Race, Rage And Reality In America Two books examine the current black experience in the U.S. Former Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose finds younger African-Americans more optimistic than past generations, while Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson observes the "splintering" of black America. Both speak with host Michel Martin.
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Race, Rage And Reality In America

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Race, Rage And Reality In America

Race, Rage And Reality In America

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We recently brought you a conversation about a study by two professors - one at Harvard Business School and one at Tufts - that examined the whole issue of white people's feelings of being targets of discrimination. The professors, Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers, found that both blacks and whites generally believe that bias against blacks was, in fact, a real problem in the past.

But, these authors said, whites also tended to believe that it is anti-white bias that's on the upswing to the point where anti-white bias is even more prevalent than bias against blacks. It probably won't surprise you that black people surveyed did not share that point of view, but that prompted us to wonder, what do African-Americans think about the state of race relations today, about their prospects for the future, about themselves? Especially the most privileged among them.

To find out, we decided to call upon two writers who've been thinking and writing about this of late. Former Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose first wrote about this in 1994 in his bestseller, "The Rage of a Privileged Class," where he described exactly that. The frustration of black middle class professionals.

Now nearly 20 years later, Ellis Cose has written a new book, "The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage." And in it he says a lot has changed.

Also with us is Eugene Robinson. He wrote about the state of black America in his book "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America." He's also a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Washington Post. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ELLIS COSE: Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Ellis, first of all, just tell us a little bit about the book and what drew you to this topic again, after you had written about it 20 years ago.

COSE: One of the consistent complaints of people that I interviewed when I was working on "Rage" and working on my "African-Americans" was about the glass ceiling. There was this sense of no matter how hard I work, no matter what credentials I accumulate, no matter what I do, I cannot get past the so-called glass ceiling. Not too long after that book came out, a number of people in a rather spectacular way crashed through the glass ceiling.

You had, of course, you know, Richard Parsons at Time Warner. You had Colin Powell, who became, obviously, secretary of state, followed by Condoleezza Rice. And then of course you had the mega event of the Obama candidacy and the Obama presidency. And it was the proof that it was possible to crash through this glass ceiling and that at least for some people it no longer existed.

So it seemed, I had it in the back of my mind for years to take another look at the territory that I had staked out with "The Rage of a Privileged Class." And this seemed like a perfect time to do it. So the result is "The End of Anger." I conducted two fairly ambitious surveys, one of Harvard MBAs and the other of graduates of a Better Chance, which is a program that takes young people who are mostly African-American, but also Latinos and Asians and a few whites, and sends them to some of the best secondary schools and the best prep schools in the country.

And at the end of the day I had a sample of well over 500 people who I asked a range of questions about how they perceived the workplace, how they perceived their lives, how they perceived discrimination, and came back with what to me was a very richly textured image of how these groups of privileged African-Americans and Latinos saw America today.

MARTIN: And let me just talk a little bit about what you found. What you found is - and I'm kind of quoting here from an essay you wrote encapsulating the book, which I did read - I just want you to know that I read it. But just encapsulate your argument. You said that if Obama's election proved nothing else, it proved that the previously impermeable American caste system was dead, that dark skin alone is not enough to bar people from achievement. But you also found a real generation gap.

You said that many of those people under 40 had really endless faith in their ability to surpass the barriers that had held black people back in the past, but that they're elders found this na�ve. And I also want to talk, obviously, about the whole question of the less privileged. But talk a little bit, if you would, first, about the generation gap. And then I want to turn to Gene.

COSE: Yeah. Sure. I mean, I had not intended to write a book about generations when I started out. But as I went through all the questionnaires and the interviews, the older generations, they're much less likely to perceive a place where there was opportunity. They were much more likely to perceive a glass ceiling. The younger groups were basically saying there is discrimination still, and there are issues of race, but they're not so oppressive and so heavy that we cannot get around them.

And I actually ended up categorizing people into three cohorts, depending upon where they came along. You know, generation one was I called the fighters, people born before 1945, who were fundamentally shaped by an America that was segregated and where there was great hostility to the very idea of equality. Generation two were those people born between 1945 and 1969 - those were the dreamers. These were people who were the first large wave who benefited from Martin Luther King's dream, benefited from the civil rights struggle and went into these large institutions, corporations, universities, etcetera, and often find themselves disappointed.

