- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

The reaction to Sen. Barack Obama’s March 18 speech in Philadelphia on his firebrand pastor and race in America shows a generation gap within the black community, according to scholars and analysts.

Despite criticism that he didn’t fully address the angry comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Mr. Obama’s youth and powerful skills as an orator continue to offer hope to many that he can bridge what he defined in his speech as a national “stalemate” — a civil rights era perception of race as an always-present threat to blacks versus the more unifying view of a younger generation that increasingly sees the world and politics as colorblind.

Charles Ellison, a senior fellow at the Center for African-American Policy and chief editor of blackpolicy.org, describes a tension among blacks and a “growing generation gap between new school versus old school.”

“The new hip-hop generation, there is a focus on economic, political and social empowerment. They look at a lot of major black elected officials who are young — D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty; in Newark, Cory Booker; and in Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, who are all about the empowerment paradigm. We’ve got close to 650 black state elected officials and 43 black members of Congress, so they are used to this notion already in popular media.”

Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, says generations have already reacted quite differently to the Obama candidacy.

Those from the civil rights era “have all the reason in the world to be paranoid, suspicious and afraid,” he said. “They have got a history. It is in their lifetime that blacks were second-class citizens. No way are they going to elect a black man president, they think. That is the degree of paranoia.”

But the younger generation’s experience in a society where they interact with many people of different races means they view minorities in power less warily.

“There are not many of these kids within this generation that do not have an affinity to or an affection for what it represents for our polity for this country and for our civilization,” he said of Mr. Obama. “For many of us in that generation, we are getting closer to that colorblind society that [Martin Luther] King preached about.”

Many older black voters do not share that optimism.

“There is this older generation who wants to remain relevant,” Mr. Ellison said. “They remember the days of segregation, of Jim Crow laws, and they don’t want people to forget about the role that civil rights played, the urban agenda, so to speak. I think initially, there was an anxiety or trepidation that if they do send a black man all the way to the White House, that there still is a problem with racism and disparities faced by minorities. There was a sense that their message, their agenda, has been less relevant.”

A survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 20-24, found that while most voters were offended by Mr. Wright’s remarks, their negative views didn’t diminish support for Mr. Obama.

A majority of his supporters as well as those of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with one-third of Republicans viewed his reaction to the Wright scandal as favorable. Race, it seems, is not a pivotal factor in his primary matchup, says Pew’s Director of Survey Research Scott Keeter.

“I anticipated that this was going to have more of a negative impact on the Democratic electorate,” Mr. Keeter said. “Would it take some of the bloom off of that rose? The answer appears to be no.”

The polling data, however, exposed key racial gaps. While 58 percent of white voters said they were personally offended by Mr. Wright’s sermons, just 29 percent of black voters said they were upset by his remarks.

Black voters, however, are divided on whether race will hurt Mr. Obama with voters, with 36 percent saying it will cause him problems and 28 percent saying it will help. Just 27 percent of blacks think his race won’t be a factor in the election, the survey found.

Mr. Obama, in two books, has described his own struggle to define himself in terms of race and the contradictions it poses. In his speech, which some compared to key addresses by Abraham Lincoln and other political heroes, Mr. Obama acknowledged that his “is a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate.”

He also acknowledged a lingering anger within the black community and a parallel anger among whites, saying “to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this, too, widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.”

Mr. Innis thinks the Wright controversy has damaged Mr. Obama, but not fatally. He argues that the candidate did not deal with Mr. Wright’s remarks head on, noting that younger blacks trapped in the inner cities continue the “paranoia” of the older generation on race directly because of “the Jeremiah Wrights of this world, the Farrakhans.” The latter is a reference to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“The groups who should be afraid of the Jeremiah Wrights are blacks,” Mr. Innis said. “The danger and harm that that type of paranoia and paralysis that it causes in our communities is a clear and present danger to African-Americans and our progress. The world will pass us by in a new America that our ancestors helped create.”

Mr. Obama, he said, is right to bring attention to race in America, but “needs to be a bit less black politically correct.”

“A dialogue on race is not a monologue. It is not about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton getting up on a pulpit and beating up on white people. Our country is no longer just black and whites, but a plethora of folks with many different perspectives, so there is a real need for a multidimensional dialogue on race.

“There will be some things said in that discussion that black folk won’t want to hear, but need to hear,” Mr. Innis said, offering a “caution” to black liberals and whites who support Mr. Obama.

“In your understandable desire that he succeed so that our country can turn the page on race, if you are not careful in treating him like an adult candidate for president and kicking off the training wheels, then your manifest end may be quite different than you intended. You may be keeping us enmeshed in race.”

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