NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
In 1994, Ellis Cose wrote a bestseller on the corrosive effects of institutional racism. In "The Rage of a Privileged Class," many black professionals told him that no matter what they did, the top rungs of the ladder remained forever beyond their reach; that even for the most gifted, America was generations away from true equality.
Seventeen years later, a series of surveys reports that African-Americans have become one of the most optimistic groups in America, and Cose argues that's due to some fundamental changes.
Institutions you might regard as the last bastions of white privilege, Fortune 500 companies, hire more black CEOs. In 2008, voters elected the country's first black president, all of which reflects a society where racism is no longer tolerable.
We want to hear from the African-Americans in our audience. Is there equal opportunity at your workplace? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, questions from the crash of an Air France flight into the South Atlantic, but first, Ellis Cose joins us from our bureau in New York. His new book is "The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage." Nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. ELLIS COSE (Author, "The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage"): I'm always glad to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And let me add quickly that neither you nor the African-Americans you speak believe for a second that racism is dead. You argue, though, that we've seen a profound moral shift over the past half-century.
Mr. COSE: We find - we are seeing lots and lots of shifts. And let me just go back for a second. I mean, very few people, in fact no one black who I talked to, think we have arrived at a point where we are an equal-opportunity nation. And no one, again, black or Latino, who I've talked to, think we have arrived at a point where we are a colorblind nation in the classical sense of the word.
What people are saying - and I conducted two large surveys, and one was of Harvard MBAs black and the other of graduates of ABC, which is A Better Chance, a program which sends kids to prep schools.
What people are saying is that we are at a very, very interesting moment in our history. And part of this moment is that for African-Americans who are well-educated and well-prepared, the sky is the limit. There are opportunities that just did not exist a generation ago, that didn't exist when I wrote "The Rage of a Privileged Class," and there are possibilities that they can see that they didn't believe they would see in their lifetime.
And this is something that's fundamentally different about the way people -particularly people of color - are viewing the American experience.
CONAN: Interestingly, generational changes, too; but one of the things you say is the youngest generation is growing up without that burden of you're not going to get there, you're never going to get there.
Mr. COSE: Well, it was axiomatic for generations of African-American parents to tell their children: Look, you're going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far because you're never going to get as far as the white guys with their fancy credentials.
African-American parents, now, are having to tell their children something different because some of those kids are indeed going to get as far as anybody.
And what we've seen since the publication of "Rage of a Privileged Class," which you mentioned was 17 years ago, is that a new generation has come on the scene.
And part of the heart of this book is a generational analysis, which I actually had not intended originally to do. But the differences that people came to the question were so profound, along age lines and along experience lines, that I felt that I needed to look at generations that were different.
And this younger generation you're talking about, this is a generation I call Gen One. I call them the believers. These are people who were basically born after 1969.
This is the generation that didn't experience Jim Crow, that to the extent they know about Jim Crow is history is from their parents or maybe their grandparents. This is a generation that didn't experience the time when African-Americans couldn't get into top-ranked universities except for one or two.
This is a generation that didn't experience the time when black folks were an anomaly working in large corporations. Their perspective, for that reason and other reasons, is fundamentally different. And it's also a generation that saw, for the first time, not a huge number but a number of African-Americans rise to the top of the corporate pyramid.
It's a generation that saw a black secretary of state, that saw other African-Americans in high positions, and that concluded, along the way, something that may have applied to my parents' generation or my grandparents' generation -doesn't apply right now.
CONAN: There are any number of implications for this, but one of them, you conclude, is that the - Bigger Thomas, the impression, the literary expression of the angry black man, that he is now a figure of the past.
Mr. COSE: Well, Bigger Thomas, from "Native Son," of course, was the - I guess the exemplar of the unremitting black rage of that era and of the '60s, as well, even though Bigger - even though that book was published I believe in the '50s.
That kind of - I don't say that black anger has disappeared. Of course there's still black anger. Of course, there are people of all races who are angry about all sorts of things. And if you are an African-American in this country, a lot of things you are angry about have something to do with race.
But that sort of unremitting anger at white America has dissipated to an amazing degree, and one of the things that's profoundly interesting is something you touched on in your intro a little while ago, is that we are seeing that if you look at optimism about this country and about the future, African-Americans are a lot more optimistic, one than they've ever been; but two, they're more optimistic than whites.
They have more faith in this country, in many ways, than whites do now. And that is something that's not only sort of unsettling for people who are accustomed to what was the traditional view, it's revelatory.
CONAN: And interestingly, yes, you say nobody believes that we are in an equal - equality society. Yet most of your respondents said the place they worked was different: There was equality there.
