Meet the New Optimists

By Cose, Ellis | Newsweek, May 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

Meet the New Optimists


Cose, Ellis, Newsweek


Despite all the problems facing the U.S. these days, one group is surprisingly upbeat: African-Americans.

As the United States struggles through its worst economic crisis in generations, gloom has seized much of the heartland. The optimism that came so easily to many Americans as the new century dawned is significantly harder to summon these days. There is, however, a conspicuous exception: African-Americans, long accustomed to frustration in their pursuit of opportunity and respect, are amazingly upbeat, consistently astounding pollsters with their hopefulness. Earlier this year, when a Washington Post-Kaiser--Harvard poll asked respondents whether they expected their children's standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of blacks chose "better," compared with only 36 percent of whites.

Numerous previous polls found the same cheerful confidence. On the eve of President Barack Obama's inauguration, 69 percent of black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King's vision had been "fulfilled." Nearly two years later, as America prepared for the 2010 midterm elections, blacks shared little of the disenchantment that had overtaken many whites. African-Americans were more likely than whites to say that the economy was sound, found CBS News. And nearly half (compared with 16 percent of whites) thought America's next generation would be better off.

Over the past few years, pollsters repeatedly have corroborated the phenomenon. Whereas whites are glum, blacks are upbeat--which is remarkable since the economic crisis has hit African-Americans with particularly brutal force. Employment among black men, for instance, has dropped to an all-time low. When I asked Harvard Business School professor David Thomas about the CNN poll, he laughed. "It's irrational exuberance," he said.

Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building--most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents. Obama's election was, in effect, the final revelation--the long-awaited sign that a new American age had arrived. "It blows away the nationalist argument that the system is white and racist and won't ever change," scholar Manning Marable told me shortly before his death.

In 1993, I published a book, The Rage of a Privileged Class, whose central thesis was that even the most gifted African-Americans assumed that they would never crash through America's glass ceiling--no matter how talented, well educated, or hardworking they were. Few people of any race would claim that true equality has arrived; but so much has changed since Rage came out. Color is becoming less and less a burden; race is less and less an immovable barrier--as evidenced by the small but growing cadre of African--Americans who have risen to the very pinnacle of the worlds of politics and business.

My new research explores how that phenomenon is changing the way people of all races view the American landscape. I polled two groups of especially accomplished people of color. One is the African-American alumni of Harvard Business School. The other is the alumni of A Better Chance, a program, founded in 1963, that sends ambitious, talented youngsters to some of the nation's best secondary schools.

I did not set out to document generations. But as I studied the 500-plus questionnaires that people filled out and reviewed the transcripts of the more than 200 interviews I oversaw or conducted, generational themes emerged that were too strong to ignore. Generations, I concluded, mattered deeply--with their defining characteristics rooted in America's evolving racial dynamics. So I came up with both names and defining attributes for various generational cohorts.

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