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The Generation Gap in Black Leadership

The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s controversial comments about Barack Obama represent more than just a conflict between two men. USC’s Ange-Marie Hancock says the incident exposes a rift between older civil rights leaders who broke down doors, and the younger African Americans who thrived on the other side.

Last week, Rev. Jesse Jackson was caught in off-color comments criticizing Barack Obama for “talking down” to black voters and stressing personal responsibility and faith-based programs. Later, Jackson expressed fears that Obama’s emphasis on faith-based social services would detract from the need for government help in troubled black communities. The incident lays bare a deeper divide in African American leadership, says Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science in the USC College.

“The difference of opinion between Rev. Jackson and Sen. Obama is a classic case of the generation gap that exists within the African American community, with both sides needing to hear what the other is saying,” Hancock explains. “On the one hand, the older civil rights generation of black political leaders wants respect for the history and experience that they gathered over decades of bruising political battles, which they rightly deserve. On the other, younger leaders want the chance to translate what they have learned on the other side of the doors that the movement leaders opened for them into greater progress against new challenges.”

“Only when both generations come together and truly recognize that the 21st century is both a product of history and a chance for a new day in America will there be further political progress for African Americans,” Hancock says.

“Given the challenges Obama faced about the intersection of race and faith during the primaries, there is concern among a few black ministers that the campaign’s commitment to faith-based initiatives will downplay its connection with the black church tradition — a social justice tradition that resonates with many African Americans, religious or not,” she notes. “The inclusive new politics that Obama embraces also counter some of the socially conservative aspects of the black church tradition, which only further worries black church leaders that the tradition will be swept away, with little respect for its contributions to American life.”

Far from hurting Obama’s presidential chances, this clash of old and new may actually give him a boost. “Obama must convince all of America he will not govern simply in the interest of African American people, and so the dust-up with Rev. Jackson and the distance it creates could assist him politically,” Hancock says.

Ange-Marie Hancock of the USC College is an expert on African American politics and the roles of race and gender in the political arena. She is author of The Politics of Disgust and the Public Identity of the “Welfare Queen” and the upcoming Beyond the Oppression Olympics: A Politics of Solidarity for the 21st Century.

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The Generation Gap in Black Leadership

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