Race and Class

THE Monitor's special report on African-Americans, which begins on Page 9 of today's edition, focuses on the generational shift in black leadership that parallels the transition in America's national leadership reflected in the youthful Clinton-Gore administration.

Of course, the continuum of a people's collective experience doesn't segment into tidy generational blocks. Many active black leaders in their 50s - Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, for instance - bridge the gap between the "civil rights generation" of Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, and the generation of blacks who came of age after legal segregation was abolished. Their contributions can hardly be overlooked.

Nonetheless, over time people's experiences and viewpoints often change in ways that roughly correspond with generational age differences. Thus the "changing of the guard" model is one useful way to examine the black experience in America today.

In addition to this "vertical" divide, though, there also are widening "horizontal" differences among blacks in outlooks, goals, and agendas. Chief among these are growing class differences, as more and more African-Americans join the middle class. Many successful blacks are moving to the suburbs, and their aspirations and concerns are as much those of the middle class as of the black community.

Other blacks are alarmed by this trend: They worry that upwardly mobile blacks will lose a sense of responsibility toward struggling blacks in the inner cities, and they believe that African-Americans will suffer politically if class supplants race as a theme in public discourse about black needs.

The resolution of such differences will be a major part of the next chapter in the history of black Americans.

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