Mr. COSE: Well, again, equality is an interesting term. No one quite said there's equality where they work. And let me sort of break that down for a second, if I may.
And again, I did two large surveys of two very sort of well-educated groups of people, many of them African-American. And the respondents to these surveys, over 90 percent said that there was discrimination in place in society.
Around 90 percent said that there was some kind of glass ceiling in place at -in the corporate workplace. When it came to their own workplace, the numbers went down dramatically. Around 50 percent of the respondents said that there was a glass ceiling in place at their workplace.
What got really interesting is when you ask people what about their own opportunities, what about their own prospects. And in this case, you had -there was one question which effectively asked: Are you treated the same in the workplace as whites with comparable credentials as yourself?
And a majority of African-Americans, particularly young African-Americans who responded to that, said yes, they were. And that's an interesting thing because part of the message that I got from the response to that question and to other questions was that people were not saying discrimination has disappeared. People were not saying equal opportunity has arrived.
What they were saying is that the kind of discrimination that made it impossible to aspire to rise to a certain level is no longer anywhere near as heavy as it used to be. And as a consequence, I as a black person with a Harvard MBA can - if I can maneuver correctly, I can achieve any goal that I want to.
They're not saying Im not going to encounter some nut who's racist. They're not saying that I'm not going to encounter any kind of discrimination. What they are saying is that there are opportunities there that, if they are skillful enough, they can get around the discrimination to the extent that they can have the same kind of career that anybody else could have.
CONAN: We want to hear from our African-American listeners today. Where you work, is there equal opportunity? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And we'll start with James(ph), and James is on the line with us from Charlotte.
JAMES (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
JAMES: I'm an African-American, and I have had the privilege of owning my own business for several years before the recession hit. And due to the recession, I had to go back to work. This was after being in business for almost seven years on my own.
Although I'm highly skilled, I had to take a job which my experience in the transportation field, I had to actually take a position with one of my competitors. Although I did send in my resume, and I went in for an interview, I took a very low-skilled position. I'll just leave it at that, a very low-skilled position.
At the time, I even talked about the job being beneath me, but hey, you know, kids have to eat, you know, bills have to be paid. So I took it.
But my point was: Even though I did send in my resume, as soon as a position came up that I was more than qualified for, I threw my name in the hat. As a matter of fact, the very first day that I started, a position was up on the board, and I asked. I said: Well, even though this is my first day, am I eligible to apply for that?
And the gentleman who would later interview me for another position told me: Well, let's see how you work out at this job. Now, this gentleman apparently had not looked at my resume.
So anyway, fast-forward six months later, another position pops up that I'm overly qualified for. I go in for two sets of interviews with the same people that interviewed me for the low-skilled position - got that one no problem. As a matter of fact, he offered the job at the interview process, and we know how often that does not happen today.
But at this second interview, after going through my skills, the senior person said: It seems as though we're under-utilizing your skills. And, you know, I just completely looked blank-faced, and, you know, after the dance was done and over with, they told me: Well, we're not going to choose you for this position because we think that you need more time in our system. We're going to choose someone who's had more time.
They might not be as qualified as you, but we're going to choose someone that has a little bit more time and knows how we work.
And so my point is to say that, even though there might not be the same blatant racism or the same blatant hurdles that are there. Now, you can achieve, but it's going to take longer. It's going to take longer because number one, you have to have that education. You absolutely have to have the education.
You cannot have a checkered past. And if you have a checkered past, you have to have the education and experience, skills and/or that particular referral that will help get you in the door.
So I just want to say, you know, yes things have changed, but no, they have not changed all that more for the best, because there is still the thing of the clock ticking, as opposed to me being a 23-year-old getting this job, as opposed to being a 45-year-old getting this same job as an African-American.
CONAN: Ellis Cose, we just have a few seconds before the break, but I think James reflects some of the things that some, not necessarily in your survey, but some others told you in your book.
Mr. COSE: Well, of course. I mean, no one is saying that this is a fundamentally equal society now. No one I talked to is saying that. And of course we're in an awful economic place right now, and the experience that James unfortunately had is the experience that too many people are having.
But what they are saying is that the experience that James had is more likely to happen, or more likely to be the experience of people of his generation, of the over-40 generation, than the under-40 generation. And that's for a series of reasons.
CONAN: James, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for the call.
JAMES: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We're talking with Ellis Cose about his new book "The End of Anger." Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.
In his new book, Ellis Cose describes the long, troubled history of racism in America. Whenever African-Americans have spoken in public about our experience in this country, he wrote, anger has been a recurrent and dominant theme.
