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Generation of Young Blacks Suffers from Lack of Leaders, Lack of Cause

They are upwardly mobile MBAs and recruits for the underclass.

They are the dreamers and doers wearing proud robes in the United Negro College Fund commercial, with Maya Angelou's voice reminding them they are "the dream and the hope of the slave."

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They are stuffed inside body bags on the 6 o'clock news.

In more than just marketing rhetoric, blacks in their 20s are the X Generation. X is the unknown, an enigma. X is a crossroads.

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Their parents marched on Washington before they were born. They're lucky if they can remember Watergate, much less the black fists raised in protest at the 1968 Olympics. They grew up humming the theme to "The Jeffersons." They march to the beat of hip-hop.

America's black twentysomethings are both the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement and its leftover scraps. Depending on whom you ask, they've never had it better -- or never had it worse.

"We had no cause. We had nothing to fight for. For middle-class blacks it was all given to us in strip malls and our proms that cost $80," says 21-year-old Reginald Hanna, a senior at Howard University who lives in Perrine, a suburb of Miami.

Yet, as young blacks witness the dismantling of programs their elders fought to secure, and as the chasm between the haves and have-nots seems harder than ever to bridge, many feel unarmed, un-unified and leaderless.

They blame their post-civil-rights predecessors from the 1970s and '80s, saying a doctrine of individual gain has replaced the notion of collective gain and racial unity. Somewhere, somehow, they say, the circle has been broken.

"The torch is supposed to be passed, right? We're the generation the torch has been dropped on," said Erick Carter, a 29-year-old teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County, Fla.

"Basically, we were running, and someone was coming with the torch, and they just stopped halfway and put the torch down. You can either keep running without the torch, or you can go back and pick it up."

The torch was dropped, says Earl T. Shinhoster, 45, acting executive director of the 86-year-old NAACP, which has its headquarters in Baltimore. The Me Generation has taken its toll on black consciousness, Mr. Shinhoster says. Young blacks, whose parents tried to shield them from the hardships they knew, have been left in a cultural limbo, he said.

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"This generation, unlike any other generation in the history of our people, is a generation devoid of a consistent and sustained knowledge of Africa and African-American experience historically. Therefore, they don't have the background to overcome many of the challenges they're going to face."

But many young blacks are being shaken by political events and realities in their communities that point out a need to pick the torch back up, and fast.

Today, 30 percent of black families live in poverty, slightly more than in 1969. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. The median black family income is not even 60 percent of the median white family income, slightly less than in 1970. Nearly half of all black families are headed by women.

Blacks are lost in alarming numbers to gunfire and AIDS. The number of blacks earning professional degrees has been

declining in the past 15 years. Blacks' college debts have risen. And so on.

And politicians, radio hosts and Supreme Court justices tell blacks resoundingly, "Hey, you should have overcome by now." In May and June alone, the Supreme Court:

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* Ruled that college scholarships intended for blacks are unconstitutional.

* Tightened the reins on affirmative action in federal programs.

* Voted that states may limit spending on school desegregation. * Disallowed drawing political districts to ensure the election of black candidates.

"On a political level, there's some real moves to put this generation into a squeeze play," says Farai Chideya, 25, the New York-based author of the recently published "Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans."

Kermit Wyche of Plantation, Fla., the 29-year-old director of marketing for Jackson Memorial Hospital Health Plan in Miami, contends that the torch to his generation wasn't dropped -- it was yanked away.

"[The system] snuffed out the leaders trying to pass the torch -- and that's not specific to just Martin Luther King, if you take a look at the number of the leaders we have had in the past who have been in some way assassinated or taken down from scandal or some form of manipulation," says Mr. Wyche.

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Adds Cin D Quashie, 29, a Carol City, Fla., poet who publishes an underground hip-hop magazine, FreeGround: "You know what our generation is? Our generation is those two bullets fired at Malcolm and Martin about to ricochet up somebody's behind."

So what are young blacks going to do about it?

Many begin by listing what's wrong: Blacks need more communication. They need to learn about their history and literature. They need to focus on families. They need to work on building their own businesses instead of working for others.

For solutions, they say, they need leaders. And they believe the leaders their generation produces will be more brash and outspoken than more recent black leaders. The measures they choose -- whatever they may be -- will have to be more drastic than affirmative-action programs, they say.

In fact, as much as they decry the forces of institutional racism, young blacks aren't staring at the Man for solutions -- they're staring into the mirror.

