Friday, January 27, 2012

Fight or Flight (revised)

The Greatest and Second Greatest Generations
As a black American, I am especially mindful of a group of pioneers, the successive generations of courageous black activists who pushed the frontiers of freedom in wave after wave, beginning with their emancipation. Whereas some have argued that the "Greatest Generation" of (mostly white) Americans were the brave soldiers and sailors who fought against tyrannical enemies in World War II, I have long believed that the "Greatest Generation" of black Americans were the ex-slaves who lifted themselves and their children up from mass ignorance into mass literacy in the decades following the Civil War.

And my nominee for the "Second Greatest Generation" of black Americans would be the courageous activists who risked their lives to wage the successful Civil Rights Revolution in the 1960s in strenuous efforts to complete the journey of black Americans from slavery to freedom.

Unfortunately, the journey wasn't completed, so there is still much work to be done. Many of us anticipated that far greater progress would have been made between the audacious 60s and today than actually occurred. Significant achievement gaps between blacks and whites narrowed, then displayed an obnoxious persistence. Obviously we need a few more waves of pioneers to reach our destination.

But as I grow older, I am saddened to note that courage, like other human qualities, ebbs and flows from one generation to the next. One generation's record breakers may be followed by another generations' regression to the mean. My sadness has also tempered some of the elation that I would have otherwise felt by the publication of my younger daughter's first book, Opting Out, Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite (Maya A. Beasley, University of Chicago Press, November 2011). Warning: the next few paragraphs contain shameless plugs from a very proud Daddy ... :-)

My daughter's book is an expanded and greatly enhanced version of the PhD dissertation that she wrote while she was at Stanford University. She begins her "Acknowledgements" as follows:
"The inspiration for this book comes from my time in Palo Alto toward the end of dot-com boom. As a graduate student living on a small stipend, I was keenly aware of the immense wealth flowing through Silicon Valley and the opportunities being taken up by young professionals. As a woman of color, however, I was also acutely aware of the dearth of African Americans that were a part of this phenomenon. I had known many intelligent, creative black students during my college years at Harvard, and as a graduate student at Stanford I had encountered a diverse undergraduate student body. I wondered how it was that Harvard and Stanford had relatively large black undergraduate populations, yet so few of the professionals I observed off campus were black."
After reviewing the relavant literature that provides extensive support for her findings, her book presents an exploratory study of the career decisions that were made by 30 black undergraduates at Berkeley and Stanford . She focused on the decisions that many of them made not to pursue careers for which they were qualified in high paying, high prestige fields -- e.g., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and finance -- after they correctly or incorrectly perceived the existence of racism among the predominantly white members of the faculty who taught the courses that led to the degrees that provided entry to those professions and among the practitioners of those professions. Many of these elite students opted instead for careers in more "racialized" fields, her term for fields that already contained a substantial number of black professionals. In other words, they chose not to become pioneers.

My daughter sent me chapters from time to time as she was writing her dissertation, and I recall my blood pressure soaring by thirty or forty points on each reading.  Her quotes of the students' explanations for why they were opting out were all the more galling to me coming behind her quotation from one of my personal intellectual heroes at the beginning of her first chapter,
"The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men." (W.E.B. DuBois, "The Talented Tenth," 1903) 
Given such golden opportunities, how could these highly talented youngsters not want to become pioneers?

The Third Greatest Generation and Second Thoughts
When I wrote the first version of this essay about two months ago, I stopped at the end of the preceding paragraph. I was not only saddened by my daughters' findings that so many of the students in her sample underperformed in the face of racism as per psychologist Claude Steele's findings about "stereotype threat", but by the painful irony that, even as her book was being delivered to the stores, my daughter was confronting circumstances in her own employment that were uncomfortably akin to the ones the students had hoped to avoid.

But since then, I have been re-reading sections of her book, especially the sections that indicated that the students' perceptions were not based so much on their own direct encounters with racism, but on the more extensive experiences of their parents and other friends and relatives in their parents' generation, the generation that walked through the doors in the 70s and 80s that were opened by the Civil Rights Activists in the 60s. They learned from their elders what racism looks like when you're one of the first to integrate an organization or a work place, how ugly it is, and how painful it can be.

But as my daughter and I continued to discuss her findings, a new possibility emerged. Perhaps the students she interviewed at the beginning of the New Millennium had only learned half of the lessons their parents and relatives might have taught them? Perhaps their parents didn't teach the other half because they were hoping that times had changed enough so that those other lessons wouldn't be necessary?

Whereas the Second Greatest Generation fought their integration battles in the glare of the nation's media, the battles fought by the generation that followed them through the doors of integration were solitary skirmishes and barely noted. Like soldiers coming home from an unpopular war, there were no media to mark their triumphs, no parades to thank them for their service. So the question is:
How did that next generation, the Third Greatest Generation if you will, conjure up the courage to persevere unnoticed, to quietly become the first black Americans to integrate so many fields and so many work places that were hitherto bastions of segregation that their children had the option to fall back into these now safer "racialized" occupations because the racists had been quelled?
And then I watched Soledad O'Brien's excellent documentary on CNN, "Black in America, the New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" ... actually, I watched it on TV, then downloaded it to my Mac and watched it three more times!!! If you haven't seen it yet, stop reading this essay, click the link in the previous sentence, download the video from iTunes, and watch it right now!!!

OK, I apologize. That's a bit over the top. But the video is a brilliant example of TV journalism at its best. Whereas Ms. O'Brien noted that there were no black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, my daughter had identified the blockage in the pipeline at the source, at Berkeley and Stanford, the elite colleges that supplied a hefty percentage of the Valley's engineers-turned-entrepreneurs. If talented black students were opting out, it follows that Ms. Obrien's camera crew would have difficulty finding any black entrepreneurs ... except for the ones who just moved from all over the country into the high-tech boot camp in a house in the Valley for nine weeks to prepare to make do-or-die presentations to fat-cat venture capitalists. These were the black entrepreneurs whom the camera crew followed around day-after-day as the stars of Ms. O'Brien's reality TV documentary.

I won't spoil your fun by summarizing the video, except to say that for me, the high point came when an Indian professor, as in, a dark-skinned professor born in India, challenged the entrepreneurs to acknowledge three undeniable facts:
  • Many black Americans seem to feel that past injustice will entitle them to special treatment in the future. It doesn't work that way.

  • The only substantial help they would receive would be the help they gave to each other.
  • Prejudice in the Valley was still so powerful that they should seriously consider hiring well-spoken white students from Berkeley or Stanford to make their presentations to venture capitalists on their behalf -- which is what the dark-skinned professor had been advised to do many years ago when he was starting his own company.
After he rubbed their noses into the harsh realities of ongoing prejudice, after the shock of his comments settled in, the black wannabe entrepreneurs did not emit a "stereotype threat" response. They didn't opt out. They buckled down and helped each other make the best presentations of their lives!

Yes, courage ebbs and flows from one generation to the next, but the good news from this video is that it's flowing again. It's flowing ... :-)

Related notes: