Monday, March 25, 2013

Passing the baton

E.J. Dionne has written an interesting article about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. Reading it will explain why it is that President Obama chose him to give the keynote address at the Democratic Convention last year.
What makes Mayor Castro especially interesting is the interaction of his pragmatism with the early radicalism of his mother Rosie, his first political mentor. She was a founder of La Raza Unida Party — she eventually returned to the Democratic fold — and a poster from his mom’s unsuccessful 1971 city council race hangs proudly in the mayor’s office.

Between his mother’s past and his own present, Castro embodies the full range of progressive impulses, from the most activist and visionary to the most practical and middle-of-the-road. Castro says it’s not surprising that his approach is different from his mom’s.

“I had the blessing of opportunity,” he says. As a result, he sees a balance in what is required to achieve change. “You need the folks in the boardroom who have consciences and the people in the streets who can picket at the right time.”

Then he gets to his own role: “And you need public officials who can listen. I see myself as a bridge-builder who can understand both sides.”
When I read that I immediately thought of the recent work of Ellis Cose to define the generational differences in the modern movement for civil rights.

He calls the first generation The Fighters. They would encompass those leaders who - beginning in the 1950's - fought the legal battles against discrimination. The list is long, but includes people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Rep. John Lewis, Ella Baker, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta.

The next generation were The Dreamers. This is the generation that were the first to walk through the doors opened by the Fighters and continued the struggle for equality within the systems they entered. That generation - of course - includes President Barack Obama. But other public figures include his wife, Michelle Obama, Eric Holder, Sonia Sotomayor, Deval Patrick and Kamala Harris.

A few years ago Helen Cooper wrote a fascinating article about this generation - noting that they are the first to benefit from the Ivy League's attempts to aggressively recruit students of color in 1969.
But the children of 1969 dwell in a complex world. They retain an ethnic identity that includes its own complement of cultural, historical and psychological issues and considerations. This emerged at Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. And it emerged again last week, when Mr. Obama joked in the White House East Room that if he ran afoul of the police, “I’d get shot.” In saying this, he seemed to draw on the fears of black men across the United States, including those within the new power elite.

What Mr. Obama seemed to be demonstrating was what Mr. Lemann of Columbia calls a “double consciousness” that allows the children of 1969 to flow more easily between the world which their skin color bequeathed them and the world which their college degree opened up for them.
Julian Castro and his twin brother Rep. Joaquin Castro are representatives of the third generation - The Believers. We have yet to see what this generation can accomplish, but perhaps Mayor Castro's vision of being a "bridge-builder" says something about the role they will play.

Social change happens most effectively when cross-generational coalitions tap into both the wisdom of the elders and the passion of the young. That requires being willing to listen on the part of the young and a willingness to pass the baton on to the next generation by the elders.

I believe that the ugliness we see from people like Cornel West towards our President can be best understood by his unwillingness to let go of his role as a Fighter and pass the baton onto the next generation. By doing so, he is depriving them of the wisdom he might otherwise share.

I've posted this quote before. But to me, it captures exactly the kind of awareness that is required for a passing of the baton. Here is Rev. Gordon Stewart (a Fighter) reflecting on his reaction to the first inauguration of President Obama.
They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy... and hope... that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.
Each generation must take on the battles of their time. And it doing so - are likely to bear the scars that can become a prison if not released to the passion of the next generation. When we won't let go, they become the seeds of anger and cynicism. Rev. Stewart was able to release himself from that prison by recognizing the grief - and almost simultaneously opening himself up to the joy and hope of the next generation. That's what it means to pass the baton.

We are in the era of the Dreamers. Rather than the post-racial world some predicted, the struggle continues as the dying beast lashes out in its death throes. But it won't be long now until the Believers are ready to take up the cause and face their own unique challenges.

One of the reasons I wanted to include Ella Baker in the list of fighters is that - as much as anyone - she understood the importance of passing the baton. Here's Ella's Song...

21 comments:

  1. Wow. From 'the Fighters' to 'the Dreamers' to 'the Believers'... that's more than poetic description; it seems to me to be an indicator of just how much inalterable generational social progress has been made. (And as if that wasn't inspiring enough, you provided the wonderful video; thanks!)

    Ms. Smartypants, you continue to be the most insightful chronicler of this administration on the internets today. Plenty of the commentariat have a "head" for politics and a keen eye for social change, but you leaven your fine mind with a fierce and full "heart" for the world. Keep doing what you do, please. I, and I'm quite sure many others are far richer for the perspective you share.

