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Oldsters Mix It Up over Race

Racist Charges Recall a Bygone Era

In the latest twist of an ongoing mud wrestling match, a conservative Tea Party sympathizer dredged up a film clip to prove that racists live and breathe within the NAACP. In the grainy, low-quality video, a black woman is telling a black audience about how she slow-walked her efforts to help a white family save its family farm.

Shirley Sherrod, the former director for rural development in Georgia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, made the remarks at an NAACP meeting in March. After the video clip migrated from an obscure website into the nation’s media bloodstream, the wheels fell off Sherrod’s life. NAACP President Ben Jealous denounced Sherrod, even though she had been speaking at an NAACP event. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demanded she resign, apparently because he (and some in the White House and the NAACP) feared the political blowback if Sherrod were on the job and the vast, right-wing conspiracy ran with this story.

Run with it they did. But, as is often the case when race, media, and politics take center stage, things aren’t what they seemed. Turns out Sherrod’s comments were taken out of context and misrepresented. She was making a point about racial misperceptions. The bulk of her speech, which wasn’t broadcast at first, was about how she helped save the white family’s land. Later news reports showed the white farmer and his wife praising her, leaving a stain on the media, NAACP, and even the White House.

The whole embarrassing episode, which continues to evolve as I write, is an example of what happens when cowards use race as a weapon. Innocent people become collateral damage and high sounding principles—colorblindness, for example—get trashed. It’s also a classic example of why so many young people refuse to listen when old, establishment politicians and leaders speak about race. They just don’t believe the fogeys have anything to say that’s honest or relevant to the world as young people know and experience it.

Political commentator Matt Bai struck just this perceptive note in his critique of the brouhaha that followed the NAACP’s earlier condemnation of racism within the Tea Party movement. Amid the sound and fury that signify little of practical import in the contemporary political landscape, the charges—and countercharges—of racism leveled at the two groups hides a fact that’s in plain sight. Too many in both the NAACP and the Tea Party are old, backward-looking people whose political focus remains fixed in a time that’s “Gone with the Wind." Of course, not all Tea Partiers and NAACPers are old (think Sarah Palin and Ben Jealous, who later apologized to Sherrod) but their memberships are clearly of generations past.

Or, as Bai, who writes for The New York Times, put it “[t]he Tea Party and the NAACP represent disproportionately older memberships,” who are “old enough to remember when cigarettes were harmless and Strom Thurmond was a Democrat.” That, in other words, was a long, long time ago and well before the emerging voting population was born. “And herein lies a problem with so much of our discussion about race and politics in the Obama era: we tend not to recognize the generational divide that underlies it,” Bai wrote.

He’s on the money. For some reason, the election of President Barack Obama seemed to be greeted among the punditocracy as the end of race in America. Was that because the successful candidates employed a strategy of avoiding the subject whenever possible? Or was it a race-weary nation’s fatigue with the complexity of the subject? Whatever the reason, most Americans young and old, Democrat or Republican, say they want to embrace a “colorblind” ideal.

But this just isn’t how older Americans, both black and white, actually experience their lives. They have less meaningful interactions with people across race lines than their children and grandchildren. Worse, for some, they seemingly can’t or won’t cross color lines—no matter how blurred they’re becoming. Their lives were fixed in place with memories of African Americans bathed by fire hoses or black children turned away from school house doors at the point of a bayonets. Or, for others, their hearts were hardened by frightening scenes of burning and looting in Detroit or politically expedient notions that federal government largess enshrined welfare and affirmative action as an excuse for not working hard. Each camp believes what it believes about “the other.”

Such groupthink demands solidarity. Hence, the ridiculous made-for-television shouting matches between spokespersons for the NAACP and the Tea Party over just which of them is racist. But that’s an older generation, steeped in the isolation of their personal histories. For the so called Millennial generation, roughly those now between 18 and 32 years of age, the name-calling that surrounded the NAACP-Tea Party dispute doesn’t make sense at all. I suspect this is because of the greater cross-racial interactions that this generation has known. Shouting about who’s racist is so-1970 to them.

According to a report co-authored by my colleague Ruy Teixeira and his collaborators at the New Politics Institute, Peter Leyden and Eric Greenberg, “the Millennials are an unusual generation . . . Signs indicate that Millennials are civic-minded, politically engaged, and hold values long associated with progressives, such as concern about economic inequalities, desire for a more multilateral foreign policy, and a strong belief in government.”

While Millennials tilt heavily toward Democrats, they’re not a locked-in vote to rubber stamp any or every one of the party’s candidates. This point was amplified by a recent Pew Research Center study that found Democrats saw slippage in late 2009 among young people since the Obama election. “Democrats held a 36 percent to 24 percent lead over the GOP among Millennial voters, a significantly narrower edge than the nearly two-to-one margin (41 percent vs. 22 percent) in 2008,” the Pew report stated.

Their views on race are just as flexible and fluid.

Saaret E. Yoseph, an assistant editor for TheRoot.com, a website owned by The Washington Post and targeted to a black online community, told me that neither the NAACP nor the Tea Party will win her affection—or other Millennials, if she’s representative—by shouting at each other. “We don’t like extreme stances,” she says. “That scares me away. The world is a little too gray for them to be so rigid.”

What Yoseph and other Millennials think about race and other social issues matters greatly. She abhors the notion of colorblindness, but is comfortable moving among people of all hues. “I am so reluctant to embrace the word ‘colorblind’ because it, by definition, denotes some absurd idea of not seeing color,” she explained in a 2008 online chat. “The cool and complicated thing about our generation is that inter-mixing is occurring more than ever. So I can get down with the idea that we are, perhaps, more accepting of America’s multiculturalism because that, too, is an aspect—a big aspect—of the environment we grew up in.”

Those political ideologues—whether NAACP or the Tea Party—who fail to understand this generation will ultimately lose relevance in the coming battle of ideas among America’s future-forward voters.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of polices on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.