Hip Hop Nation Meets the Civil Rights Generation

"We never said we had a perfect city, we never said we didn't have problems," said Newark New Jersey Mayor Sharpe James as he addressed his supporters at the Service Employees International Union, Newark. "But we've certainly come a long way."

James had just come from voting for himself in a contentious election for mayor of Newark, in which federal poll observers had to be called in to monitor the race. James beat his opponent, freshmen Newark Councilman Cory Booker, 56 to 43 percent, in a heated campaign that spotlighted the generation divide within the black community and how this divide will become a prevalent issue within the African American community for years to come.

This could be seen in the make-up of the two candidates. Booker, a 33-year-old highly educated Ivy League black politician -- an upstart "New Democrat -- and James a 66-year-old Newark civil rights pioneer. While Booker had just moved to the Newark area 6 years before, James has been a Newark resident all of his life.

Booker advocated the use of school vouchers to get black students out of failing schools, decried government corruption and leading up into the campaign, he had made headlines for himself by holding a hunger strike outside a drug-infested housing project, and living in a trailer in front of some of the Newark's worst neighborhoods, to draw attention to the crime in the areas.

James, a long time political player in New Jersey politics, was one of the first black councilmen in Newark. During the campaign, he talked about the progress he helped to usher in as Newark's mayor. He took credit for a 50 percent drop in crime in the city, and the re-development taking place in Newark. Various Downtown businesses such as Prudential, Blue Cross, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and a minor baseball stadium in recent years.

While both James and Booker are Democrats, the friction on the political campaign between the two, is a good example of the divide taking place between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation.

"The black generation gap is a divide that is as vast as the one that separated white America in the 1960s, as radical white youth culture broke from the mainstream and swept across the country," said Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip-Hop Generation: Crisis in African-American Culture."

On the campaign trail, James called Booker an interloper and he questioned his black authenticity.

"You have to learn to be an African-American, and we don't have time to train you all night," said James of Booker.

James also brought out two stalwarts of the civil rights movement, the Reverend Jesse Jackson who called Booker a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and the Reverend Al Sharpton, to campaign for him. This helped to bring out older blacks to vote against the young upstart.

Booker had Spike Lee campaign for him, calling him the "right thing." He also talked about change and bringing efficiency to Newark government so everyone can benefit from the development and changes Newark was experiencing. He made a further drop in crime, more investment dollars into Newark, and a change in the educational system as his main campaign goals.

While Booker downplayed James comments on his authenticity, the comments point to the resentment some older blacks feel towards younger blacks. This gap can be found in continuing disputes over rap lyrics (dismissed as "obscenity" by many older blacks) and the casual use of the "N-word" as a term of endearment by many younger blacks.

It also can increasingly be seen politically. According to a recent study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that younger blacks (ages 18 to 25) were six times (24 percent versus 4 percent) more likely than those ages 51 to 64 to say that the lack of good candidates is a reason not to vote. On issues such as on school vouchers, blacks under 50 are much more likely to support school vouchers than blacks over 50. At 33 million, blacks make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, and of that number, 18 million are under the age of 30.

This group, often called the ``hip-hop generation,'' is much more politically independent than their black elders who went through the civil rights movement. While this challenge of the status quo was apparent in the Newark mayoral race, its also taken place in other cities. This could be seen in the November 2001 Detroit mayoral race between 31-year-old state Sen. Kwame Kilpatrick and 69-year-old Detroit City Council member Gil Hill.

During that race, Hill made an issue of Kilpatrick's age, saying voters should choose "an experienced driver at the wheel, not someone with a learner's permit." While Booker lost to James the seasoned politician, Kilpatrick won in his race against Hill, as voters expressed change.

As Black America changes, blacks from the hip-hop generation will want to lead cities, organizations and corporations and there ambition may come at the expense of blacks from the older generation. While this may be inevitable, if the black community is to succeed, the young will need wisdom and guidance of the older generation. To make that happen, both sides of the gap must mend fences, acknowledge there past errors and foster dialogue between the generations. Hopefully, James and Booker can do this one day.

Lee Hubbard writes on hip-hop, national and urban affairs, and he can be reached by e-mail at superle@hotmail.com. He is a contributor to AlterNet's book, "After 911: Solutions for a Saner World."

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