Meet the New Optimists

Students graduating from Hampton University in 2010. Jason Reed / Reuters-Landov

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.

Generation 1, in this taxonomy, is the civil-rights generation—those (born before 1945) who participated in, or simply bore witness to, the defining 20th-century battle for racial equality. It is the generation of whites who, in large measure, saw blacks as alien beings and the generation of blacks who, for the most part, saw whites as irremediably prejudiced. Gen 2s (born between 1945 and 1969) were much less racially constrained—though they remained, in large measure, stuck in a tangle of racial stereotypes. Gen 3s (born between 1970 and 1995) saw race as less of a big deal. And that ability to see a person beyond color has cleared the way for a generation of Believers—blacks who fully accept that America means what it says when it promises to give them a shot. That new reality made itself clear when I compared black Gen 1 Harvard M.B.A.s with their Gen 3 counterparts.

Seventy-five percent of Gen 1s said blacks faced "a lot" of discrimination, compared with 49 percent of Gen 3s. Twenty-five percent of Gen 1s thought their educational attainments put them "on an equal professional footing with white peers or competitors with comparable educational credentials," compared with 62 percent of Gen 3s. Ninety-three percent of Gen 1s saw a glass ceiling at their current workplaces, compared with 46 percent of Gen 3s.

"When competing professionally against white peers with comparable educational credentials, do you believe your race is a disadvantage?" Sixty-three percent of Gen 1s said yes, compared with 42 percent of Gen 3s. "Would you be as successful if you did not have a Harvard M.B.A.?" Ninety-four percent of Gen 1s said no, compared with 67 percent of Gen 3s. All Gen 1s surveyed said that they had been discriminated against in the workplace, and 60 percent thought that discrimination had had a significant impact on their careers. For Gen 3s, the numbers were 68 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

I am not about to make a statistical argument based on these numbers, but the message nonetheless seems clear. In the time since the Gen 1s came on the scene, a revolution has occurred. Those uptight suburbanites who couldn't imagine socializing with, working for, or marrying a "Negro," who thought blacks existed in an altogether different dimension, who could no more see dining with a black person than dining with a giraffe, have slowly given way to a new generation that embraces—at least consciously—the concept of equality. Americans have, in some substantial way, re-created each other—to an extent that our predecessors might find astounding. And blacks, in particular, are acutely aware of this—even as we all struggle to come to terms with lingering issues of inequality that, in some respects, are even more complicated than (and complicated by) those of race.

Ideally, we would see this moment—when black anger has ebbed, racism has receded, and the problems facing the nation are relatively clear—as something of a gift; as a period that Americans collectively could devote to reflection, even as we reaffirm our belief in the creed that all are created equal and try to figure out a way to make that true. Sadly, we are not doing this. Instead, we have allowed public discourse to be hijacked by a boisterous minority determined to question the legitimacy of America's first president of African descent—while they simultaneously promote the notion that it is possible and desirable to "take back America" to those unenlightened days when prejudice ruled. We will come, I suspect, to regret that.

Adapted from The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage by Ellis Cose. To be published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2011 by Ellis Cose.