Monday, January 19, 2009

Of Obama's race and generation

What an extraordinary moment of change and hope. One of the critical comments that astutely conveys the scope of the change taking place with Barack Obama's ascendance to the White House involves the change it represents to the Black political landscape in the US. Different characterizations of a shift away from the "civil rights establishment" capture a crucial generational shift in Black America and, even, more the country's racial landscape. Patricia Williams, the insightful Columbia University law professor, sees this as an evolutionary step. Moving beyond the Civil Rights model of politics practiced by Al Sharpton, Charlie Rangel, Bobby Rush, and, more notably for his off-handed, derisive remarks during the Presidential campaign, Jesse Jackson, she sees a new Affirmative Action model of politics being ushered in by Obama.

Aptness of labels aside, this seems accurately to summarize some of the momentous shift underway. Yet at the same time as the justified parsing of the racial implications of Obama's inauguration continues, we can't neglect the broader generational consequences of the change for those of all races. I say this, full disclosure, as a white man. But underlying the spirit of hope and change is precisely a shift to a new generation that may or may not be post-racial but is genuinely a break from "greatest" and baby-boomer generations that have long held sway in politics and public life. This is not to dwell on Dubya as a baby boomer who created a mess that needs cleaning up (though clearly that's some of what's in play now). It is, instead, to speak to the need of the country to move beyond the cultural and political imagination of the baby boomers. That generation has achieved so much, not least their remaking of the possibilities for continuing engagement as they grow older in the political and institutional life of the country and, indeed, the world.

In other words, even as extended commentary is dedicated to hope for the future framed in racial terms, very little attention is being given to the larger generational shift taking place. With individuals living longer and the baby boomers having re-cast our thinking about the meaning and potential of growing older and remaining active in public and professional life, we haven't faced a greatly altered generational landscape -- until, possibly, now. How will different generations with often competing and even contradictory visions of society and their roles in it co-exist? What will this mean for the leadership and conduct of our political institutions? Our cultural and educational organizations? Our lives as businesspersons, producers, and consumers? And yes, the place of race in our lives? Generational change, and give-and-take, are obviously constants as history progresses. We're nevertheless asked at certain moments more than others to take stock of that change and actively consider our values.

My assumption is not that a national conversation would advantage or disadvantage any generation. The agenda would not be to justify the exit of one group or defer the entry to power of another. (Indeed, any conversation would quickly move beyond the simplistic categorizing I’m using here to affirm the complexity of age and groupings constructed around it in society.) The point, rather, would be to acknowledge that in a country where laws and policies are so crucial to the provision of rights, resources, and opportunities, we occasionally need to address, together and deliberately, the values and principles that enable us to craft appropriate and consistent laws and policies. This seems such a moment for that honest discussion of our multi-generational future.

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