And then I write about what I call generation three, which I call the believers. These are the people that were born in 1970 to 1995. And these are the people who have a great deal of faith in their ability to get beyond where their parents were, to not be held back by a glass ceiling, by issues of discrimination, etcetera.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. no to that point though, and Gene, I'm going to turn to you now. One of the points that Ellis is making in this book is his particular book is focusing on the people who are the most privileged, in the sense of having the most education and opportunities, which one would assume would flow from there. But he also says blatant racism may be forbidden, but brutal unfairness remains a fact of life. He also says that the end of American apartheid didn't erase the caste system's affect.

So that kind of leads to your book. Now, you found divisions in the black community - if we could even use that term. Talk to me about your book and what got you started thinking about this.

EUGENE ROBINSON: What got me started on the book, the book is called "Disintegration." What got me started really was a sense that had been nagging at me for a while, that when we talked about black America we were having an unreal conversation. We were talking about an entity that didn't exist the way it once might have. And the conversation went nowhere because we weren't talking about anything real. So in 2007, maybe the Pew Research Center came out with a poll that said 37 percent I think of African-Americans who were surveyed believe black Americans could no longer be considered a single race.

And I didn't quite know what that meant, but it seemed like it meant something. So I just started looking at academic studies and marketing studies and talking to people and just trying to figure it out. And I ended up looking at four - what I found to be four black Americas. And basically the dividing lines I saw were of class; class as defined by not just income but also education and other sorts of touchstones that I guess you could refer to as culture.

MARTIN: Well, I want to bring you both back to the conversation that we started with, which is this survey seeing that a significant number of white people now feel they are the targets of bias - that anti-white bias is in fact more prevalent than bias against blacks. And I will say that this, the authors of that survey surveyed black people for their attitudes too, which who needless to say, did not believe that to be the case at all.

ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Although, but believe that anti-black animus in the review is receding quite substantially. So, Gene, I want to start with you, to ask what do you make of that? I mean I wonder because traditionally one of the things this has been hard to talk about is that white people have objected to being called white or being viewed as part of like one particular group. So I found it kind of fascinating that the authors even took that approach.

ROBINSON: Mm-hmm. I could stay number one, I'm not surprised at that finding, just because of what I hear in my email and comments on the column and voicemails and people I run into. There is a sense among some whites the idea that they can no longer be described as any sort of dominant group in the society and that in fact there are very powerful black people who have other powerful black people working for them and with them. And why is it impossible that, given that situation, which they might see as parallel to the way things used to be only reversed, why is it that that situation could not engender any discrimination against white people?

MARTIN: And what about this whole question that Ellis was taking on, this whole question of what you think about what is possible for you? In your report, you interviewed a lot of the most accomplished, the most famous, you know...

ROBINSON: Yes.

MARTIN: The Vernon Jordans...

ROBINSON: This tiny elite.

MARTIN: The Valerie Jarretts and so forth...

ROBINSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: And, but you've interviewed a lot of people beyond that.

ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And are there wildly different views about what is possible?

ROBINSON: Yes. Yes, I think there are very different views about what is possible. And actually, you have to bring I think Ellis' age equation into the picture as well, because you talk to older African-Americans who have achieved virtually everything. They're not necessarily the ones who think that discrimination is gone and we can do everything we want because they had to fight their way up there. They saw it. They knew what was there and they're not convinced it's all gone. And so I think you do have to go younger to find people who haven't gone through that process, who haven't experienced perhaps those disappointments, and who have a sunnier and more optimistic view of racial equality in the society.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post. His book is call "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America." Also with us, Ellis Cose, journalist and author of "The End Of Anger." We're talking about what do African Americans, black folks, feel about their prospects in the present age? Ellis?

COSE: Well, I was going to say, I mean one thing that's very interesting about the younger cohort, it's not only have their experiences been different in terms of what they have had to deal with and encounter when it comes to the racial animus, but their associations have been different, their white peers have been different. So they have come up with a group of whites who are also post-civil rights generation. And who whether their parents believes it or not, many of whose parents told them people are all equal and everyone should be treated as equally. And as a consequence, have had to deal with people who are much more likely to see them as human beings capable of the same things that they can do than their older peers, whatever their accomplishments.

And sometimes I describe the difference between my gen. ones, who I call, you know, the fighters, and my gen. threes, who I call the believers, is that the difference between those two sets of people is a guy called Sam. Well, with Sam? You know, Sam is a white guy who I interviewed for my book who's also a gen. one, and gen. ones I label hostiles. He's a Harvard MBA. He's now in his early 70s. And this is a fellow who claims he's totally without bias.

