to be about one job for one person. Our community is in the grips of an intellectually dishonest, ruthless, and selfish group of politicians. Their behavior is incestuous.

It appears that we will be required to abide this abnormal behavior for a time yet, but the days of feeding on the futures of our young are nearing an end. It is sheer hypocrisy to be an ardent advocate for Barack Obama on the national scene and virulently against nearly all of his generation in our local communities. It raises too many questions that beg for unavailable rational answers.

So here it is. More so than not, young white people are making the Obama phenomenon possible. They have decided to boldly step around stereotypes and embrace Barack. And they did so quicker and in larger numbers than did Blacks. And they continue to do so unabashedly and with great enthusiasm at the same moment that we are gobbling up the aspirations of our young. No one can deny the large critical support base that Black Americans provide Obama, but it was, at first, gingerly offered and late coming as though awaiting permission or fearing retribution—but better late than never. Again, it was the older Black generation that expressed the most reluctance and showed the least confidence in this young Black man. And while this truth might not be well received, were it not for the press of young white supporters, there would be no Democratic nominee named Barack Obama. Remember Iowa?

As President, Obama could reach around the world to hammer out a reality that measure up to the change of his vision. It will require tough decisions. In Obama's words, “the work of change will be hard.” And we are doing little to prepare our youth to be partners in that work. They won’t get to the table just because they are Black. They will need the experience and track records that only we might care to give them. And we should not complain if they are passed over when we ourselves pass them over each and every day. Obama is on the fast track. He is being propelled by a lot of well meaning Americans, a critical mass of which are young agents of change. Like it or not it is a generation coming of age. There is a generation bursting out of white America looking to “remake the world.” If political leadership in Black communities holds onto the reigns of opportunity too tightly for too long we will surely choke off opportunities for our youth.

In my city - Newark - we cannot remember a generational transfer of power in the African American community that did not leave a literal pool of political blood on the floor. The power concedes nothing without demand” school of thought is taken to extremes with us. We routinely ostracize our youth or condemn them to political death. We have seen two African American mayors come and go without creating a single self-sustaining institution upon which their political progeny could build. Rather, the model that we’ve seen replicated is one of “familial entitlement.” It has not served us well.

The generational struggle in Black and white communities will, no doubt, surge to the fore in the Obama presidential campaign this fall. If we are not adequately prepared to fend off its worst consequences, unanticipated possibilities that have emerged might never be realized. The challenge immediately before us is to open up and embrace a new “politics of inclusion,” beginning in our own community.

Young white people are working hard to throw off their fear and plunge into the future and define change with their behavior. And increasingly they have the support of their elders. What are we waiting for? Let’s stop holding our youth back. It’s time to push them into the pool.

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