"We're in a state now where our roof is leaking, the window glass is broken, termites have eaten out the walls, the bathroom is flooded, the furniture is broken and the electricity is off," Ms. Quashie says. "We have to make a sign that says 'Closed for Repairs' and hang it on our front gate.

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"We have some of us growing up with our preacher daddies and some of us growing up with our drunk uncles. You have these extremes in our communities, and that is destroying us because we have some people who know how to fight with their hands, and we have those who know how to fight with their minds -- and unfortunately, they don't know each other."

One of their bridges is their music -- hip-hop -- entertainment and political motivator.

"Our only movement -- and all of us are not [into it] -- is hip-hop, is rap," says Mr. Hanna, who has come home from Howard University to help with the family business after his father's sudden death.

"It's no longer about the beat anymore. . . . It's about 'What are you saying?' That's what upsets the Establishment and people who are anti-rap, because brothers and sisters are telling the truth in hip-hop. They're telling us to wake up."

When Sister Souljah visited Miami this year to promote her memoirs, "No Disrespect" (Times Books, $23), her audience spanned all ages -- including middle-aged parents frightened for their children's future and looking to her for answers.

(Sister Souljah is the rapper criticized by then-candidate Bill Clinton after the Los Angeles riots, when she was quoted in The Washington Post as saying of gang members, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week to kill white people?")

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Older activists are "dinosaurs," the 30-year-old New Yorker said in an interview, remarking on resistance she's met. "That's why we need a young adult-led movement."

Sister Souljah isn't the only one disenchanted with current black leadership. Others complain that today's blacks in positions of authority are too accustomed to perks and reluctant to speak out.

"It's more important, it seems," said Ms. Quashie, "for a lot of these national, in-the-news people to be politically correct, properly aligned, get the right sound bites, get invited to the right balls, be on 'Larry King,' than it is to say, 'You know something? People ain't got no money. They can't feed their kids. They're selling crack to feed their children. Something is wrong.' "

Mr. Shinhoster, of the NAACP, counters by saying that young blacks need to focus more on what their role should be, not on what isn't being done.

"They need to look inward from the perspective of 'What can I do?' and not take the easy way out by assigning blame, or assigning responsibility to someone else. They say, 'Why isn't the NAACP doing this?' Are you a member? No. [They ask] 'Why isn't this elected official doing X, Y or Z?' Have you told him about it? Have you voted? No."

Leadership, he says, doesn't drop out of the sky.

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"The notion that there has ever been one leader is a fiction," Mr. Shinhoster says. "I always say, 'Lord, deliver us from leaders, and deliver us unto leadership.' We must get away from this notion that there must be 'the leader.' We all can demonstrate leadership qualities in our daily walk."

Whether it's because of their parents' nostalgia, or romanticism of a time they didn't experience, many young blacks still believe a dynamic individual can rally people in the tradition of the 1960s. And, they say, that leader is likely to be one of them.

"It has to be from our generation. Has to be. There's no doubt," says Mr. Wyche, the marketing director. "We need somebody who's going to be there long-term, and we need somebody to connect, on a personal level, with the youth."

Mr. Wyche says the next national black leader must be someone who is educated and sharp, but who has roots and ties to "the 'hood." That person must be able to communicate across all socioeconomic lines to push a unified agenda.

L And the solutions, he says, are going to have to be radical.

"We have to be visionaries, and we have to understand that we cannot make a dramatic change without doing things dramatically differently than we have in the past," Mr. Wyche says.

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He isn't alone in that belief.

"The Generation X people are allowing the older people to come up with the solutions, and it's not happening," says 24-year-old Thamara Labrousse, a community outreach specialist for Switchboard of Miami. The solutions "are going to have to be radical, drastic, very different."

For starters, Ms. Labrousse says, she'd like to see more emphasis on family and youth.

After her mother died five years ago, when Ms. Labrousse was 19, she was left with the responsibility of raising her brother and sister, then 13 and 10.

If she had $10 million, Ms. Labrousse says, she would open a facility for unwanted children so they could receive nurturing and love.

"There are just too many of our black families that are dysfunctional. There's too much abuse. There's too much neglect. Our children need structure," she says. "Every college student in this community needs to make it their business to mentor an elementary-school student."

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The charismatic "leader" blacks have awaited since Martin Luther King's death, the one young blacks describe, is still an unknown variable. An X.

But the leader will appear, young blacks are certain -- not because he or she will want to, but because he or she must.

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This article was written for Knight-Ridder News Service.



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