School & District Management Commentary

From Obama’s Generation

By Amy Stuart Wells — March 02, 2009 6 min read

As our new president settles into the Oval Office and rolls up his sleeves, much has been printed, blogged, and broadcast about the symbolic meaning of his presidency. Not only is he America’s first African-American president, but he is also the first president born in the 1960s—at the tail end of the baby boom and in the midst of the civil rights movement. While the pundits have made much of each of these firsts, few have considered how these two symbols—of race and generation—coincide with the legacy of this country’s struggle to desegregate its public schools.

Indeed, if the early baby boomers conjure up images of Woodstock and Vietnam War protests, President Barack Obama’s later baby-boom cohort has, until now, been less visible and well-defined. Most reports of this mid-40s to mid-50s generation portray an apathetic and cynical group that was too young to partake of the heady 1960s, and thus reflects the disillusionment of the 1970s.

But recent research on Mr. Obama’s peers suggests a different picture. Because they entered elementary school at the advent of school desegregation and were more likely to attend racially diverse schools than any generation before them, those born in the late 1950s and early 1960s have a potential for leadership in a multiracial, multi-ethnic, and global society that is far greater than we know.


The 47-year-old president’s generation has garnered several epithets, including the “tail end” or “twilight” of the baby boom, or simply “late boomers.” Others characterize it as a “tweener” or “lost generation” caught between the baby boom and Generation X. And finally, an increasingly popular name for this midlife crowd is “Generation Jones,” reflecting the yearning (or “jonesing”) of its members for the coolness of the 1960s and their parents’ efforts to keep up with the Joneses.

Generation Jones came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an era characterized by the country’s economic struggles and shifting politics, from civil rights to free markets. Its members became young adults at the peak of yuppiedom and, according to many commentators, exemplified that culture’s selfishness and self-absorption.

Yet despite their yearning for what they missed in the 1960s, the members of Mr. Obama’s generation were at the epicenter of—and in many instances redefined by—one of the boldest public policies of the 20th century, an experience that most of their older siblings missed. Because the various mandates to desegregate public schools did not take effect until more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, this cohort, most of whom entered kindergarten in the 1960s and graduated from high school in the late 1970s or early 1980s, was the first to attend racially diverse schools in large numbers.

Based on research my colleagues and I have conducted on racially diverse high schools and their 1980 graduates (those born in 1961 or 1962), we argue that many of these “late boomers” emerged from their public school experiences with a deeper understanding of people of other backgrounds and an increased sense of comfort in interracial settings.

In survey and interview data, we find that compared with older generations, and their peers who attended racially segregated schools, the graduates of desegregation are more open-minded, less prejudiced, and less fearful of other races. Most said they found themselves far better prepared for life in a global society and more adept at reaching across cultures and nationalities. To put it simply, as one of the white graduates we interviewed noted, “It’s a lot easier to be afraid of people you don’t really know.”

The stories of these graduates, then, clearly resonate with President Obama’s argument in his “race speech” last March: “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together—unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes.”

Many ‘late boomers’ emerged from their public school experiences with a deeper understanding of people of other backgrounds and an increased sense of comfort in interracial settings.

But the stories of school desegregation’s graduates also show that, as Mr. Obama has pointed out, far more work needs to be done. In fact, once the graduates we studied left their racially diverse high schools, efforts to desegregate public schools or their neighborhoods were not a national priority. Racial segregation in housing has eased very little over the last 25 years, and racial and ethnic segregation in public schools has worsened. The average white person still lives in a neighborhood that is 80 percent white and only 7 percent black. Meanwhile, a typical African-American lives in a neighborhood that is only 33 percent white and more than half black. And even though the country’s K-12 student population is nearly 60 percent white, most students of color attend schools that are substantially segregated—70 percent or more black and/or Latino.

Thus, despite their fond memories of cross-racial friendships, the graduates of school desegregation we studied have filtered into a separate and unequal society. Furthermore, they have embarked on careers, married, had children, and settled down in an era that tells them to focus more on themselves and their own wealth than on the problems of others or the greater good. Thus, these middle-aged graduates, nearly 30 years later, help us better understand the missed opportunities of the past. Or, as another white graduate we interviewed said, after the 1970s, “nobody ... had, like, second gear for the civil rights movement.”

Most of the nearly 300 graduates of desegregation we have interviewed for two studies said they wish their neighborhoods were more racially and ethnically integrated. They want both excellence and diversity in their children’s public schools, to prepare them for the 21st century. They laugh at the fact that, when they were growing up, they thought desegregation was preparing them for the “real world,” but now find that the real world is far more segregated than their schools were back in the 1960s and ‘70s.

It may be, then, that Generation Jones’ yearning is about the more integrated and equal society they envisioned when they were in school. And yet, in these graduates’ jonesing for places that look more like their public schools did, we can see the possibility of that needed second gear. Some kind of social movement, however, must take their sense of loss forward to press a new reform agenda around these issues of diversity in schools and neighborhoods. After November of 2008, such a movement seems more possible.

Mr. Obama has given his “generation"—which he defines less by age and more by spirit—another name: the “Joshua Generation,” based on the biblical figure who led the Israelites into the Promised Land after Moses had freed them from bondage. The Moses-Joshua metaphor for the U.S. struggle for greater racial equality implies that while Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Anna Julia Cooper, and other leaders of the 1950s and ’60s played the role of Moses, it is Mr. Obama’s generation that must play the part of Joshua, taking the movement the next step of the way. In the meantime, Mr. Obama has more closely linked the issues of racial injustice to the common struggles of poor whites and Latinos.

Creating this broad political base, while keeping issues of racial inequality and the unique struggle of African-Americans as a central focus, should speak directly to most of the 40-something graduates of school desegregation we studied. Based on our research, I argue that the Obama Generation proves not to be lost or jonesing about Woodstock, but rather yearning to pick up where those before them left off, when they were lost in the materialism of the 1980s and beyond.

Or, as our new president has said, "[I]t was left to the Joshuas to finish the journey Moses had begun, and today we’re called to be the Joshuas of our time, to be the generation that finds our way across this river.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as From Obama’s Generation


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