How can you arrive at that conclusion? Well, because he's always known black people. The one he knew first was the guy he called Nigger Gene who worked for his uncle, who was a buffoon but a very, you know, nice fellow. And he also had a black maid. So he knows black people, and because of that he has no sense of discriminating against them. Did he ever hire any black people when he ran a business? Well, no, because in his mind black people were not qualified. Did he ever have any blacks in his private club? Well, no, because blacks weren't interesting.

This is the kind of person that many of the older black folks had to deal with when they went into the corporate world, people who found it impossible to really see them as equals. The people that the younger generation is dealing with are different. Let me make that one point. Let me just make another point as well, which is even among the younger generation, you know, who tend to be much more optimistic in terms of what and how they can maneuver the corporate world, they are not saying that the world is one without discrimination. And actually, in my surveys when I asked about discrimination outside of the workplace, about discrimination in terms of getting passed by taxis or getting hassled by the police or being followed around in shops, their answers were very close to the answers of the older respondents.

MARTIN: Well, let me stop you Ellis, because at the end of the - this touches on something I wanted to ask you about which is you have a section in your book called "Black Harvard MBAs share their rules for success." Rule number 10 is: never talk about race or gender if you can avoid it, other than to declare that race or gender does not matter. And you go on to say the larger point unsettling and unpleasant as it may be is that being honest about one's innermost thoughts is not generally a good strategy for advancement.

You say for to share of certain views honestly, and perceptions about race seem to top the list, is to risk being seen as a divisive presence who probably doesn't belong on the team. So doesn't that suggest then that there is still a matter of covering of inauthenticity? Because I don't hear colleagues who are Irish-American, you know, nobody says you can't talk about that. Like when we go to the beach there are plenty of Irish and Italian flags being flung and hung, and nobody says, you know...

COSE: Well...

MARTIN: Nobody says you can't have a sign on you that says Kiss Me, I'm Irish.

COSE: The point is not that you can't talk about being black. The point is you can't gripe about being black, and that's very different. And that goes to the survey that you were citing earlier. And that's not a new finding. I'm there, I mean Pew released a study two or three years ago where if you drill down on it you had white respondents basically claiming that they were as likely to be victimized by discrimination as blacks who claim they were likely to being victimized by discrimination.

So when I say in my book that it's a bad career strategy, whether it's an honest career strategy or not, to essentially make racial complaints, what I am in effect reflecting is this reality where whites in the society and the workplace one, don't believe that discrimination is a very serious problem when it comes to blacks, though they acknowledge that it exists. You know, and two, feel that they are as likely to be victims of discrimination as blacks are. So if you are a black person or a Latino person or a woman for that matter, complaining about discrimination, you know, people are inclined to see you as a crybaby and to dismiss you and to back away from you warily as they marginalize you.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let each of you go, I wanted to conclude with the same question I asked of the author of the study that I have cited earlier, which is where does this go next? What are the implications of these varied points of view for politics, for policy, for the culture, however you want to take the question? And Gene, I'll start with you. What are the implications of what we've just talked about in terms of the splintering of point of view among African-Americans - their varied, very varied sense of perspective about what the future holds and what the past means?

ROBINSON: I think there are some objective facts and some objective correlations that exist and that we still have to recognize and find some way to talk about. For example, there is a correlation between being black and being poor. There is a correlation between being black and being incarcerated. I mean, you know, African-Americans are overrepresented among those groups and so we have to find ways to talk about this and even if it's seen as racial pleading and perhaps leads to marginalization, I think we have to get past that. Because I think if we don't there's a generation, there's a sector of black America that hasn't made it to the middle class, that is less likely to make that leap now I think than in decades past, and that were losing and that can't be allowed to happen.

MARTIN: Ellis?

COSE: I think that what used to be called the civil rights movement has a lot of unfinished business. But I think part of the unfinished business is going to be figuring out a way to make these arguments for equality in a way that in effect transcends race, because we're no longer talking about black equaling poverty. We're talking about blacks being more likely to be in poverty. And we're also talking about the increasing disaggregation of America writ large, which is to say that the poor and the rich are becoming just totally different groups society-wide.

And I think the future for the movement lies in trying to figure out a way to bring these strands together. And yes, we're going to have a movement that is interlaced with issues of race. But I think more and more is going to be driven by issues of disparity.

MARTIN: Ellis Cose is a veteran journalist. He's worked for Newsweek, the New York Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. He's the author of many books. His latest is called "The End Of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race." He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Here with me in Washington, D.C., Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post. His latest book is called "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America." Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for joining us.

Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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