Young blacks turning activist Economic equality seen as next step in struggle

August 10, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

These activists bear little resemblance to the civil rights pioneers of yore. They don't do sit-ins or marches. They aren't getting arrested fighting for their rights.

But quietly, deliberately, blacks in their teens and 20s are rediscovering activism in numbers not seen for decades.

"I think our young people are finally sensing a state of emergency," says Jamal Harrison Bryant, director of the youth and college division of the NAACP. A generation ago, "our parents had a visible goal: desegregation, bring the signs down, sit where you want. But the problems now are invisible. I see a hunger in young people's eyes. They want to know, 'What can I do about it?' "

Experts say the trend began in the early 1990s and has taken on steam in the past few years, motivated by the Million Man March held in Washington in 1995 and by the dismantling of such social programs as welfare and affirmative action. Spurred by their activist forebears and by increasing awareness that the struggle is far from over, younger African-Americans are getting involved en masse.

For example, Million Youth Movement rallies next month in Atlanta and New York are expected to draw thousands and focus in part on voter participation, which speaks to another growing realization among young blacks: They carry tremendous political clout.

Of those who are of voting age -- 10 percent to 15 percent call themselves conservative or Republican.

Not only are they politically active, many talk of starting businesses, investing money, building capital -- taking care of their own.

At the heart of their movement is the sentiment that, with the political and social gains of the 1950s and 1960s in place, the next crucial step will be made not just by demonstrating in the streets but by wielding a hefty checkbook.

"Young African-Americans are more interested in economic equality than they are in traditional civil rights," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor who studies youth activism at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The arena is not the same today, but the cause is a common one: Racial equality is the thread through it all.

"Younger blacks have never had trouble getting on a bus or registering to vote, but they've all heard about their cohorts having problems getting jobs and getting promotions."

The NAACP's Bryant saw evidence of the new fervor last month in Atlanta, where more than 3,500 teen-agers attended the annual convention of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The numbers had leapt more than 50 percent over recent years.

The next frontier

At the convention, Vice President Al Gore called economic empowerment "the next great civil rights frontier."

Many young blacks agree.

David Bositis, a policy analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based black think tank, says no one has quantified the social shift of young black activism. But anecdotal evidence shows something is afoot, he says.

"Some black Generation X-ers are looking to forge their own identity, with references to things like they're going out there to take care of themselves and the government isn't going to be there for them," he says.

While respecting the groundwork of their predecessors, they want to elevate the movement to a new level.

At each of the NAACP convention's youth workshops, hundreds asked questions, debated one another -- and enjoyed themselves.

At one meeting, young black professionals urged teens to save their money religiously and to work longer and harder than they might think necessary. "Stop and think about it," one panelist said. "Bill Gates is the richest man in America, but he still goes to work every day."

Another session addressed delayed gratification: Don't buy expensive sneakers -- save to buy the athletic shoe store. Teens were urged to think of themselves as a group with spending power.

"I think we've become too comfortable," Bryant, 27, said after the convention. "Our parents' parents would not have bought $125 sneakers. Even in my generation that would not have happened. A lot of our young people have Walkmans and trendy clothes and don't have a personal computer and are always saying they're broke. This is a matter of fighting the culture."

Many are fighting.

Michael Hunt, a 15-year-old Baltimorean, attended the convention and is determined that his generation will leave society on surer footing than they found it.

"Young people were never taught to get involved. We were never taught we could make a difference," says Hunt, who is active in Baltimore's NAACP youth chapter at his school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and his church, New Shiloh Baptist.

"But people are opening doors to us now," he says, "They're seeing the youth do the right thing."

The activity is not limited to teen-agers, nor to the NAACP.

Resurgence of interest

Many traditional civil rights organizations throughout the country see a resurgence of interest from young adults.

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