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A New Show of Black Promise

But two mass rallies this weekend highlight a quest for greater unity among young African-Americans.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Willa Reinhard, Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998


They have the most promising future of any generation of blacks in America's history. They're better educated. And they're headed for adulthood in an era when black incomes are rising and overt racism is receding.

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But in an odd paradox, these black teens and twentysomethings are much less unified than the generation that spawned the civil-rights era. The disunity is symbolized by two separate mass rallies for black youths this weekend, one in downtown Atlanta and the other in New York's Harlem.

Moreover, some black community leaders say, many young African-Americans are beset by a growing sense of hopelessness - a fact hinted at by rising suicide rates.

The marches - echoes of 1995's Million Man March and '97's Million Woman March - aim to counter those trends by boosting self-esteem and unity. It's unclear whether they'll succeed, especially in New York, where controversy swirls around the event's radical black Muslim organizer, Khalid Abdul Muhammad.

Whether marchers reach their goals will ultimately depend on the efforts of families, churches, and many others to promote the success of this generation.

Perhaps the most striking change over the decades is that more blacks are enjoying fast-rising incomes, putting them into middle- and upper-middle-class life. A recent study found that in 1964, blacks who scored in the top one-third on a comprehensive skills test ended up making just 65 percent of the salaries of whites who had the same scores. By 1993, they were making a full 98 percent of the salaries of similar-scoring whites.

"The evidence is pretty strong that the world has changed dramatically" for blacks, says Christopher Jencks, a social policy professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., who wrote the study. "Blacks may still have to work harder than whites to achieve success," he says, "but they can get there, which they couldn't do a generation ago."

Take Gbenro Ogunsemore, an quick-to-smile twentysomething born in Nigeria and raised in Washington. He taught himself photography and will shoot pictures at the Harlem march.

He's confident he'll succeed - two magazines have shown interest in his work - but says America still hasn't achieved black-white equality. "Equality would be being able to get the same recognition in my field as my white counterpart," he says. "But I can overcome that by going out there and showing my work all over."

Blacks have, however, begun to achieve equality in education. For the first time, they're now graduating from high school in equal percentages as whites. And they seem to be closing the gap in college: The number of minorities getting college degrees increased between 5 and 8 percent each year from 1991 to 1996, according to a recent study. The total for whites declined by almost 1 percent during that period. In some states, especially in the South, however, the gap remains large.

Overt vs. subtle racism

Another area of progress, albeit halting, is racism.

Overt racism is abating, says longtime observer John Dovidio, a psychology professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. But a more subtle form remains.