Generations of hope

On the striking difference between the reactions of older and younger African-Americans to Obama's campaign.

By Thomas Schaller

Published November 5, 2008 4:53AM (EST)

At the DNC party at the Mayflower in Washington earlier tonight, once Ohio and Virginia had been called and Barack Obama's victory moved from imminent to certain, I decided to randomly pick two African-Americans at the party from distinctly different generations and solicit their reactions. Their responses were revealing in their similarities, but also in one key difference.

First I spoke with Abeni Cooper, a 28-year-old makeup artist from Northern Virginia. "I feel so awesome," she said. She mentioned that she had spoken earlier to her 88-year-old grandmother, who lives in North Carolina, and got very emotional upon seeing an African-American win the presidency. Cooper's only sadness was that her grandfather had not lived long enough to see it.

Roger Maybin is a 55-year-old D.C. attorney who grew up in my hometown, Albany, N.Y. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime," he said of the election of an African-American president. "I hope it's a turn for the better for race relations." He, too, was sad only because his mother had passed away last year, unable to join him in witnessing what he saw tonight.

So far, very similar reactions. The divergence came when I asked them when they felt confident Barack Obama could really do it, could really win the White House.

"I didn't think he'd get the nomination -- period," Maybin said. When I pressed him to cite the moment in the general election he began to believe Obama could win the general election, Maybin thought about it a moment and then answered, "I was certain after the bailout that it was his to lose."

Cooper? "I thought he could win before the race even started," she said, with not a hint of uncertainty.

On MSNBC an hour later, the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, who has written splendidly about this race all year long, said of Obama's election: "This is a moment of demarcation. There was a before and an after … It feels different to me to be an American tonight." That’s certainly true, and Robinson's sentiment was shared later on the air in the words of civil right hero John Lewis and the tears of pioneering presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.

But there is also a demarcation between an older generation that needs a bit of a nudge to hope and a younger one for whom hope comes almost automatically.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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