But we've seen an important shift in recent years, as Cose explains. Black Americans are no longer fuming, or at least not anything like we once were. The angry black man has become marginalized, irrelevant, passe.
n this era, public anger - fringe kooks notwithstanding - rarely has an explicitly racial edge. We are witnessing, in short, a fundamental shift in the nature of the black-white relationship in America.
You can read more about how we got to this moment in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We want to hear from African-Americans in our audience today. Is there equal opportunity at your workplace? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Again, go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
I wanted to read this email from Dan in Tulsa: Although I agree somewhat with Mr. Cose's assertion that being racist is no longer acceptable, I think racism still gets far too much positive press. Case in point: Donald Trump calls for President Obama to prove he is a citizen and his worthiness to be accepted into Harvard University.
It goes without saying his actions were racist, but I was angered to find it covered daily in the media, even NPR, when it would have been consigned to the dustbin of history by all media outlets, where it belonged.
This is a question you examine in the book in the context of the Tea Party.
Mr. COSE: Well, I mean, talking first about Donald Trump, I mean, I share the reader's - the viewer's - the listener's, I should say, dismay that these idiotic comments got as much play as they did.
And I also agree - I have no idea whether Donald trump's a racist or not, but he was certainly appealing to racial-related fears. My point is not that this kind of nonsense has disappeared. It's clearly going to be a part of the American framework for as long as I expect to be alive, in one way or another.
What I argue and what I maintain is true is that the sort of societal, official condonement of explicit racism has disappeared, which is to say that even the Tea Party - which, again, appeals to an older, conservative, in many cases racially prejudiced group of people - and then again, let me be very clear. I'm not saying everybody, as far is - who's a Tea Party supporter is a bigot. I think there are not people who are not. But I think they do appeal very fundamentally, as well, to a lot of people who are.
And that is a reality. But even with the Tea Party - and I spent some time talking to various Tea Party leaders in various places, and I even did a long, lengthy interview with an African-American member of the Tea Party. And what they argue is that their appeal is not about race. Their appeal is about the role of government. It's about the role of enlarged institutions in society, and so forth and so forth and so on.
Now, let's be adult here. We know that race plays a role in at least some of the attitudes that some people bring to the Tea Party. That's not going to disappear. What's different about this moment in history, I think, is that we have said, as a nation: We don't accept blatant racism.
And that opens up a whole range of possibilities, and that's fundamentally different, again, from where we were a couple of generations ago, where if you want to have an analog in some sense to the Tea Party, some people have compared it to the White Citizens Council of the '60s and the '50s.
And it's impossible to imagine the White Citizens Council saying we're not racist. They were fundamentally just a racist group of people. It's impossible to imagine the White Citizens council endorsing the idea of African-Americans appearing at their rallies. They probably would have shot somebody black who showed up at their rallies, if they had such a thing.
You know, you can't deny that this is a huge difference in society, and it changes the dialogue. Does it change everybody's attitude? No. But does it indicate that the people who have these kinds of attitudes are much more likely to be older, conservative and out of touch? Yes, it does.
CONAN: Let's go next to Jason, Jason with us from Ann Arbor.
JASON (Caller): Hi. I just - I just wanted to make a comment. I'm 41, born in 1970, and it's been my experience that, as far as - it's almost been the opposite.
Like, my parents would tell me about racism, but it was like a Martian concept because in my experience, it was always an asset being of color, being able to read and write extremely well and maneuver just in a white culture, that it was almost like they couldn't - you know, if I applied for a job, they couldn't wait to hire me because, you know, they were like: Wow, we get a black guy, and he can speak well and he can write, you know, and he's, like, social and he's not angry all the time. You know what I mean? It was always bizarre.
But it seems like - and, you know, and we've just - my whole life just sort of progressed in this direction to where we are now with Barack in the White House and, you know, it's just - it's like the anger is gone, you know, because what is - you know, when it comes to economic potential, you know, our complaints just, you know, aren't - they just don't resonate anymore like they used to, when you could - when it was clear that, you know, there were definite obstacles.
CONAN: So long as you had the education, the vocabulary and the social skills you're talking about.
JASON: Yes. Yeah.
Mr. COSE: What Jason, though, is making is a point is that many of the people that I - and as I said, in my book, I divide people into three generations: what I call Generation One, the civil rights generation - and those were the fighters, if they were black - Generation Two, which I call the dreamers, and that was the generation, basically, of people born between 1945 and 1969.
