A New Show of Black Promise

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Willa Reinhard, Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Whites have more opportunities for internships, access to mentoring, and connections," he says. "And while whites may not overtly discriminate, they're more likely to hire their own." Meanwhile, "the black network is expanding, but it is glacial progress - pecking away at the problem a little bit with each generation."

Despite this progress, there's a growing despair among some young blacks, partly rooted in the fact that one-third of young black men are in jail or on probation.

It's also evidenced in the suicide rate for black 15- to 19-year-olds, which doubled to 8.1 per 100,000 between 1990 and 1995, according to a federal study released in March.

"These kids think, 'Even if I do graduate from high school, there won't be money for college,' " says the Rev. Harvey Carey, youth pastor at the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. " 'And I won't score well on aptitude tests, so I'll have to go to junior college, which isn't much better than high school.' "

But amid the despair, Mr. Carey sees opportunity: "When there's hopelessness, people are looking for an answer." His solution: "What about trying God?"

Many kids in his drug-infested area like that answer: In 1991, his ministry included 12 teens. Now it has 1,100 - 80 percent of whom come on their own, without their parents.

For others, the answer is unity. W. Ellington Felton, an actor in Washington, is taking time off from college. "It's the idea of one that's missing," he says. "It's like, 'If it ain't happenin' to me, it don't matter.' A store can discriminate against black people, and we'll keep going in. In the '60s, everybody got together over what happened to one black man."

Building unity

For some, marches like those this weekend contain strong symbols of black pride and camaraderie that can build unity.

"The most powerful image at the Million Man March was when [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan walked up on that stage surrounded by all his men," says E. Ethelbert Miller, a professor at Howard University in Washington. "He was very dignified. The only place you see that dignity today is on screen in 'Blade.' You should see the way young black kids react to Wesley Snipes. He's a black superhero."

But for others, these marches are more about transforming the individual. Phillip Isom, a Harlem lawyer who went to the Million Man March says, "The process of going helped some people think about what they're trying to do in life - be a better husband, father, or contributor." In going, he says, "some people were trying to make a statement to others, but some were making a statement to themselves."

And in the end, many think it's up to the individual to overcome inequality and hopelessness.

Temeka Campbell is a young mother who lives in Washington with her curly-haired two-year-old daughter, Raegan. She grew up in southeast Washington and now works for an accounting firm. She's headed back to college this fall to study accounting or marketing. "I think Raegan will have the opportunities I have - and more. What's going to play the biggest role in her life? Me."

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