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Generations: Do the Right Thing

This is my third installment of a series examining how the election of 2008 might be changed by as much as 45% of the electorate belonging to the Gen-X or Millenial Generations. You can find the previous entries here:

Generations: Institutionalized

Because of the color of Barack Obama’s skin, race will play a role in this election that will be more intense than any previous one. However, the voters who will decide the election will invariably perceive the media frenzy in very different ways. This will happen because race itself is only as important as people think it is. Our perception of race is a strong function of the world that we grew up in.

Segregation and overt racism was natural in the world that Traditionals (born before 1945) and Baby Boomers grew up in. The struggle for Civil Rights and equality marked the generations that fought bitterly to create a new world. We know that they succeeded, in large part, and those of us born after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 grew up in a different world with different values. But the poison of those struggles still runs in the blood of those who had to fight them all the same. Their fight was too hard, too nasty, and too personal. Geraldine Ferraro, from the Traditional generation, exemplified the white side of this fight with her rant on the topic.

Obama himself addressed this issue in his speech explaining his position on his Pastor, Rev. Wright. It’s clear that while Obama tries to be respectful of the anger and hurt brought on by years of struggle, he does not identify with it himself. Those of us whose formative years came their victory inherited little of that poison; frankly, we don’t need it. That battle is over and won, and while we can understand how much it took from the souls of those who fought it we honor them best by living their dreams.

You can see and hear his remarks here:

The generational divide defines this issue even more than any racial divide for many reasons. When I went to Kindergarten in 1970, I didn’t realize that I was part of a big experiment. The Dade County schools had just come under a court-ordered desegregation rule, and the district was scrambling to comply. No longer were blacks confined to live in Richmond Heights and Frank C. Martin Elementary – we could all live anywhere and would all attend the same schools.

In this world, we kids gradually grew up enough to understand the frustration of our parents. We spent a lot of time on buses, going off to neighborhoods that were considered hostile. While it remains unclear how much we learned about each other in this whole process, one thing is certain: we white kids at least knew who black people were. They were like us in some ways, different in others, but you could never be sure who someone was until you talked to them. We became used to blacks in positions of authority as teachers and principals. Gradually, even our neighborhoods became integrated and we found ourselves being told how to behave by the parents of our black friends.

Anyone who grew up in this time forward does not have the same view of the importance of race that previous generations had. Cultures are cultures, but people are people. Someone different from you might have a different outlook on life, but who the Hell cares if they are your friends? We simply learned to not expect everyone to be just like us. That was good enough.

It’s not just our institutions and neighborhoods that were radically changed from previous generations, however. Popular culture went through a major upheaval around 1989, part of which I wrote about previously:


Three significant movies about race came out that year, “Do the Right Thing”, “Glory”, and “Driving Miss Daisy”. The first one was probably the most important because it introduced Run DMC to a white audience. While black music has crossed over to white audiences before, it’s important to see how Rap had a fundamentally different experience. It took white Benny Goodman to bring Jazz to Carnegie Hall in 1938, and it took white Elvis to bring Rock ‘n’ Roll to the white mainstream. But while Vanilla Ice made an abortive attempt in 1990 to run the same exploitation game (to my delight, inflating his street cred by saying he was from Miami when he wasn’t) he was shot down. Rap, the inherently black art form, became a part of the popular culture around 1990 completely on its own terms. It’s worth noting that people born in that year are now eligible to vote for the first time.

Beyond Rap, however, the image of blacks advanced dramatically everywhere. Will Smith was the archetypal cool guy of our generation, earning his cred in 1997’s “Men in Black”. The pairing with Tommy Lee Jones in what was a standard buddy flick transcended race in odd and twisted ways. By 1998, Morgan Freeman put his chauffeur’s cap down to play the President in “Deep Impact”, showing us that moving to the back seat can sometimes be progress. And in 1999, Lawrence Fishburne gave us Morphius, the ultimate authority of all things in “The Matrix”. Blacks weren’t confined to black roles, but to roles that allowed them to be cool and in command across the confines of race.

What does race mean to people who grew up with schools, neighborhoods, movie theatres, and concerts that were desegregated? Not anywhere near as much as it means to the people that fought to change those worlds in the first place.

The old guard of the press and party leaders will continue to throw racial questions and charges around in ways that seem deathly important to them. That’s the world that they understand. What has escaped many of them entirely is that this won’t mean anywhere near as much to 45% of the electorate this year. Our American is, and always has been, a different place. Not perfect, as Obama said, but perfectable. Progress is at least possible.

Real social change often takes generations. Through the generations, we can see that change has indeed happened. Gradually, slowly, we got to where we are today. Where that is may surprise many people this November, but it shouldn’t. This new generation simply sees things differently because our parents, through all their struggle and pain, taught us well. All that remains to be seen is how much of the lesson we have taken and made our own.

Other blog entries on the topic:

6 thoughts on “Generations: Do the Right Thing

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