And then there's the generation of believers, those people born in 1970 and after. And those are - if they're - I call believers if they're African-Americans. I call them allies if they're white. But the point of the matter is that these are people - and Jason seems to fit, you know, sort of in the cusp of that category - who were brought up post the civil rights battles, the major civil rights battles, who were brought up expecting to go to these nice institutions, who were brought up, in many cases, with white friends who they accepted as equals, and who are entering a workplace where they are encountering a very different group of whites than the whites that their parents and grandparents encountered.
You know, they were encountering people who looked at blacks, in many cases, as aliens and who, the first time they may have met a black person was when they went to an office and found one there.
So their experiences, their attitudes are very different. And, of course, as Jason points out, a lot of them - a lot of that generation also benefitted from various kinds of affirmative action initiatives.
So you put all of that together, and it makes just a very different experience than people from a generation or two ago. And the people who were the voice of "The Rage of a Privileged Class," which was my previous book, have given way to another set of voices in "The End of Anger," which, in many cases, are younger voices and people who have had less reason to be bitter, less reason to be angry and more reason to be hopeful.
CONAN: Jason, thanks very much.
JASON: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Dave: Although racism, per se, is clearly no longer socially acceptable, I cannot help but notice how public education has become quite segregated, with minorities getting the short end of the stick, so to speak.
There was a time prior to 1955 we had separate, but equal in public education. Today, we see separate, but unequal in public education.
Mr. COSE: You know, we're at a funny moment in lots of ways, Neal. And one of the ways is that segregation was certainly driven by racism, but it can exist post-racism. And that's where we are now.
I mean, we have neighborhoods that exist not because blacks are legally barred from moving out of them anymore, but because they're structurally prohibited from leaving them because, for one reason or another, it's very difficult to.
We have communities that have sprung up in various places, which started in large measure as a result of white flight that now exists because that's what they are, and they are largely white. You have a society which still is disaggregated in many ways by - along economic lines racially, so that you have whites who, on average and in general, you know, tend to have more resources than African-Americans do. And that has implications in terms of where people live and where they go to school, and so forth and so on.
I think we were, as a society, somewhat naive during the civil rights battles. I think we assumed we get rid of a bunch of racist people, we get rid of a bunch of racist laws, and everything becomes equal, and everything sort of settles out.
I think what we are finding is: One, that was fundamentally - I wouldn't say stupid, but fundamentally naive - you know, and two, we are finding that there are issues of inequality that really don't have a whole lot to do with race that we just didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to because we were so focused on this huge issue of ending racism and therefore creating equality in our country.
CONAN: Yeah, from the other side of the first mountaintop, we find more mountains.
Mr. COSE: Exactly.
CONAN: Yeah, interestingly, you found distinctions, and important ones, based on generations. You just talked about that. Did you find distinctions based on gender? Are women - do women - African-American women feel differently than African-American men?
Mr. COSE: In terms of the general attitude about what's happening in the workplace, no. There were very clear differences, though, and the women in the survey - and we're talking about - let me just rehearse a little bit about what the surveys were of, because we're talking about fairly elite people.
I mean, in the case of Harvard MBAs, we're talking about - in my survey, at least - we're talking about people who have an average household income over $250,000. We're talking about 30 percent of them who have a household income of $400,000 or over.
Even in the case of the ABC graduates, we are talking about people who have an average household income of $100,000 or thereabouts.
So we're talking about people, irrespective of their gender, who are doing pretty well economically in this society. And within that group, yes, the women made less than the men did. Part of it seems to be that the women were less likely to be married. And part of the reason seems to be that the women were less likely to be in the financial services industries, which tend to pay a lot more than some of the other industries that they were in. They were more likely, in some cases, to be in nonprofits, which certainly pay a lot less money than Wall Street pays.
There were also differences - because we not only did the survey. I mean, we did over - about 140 - 130 follow-up interviews. People responded to the surveys, then about another 100 interviews outside of that. And part of what we got back from that, not surprisingly, was that women saw themselves differently in terms of, one, the ease of acquiring mentors; and two, the way in which they manage.
One woman, you know, said that she felt part of the reason that maybe she was -didn't get paid as much is that she was less assertive than men. Another woman said that she thought it was easier for men to initially make contact and get into a big law firm, but she thought it was easier for women to be accepted in a way that their co-workers were comfortable with them.
So there were certainly differences, and a lot of them spoke to issues of gender, but irrespective of the gender, and these particular two groups, the outlook was fairly upbeat. And as I keep saying, you know, the younger the person was, the more upbeat it tended to be.
