Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What's changed?

Over the past few days we've seen a lot of history: the nomination of the first African American presidential candidate by a major political party and the first time the Republicans have selected a woman to run for vice president.

The thing that has really struck me, though, is that it's the first time that people of my generation have taken the national stage at this level. Barack Obama's just a few years older than I, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin are my age. Somehow I find it amazing, given that I'm still grappling with the fact that I'm a grownup. It reminds me how little I've achieved, but that's another story.

Michelle Obama, especially, struck me. I first realized it a few months ago when there was all that tsimmis about the senior thesis she wrote at Princeton. She'd studied minority alumni of Ivy League schools and theorized that they tended to diverge from their ethnic communities following graduation. In reading about this, I found that when she was at Princeton, black students accounted for just about four percent of the population. There were 94 black students in her class. I was stunned: I was at Rutgers during those same years, and I saw that many black students on an average visit to the dining hall. What do you gain from being in an environment where everyone looks like you?

Even more shocking, her white roommate's mom had lobbied the deans to get her a new housing assignment. And what's disturbing now: the current Princeton student population is only about four percent black, though there is a higher percentage of students labelling themselves as 'other' on the question. So has anything really changed? You'd think that by now, an Ivy League school would be all about creating a learning environment that exposes students to different points of view and different backgrounds. You'd think.

I'm still trying to parse out my feelings on all of this, and I'm not especially eloquent on them. But I guess we're of a generation now where people don't care so much that a successful person is black. They might notice it, but it doesn't have the same impact it once did. And maybe to a point, it's gotten to where a successful black person isn't accused of playing white just because he or she has gotten somewhere in life. The old guard who, by necessity, had to fight harder because they were black, are now being succeeded by the people who were children then and are now benefitting from their elders' hard work.

We've seen the same thing with women; I get the feeling most of the time that the successful 20 and 30 somethings never even considered that they 'weren't supposed to' have what they have. Some would see that as ungrateful. I see it as progress. And to get elected, women don't have to wave the feminist flag and a liberal agenda. It's kind of cool to not vote for the woman because she's too conservative for your liking. That, my friends, is progress.

So getting back to the thesis here, it feels good that my age peers are making it to the top. Whether I agree with their politics is irrelevant. The fact that it's more about their stands than their gender or race is what makes me happy.

No comments: