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Dreaming and Not Believing

A BOOK WHOSE argument is that young black people, living amid less racism than their parents, see racism as less of an obstacle, is likely to seem unremarkable and even tautological. But if it is written by Ellis Cose, one might anticipate a rather more interesting read. Cose is best known for his The Rage of a Privileged Class, which appeared in 1993 and depicted the lives of even educated blacks as an endless succession of racist slights, glass ceilings, wary salesclerks, shifty realtors, and bigoted cab drivers. One might suppose that in The End of Anger, Cose would paint young blacks’ optimism as the naïveté of cosseted people unaware that the rest of America still sees them as inferiors.

For much of his book, Cose, working from five hundred surveys and two hundred interviews of blacks both old and young, largely treats the young folks with objectivity, giving ample space to their feeling that “yes, there may be prejudice out there, but I am talented enough and tough enough to overcome it.” Plowing much of the “blinking-in-the-light-of-Obama’s-victory” ground that Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration did last year, Cose exhibits that book’s penchant for cohort taxonomies, differentiating the Fighters, the Boomer-age Dreamers, and today’s Believers. (Roughly, the grandparents, the parents, and the children.) Sixty-two percent of black Harvard Business School “Believer” graduates think that they are on equal footing with white colleagues, while only 48 percent of older graduates do. About 55 percent of black adults see a glass ceiling in their workplace, while the percentage for younger blacks hovers in the mid-forties.

But these differences are not exactly dramatic. The premise of Cose’s book is eccentric, albeit in a fashion not readily apparent in this era. We are accustomed to the black writerly class’s almost willful ambivalence towards black success, but this professional wariness is a historical detour, in which 1960s-vintage conceptions of black authenticity have given the assimilation sought by earlier generations of immigrants (including descendants of African slaves) a whiff of capitulation. This has gone along with the assumption that racism, even in its most abstract and evanescent forms, demands more attention than just working around it. “Yes, there may be prejudice out there, but I am talented enough and tough enough to overcome it”: this is the self-preservational creed of any member of a subordinate group. The sense that black Americans are comfortable with that creed in 2011 is in itself news.

It is thus to the book’s credit that it is not a mere chronicle of these unremarkable generational differences. Rather, Cose has an angle. In his chapters about the subprime mortgage fiasco’s greater impact upon blacks, black middle class people being increasingly less likely to out-earn their parents, black ex-cons’ problems finding work, and the less-than-inspiring trajectories of most of the new crop of black politicians besides you-know-who, Cose serves up a good hundred pages of bad news for black people. This initially makes the book feel padded, until one realizes that Cose wants to show that the “new generation’s take on race and rage” is, while understandable, a distraction from a larger truth: a sliver of educated blacks feel liberated, but black skin still subverts the life prospects of most black people who are not lucky enough to have made it to, say, Yale. Naturally, he closes the book with Harvard Business School graduates’ glum advice that rising up the corporate ladder requires never discussing race in a negative way with colleagues, lest they be perceived as “not part of the team.”

But Cose avoids a crucial question: to what extent is the current state of black America, divided between some haves and more have-nots, unusual in an economically stratified country? White Harvard graduates are not exactly “representative” of American whites, after all. Certainly black poverty rates remain much higher than white ones. Yet almost three in four blacks are not poor. (Among whites the figure is about nine in ten.) Black poverty rates fell faster in the 1990s than ever before, and the Latino poverty rate is almost identical to the black poverty rate. The last fact is significant: one of Cose’s subjects properly notes that American race discussions are “still heavily slanted toward black-white relations, when the demographics of the U.S. are changing in many more complex ways. In some ways, the public dialogue is still twenty or thirty years behind the times.”

More and more, the black community’s ills are, while real, not of the sort that elicits “rage” of any coherence or purpose. Historical baggage, human cynicism, and politics (such as Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty offending his heavily black constituency) are often more at fault than any animus against people with black skin. Cose is aware intellectually that the new problems demand something beyond the old-style mentality of protest. But he is so deeply rooted in the culture of the Dreamer that he finds his chipper Believers—as well as blacks telling pollsters they are optimistic about black people’s future—arrestingly curious.

To be fair, Cose and like-minded black people might object that I am underplaying the amount of rage-inducing daily experiences black people endure. In that vein, Cose, like many black men of his time and place, mentions being bypassed by cabs. I know that the taxi problem was rampant in the past. But in nine years of living in New York, I have never once had an available cab pass me by, nor have assorted black men of Cose’s and my demographic whom I have questioned about this.

I assume Cose is telling the truth about his experience, and I expect the same courtesy—which leaves us with a conundrum. It would seem that there is a factor, despite Cose and I being of about the same hue and both of “non-threatening” appearance, that makes cab drivers pass Cose by but stop for me. By sheer logic, the factor cannot be racism. What it is I do not know. But I suspect that, if identified, it would serve as a more interesting topic than the one Cose has chosen.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.