Jewish Journal

Optimism and the Future

by  David A. Lehrer

April 29, 2010 | 4:55 pm

Many boomers like me vividly remember events like the 1968 Mexico Olympics when young African Americans expressed their anger and contempt for America and what it represented—-lifting their clenched fists as they stood on the medal podium. One didn’t have to be a Freud to figure out that given the events of the era, there was a pervasive pessimism about the future of Blacks in America that manifested itself in the clenched fists, Black Panthers, riots in major urban centers, and countless other evidences of unalloyed despair and rage.

Given those memories, one has to be dumbstruck by a poll released today that can only be seen as the polar opposite of the late 1960’s attitudes among young African Americans.

The Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College released the results of a nationwide survey of nearly one thousand high school students. The study found that African American teens were much more optimistic than white teens: 69% of Black students said they believe they’ll have a higher standard of living than their parents, while only 36% of whites feel the same way. Overall, 39% of those surveyed believe they will be more prosperous than their parents. Young Blacks are nearly twice as optimistic about their economic future as whites.

The survey primarily focused on the level of economic information that young people have (e.g. 34% could correctly identify the national debt, 27% knew the approximate level of the Dow, 49% knew the unemployment rate, etc.). But the datum on optimism is the one that stands out among all the survey answers.

Presumably, the optimism of black youth is related to Barack Obama being president and black students’ enthusiasm for him. Black students give Obama an approval rating at the 70% level, while white students approve of Obama at 21%.  Pollsters describe this as the “Obama effect.”

A recent Harvard study of 18-29 year olds concluded that “young African-Americans have this serious afterglow (referring to the Obama election) that is not as strong with whites and Hispanics…and that’s despite (African American youth) having more serious economic concerns.”

In reporting on this study, MSNBC quoted DeQuan Foster, a fifteen year old high school sophomore in Newark, New Jersey, “You’re always told anything is possible—-but when you see it, you believe it. It makes me want to try twice as hard.”

These numbers (however small the sample) offer some genuine optimism about where we are heading as a nation and the progress we are making.

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