CONAN: Here's an email from Jessica in Ann Arbor: Hello, Dr. Cose and Neal. I appreciate this discussion. I feel the way we discuss race and racism in the 21st century has to change. Talking about the tropes of Bigger Thomas and angry black men limits the conversation about race in today's America. Race and racism are most subtle and nuanced, and there needs to be a vocabulary to match.
Mr. COSE: Well, I think we're struggling for a vocabulary, and I think we will ultimately sort of come up with one as a country. I mean, I think certainly Sarah Palin and some folks are trumpeting post-racialism as part of the vocabulary that they want to talk about. There is a guy that I respect, who is John Lewis - I'm sorry, John Powell, rather - you know, who runs an institute, the University of Ohio.
CONAN: I suspect you admire John Lewis too, but go ahead.
Mr. COSE: Well, I do admire John Lewis. And he's a great guy and he's, you know, he's also in the book. But John Powell talks about targeted universalism as part of his approach to getting beyond - and I won't go into an explanation of what it is because it gets rather complicated. But, you know but essentially, you know, his argument is, like your email correspondent, you know, that we need to find a new way to deal with some of these issues because the old dialogue of race, which assumes a bunch of bigoted whites and a bunch of black victims, is not nuanced enough to deal with what we are now.
CONAN: We're talking with Ellis Cose about his new book, "The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Renee, Renee with us from San Antonio.
RENEE (Caller): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Renee.
RENEE: I just wanted to say while I do agree somewhat, I am a little concerned because I was born in 1968, so I guess I'm classified as being a dreamer.
Mr. COSE: Yes. You'd be a generation two dreamer in my scheme of things.
RENEE: But my concern is in - with the - my child, my youngest child, is 15.
Mr. COSE: Right.
RENEE: Concern is - as an African-American woman that she's going to be, that this generation is very apathetic. The 20-year-olds and younger, they're very apathetic. I've been in the classroom. I've been a professional. I've been in sales. I've been in financial services. So I see that these children are very apathetic. And what I don't want her to lose and what I had, and my parents made sure that I had, they always instilled in me, you have to do more, you've got to be four times as better, you've got to - because you don't have the option of falling back. There's nothing that you can rely on.
Mr. COSE: Yeah, I think that's an interesting - Renee, I agree with you to some extent, and I think that's an interesting set of issues, because, you know, the fact of the matter is, you know, you came out of a time where you were old enough to sort of know what it's like to live in a society where black folks catch hell just because they're black.
These kids who are 15 and 16 are growing up in a very different world, so they don't know that. And part of what I set up unwittingly in setting up this generational scheme was sort of an intergenerational dialogue between the generation two people, the dreamers, and the generation three people, the believers, with the generation two people saying, wait, wait a minute, you kids are naive.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COSE: You don't know what's happening out there. You have these crazy beliefs about how you're going to go. You just haven't been knocked down yet. And the generation three people, the believers, saying, wait a minute. OK. Maybe that was OK for you, but that's not the way that we see the world. And one woman put it I thought a very interesting way - she said, you know, you guys remind me of the bird in the cage who doesn't realize that the door has been opened.
It's a lot of passion on both sides of those issues. And I think there are things that we need to explore intergenerationally because I think they are interesting. They have implications for what kind of models people are going to build in terms of having a successful life.
One thing I will mention is that there is a psychologist/social worker at the University of Michigan who I consulted as I was working on this book. His name is Sean Joe, and he works with - on the issue of young suicide. And he noticed as did a lot of researchers(ph) in suicide - that in the early '90s the number of young African-Americans committing suicide began to rise, which was a surprise because African-Americans, the young African-Americans in particular, have always had a much lower suicidal rate than whites have. And he was trying to figure out why this is. And one of the conclusions he came to - and I don't want to try to characterize his work unfairly, because - which you risk doing whenever you sum up someone else's work.
Mr. COSE: But one of the conclusions that he came to, you know, was that one of the reasons why the suicide rate seemed to be rising was that young African-Americans had a different way of looking at their failures in society, that for older people, the older generation, when they failed, they can say, well, racism is the reason that I failed. It had nothing to do with me. There were all those problems, all those bigots out there who were keeping me from getting where I should have gotten; that for the younger generation, for some members of the younger generation, when they don't get where they want to go, they blame themselves. And that's another implication of what happens when you have a shift from this firm belief in structural racism to a belief in a different kind of society.
CONAN: Renee, thanks very much for the call, and we wish your daughter the best of luck.
RENEE: Thank you.
CONAN: Ellis Cose, thank you very much for your time today.
Mr. COSE: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Ellis Cose's new book, "The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage." You're listening to NPR News.