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    1. What Botelho said.

      Smartypants, you are a full on genius at analysis and one of the best writers anywhere. Thank you!!!!

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  2. Is it possible that Cornel West spoke negatively of the president because he disagreed with the president's policy or position rather than on some convoluted generational divide?

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    1. If Cornel's critiques had simply been on policy, you'd have a point. But since they were so often viciously personal, its clear there was much more to it than that.

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    2. What are some examples of the "viciously personal" critiques that did not have anything to do with policy?

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    3. J. Farmer

      I'm not interested in having that conversation. Feel free to find the examples yourself. They are plentiful.


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    4. I don't particularly care about Cornel West. You used him as an example, which is why I went in that direction. In my opinion, the Fighter/Dreamer/Believer nomenclature is not particularly useful, as I do not see what analytical or explanatory power it has. How, for instance, does it account for black conservatives like Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele or celebrities with points of view like Bill Cosby or of some of the later radicalism surrounding the Afrocentrism movement in the late 80's and 90s? My personal beef is that I think political leaders surrounded by a cult of personality can be very dangerous, and I think Obama's depiction as a sort of world-historical figure abets that.

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    5. So you don't agree with Cose's analysis of his research. Fine.

      I don't agree with your "personal beef."

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    6. J. Farmer, most would agree about the dangers of cults of personality. I'm not a fan of the "great man" theories of history myself. But I wonder at the thinking behind such a rigid rejection of personality as to deny world-historicity to the first African American POTUS. And I'm fairly amused at the idea that any general rule could be invalidated by the existence of exceptions. Does that argument still work on anyone worth arguing with?

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    7. Well, I had replied to the previous comment before it was unceremoniously jettisoned by our gracious hostess. Now to the points you raised. I agree that Obama is an historical figure, and I worry that that helps feed the cult of personality around him. Where is the "general rule" you believe I am trying to invalidate "by the existence of exceptions?" Best I can tell from the article linked, the author compared the responses of black Harvard MBA graduates born before 1945 with those born after 1970 and concluded that the latter group had a more positive outlook on race and race relations in America. I think that is a fairly mundane conclusion and what you would expect to find in a country that has experienced a great deal of social upheaval over the past half century. There might well be a more extensive review and analysis of Cose's data; I am just restricting myself to the article linked. My particular contention was with the notion that this nomenclature had explanatory power. It was the blogger's assertion that Cornel West's actions could be "best understood" by his membership in a generational cohort.

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    8. What's interesting to me is that you see evidence for an Obama cult of personality in an article that is clearly not about him - but a MUCH larger story.

      By the way, Ellis Cose has written a whole book on the topic that IS under discussion here . Its titled "The End of Anger." And yet you feel comfortable dismissing his whole theory based on reading one very short article about it. That is certainly your prerogative.

      But Cose is known to many African Americans due to his previous book: "The Rage of a Privileged Class" that seriously touched a chord. So you might want to educate yourself just a bit before dismissing him so completely.

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  3. My only quip with this article is that there were Fighters before the 1950's, folks such as A. Philip Randolph and W.E.B. DuBois, who set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement that took off in the 50s and 60s.

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    1. You can blame that one entirely on me Monala. Cose identifies anyone born before 1945 as a fighter.

      I was mostly interested in how these three generations are interacting today.

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    2. Then Cornel West would not be a "fighter." He was born in the 1950s, eight years before Obama.

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    3. J. Farmer

      I'm not going to engage with you any further on the topic of Cornel West. You've obviously decided that you want to argue about him and that's a distraction from the topic of this post.

      I've written other articles where I get argumentative about West. Google them if you'd like to go there.

      If you continue this distraction, I'll be deleting your posts.

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  4. Dude, why do you have a comments section?

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    1. Smarty's a female.

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    2. "Dude" can be gender-neutral when used in a friendly context :-P

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  5. His mom starting up La Raza's like Bobby Seale being your dad. I like how Obama's screening for leaders with organizing instincts. It's good to get away from the top down model. I have to take my hat off for picking leaders with organizing chops. It's the traditional liberal way.

    Vic78

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  6. this is a fabulous and insightful post, smartypants. thank you.

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  7. SP, reading this post (thank you) AND watching Sweet Honey In the Rock reminded me of their rendition of the Ballad of Harry t. Moore which I had forgotten.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_wEPZ0rTsHs

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