Is racism interpersonal or systemic? If you were born after 1980, you may very well believe the former. A new report from the Applied Research Center takes a fresh look at the racial attitudes of the millenials, as they’re called, that up-and-coming generation of people ages 18 to 30. And their thoughts on race, like all matters of race in America, are a complicated mixed bag.
Most of all, in the age of Obama, this study throws cold water on the notion that we live in a post-racial, colorblind society — that the president is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. In other words, race actually still matters.
In one sense, the results of the study are encouraging. A majority of young people understand that race continues to play a significant role in education, the criminal justice system, immigration, employment and other sectors of society.
For example, only 10 percent believe race is not a factor in the criminal justice system. “Why is it that over 90 percent of prison inmates are people of color? Rates of black men in prison versus rates of black men in college — obviously, there’s something going on that’s wrong,” said Margarita, 22, a Filipina-American and part-time program coordinator who participated in the study.
“The whole war on drugs is a war on black and brown folks. So what happens to a white person with a drug problem, right? Rich celebrities in rehab on television vs. people I know who face jail time for marijuana charges.”
However, this is not to say that all millenials, the nation’s largest and most diverse generation of all time, think alike. Among members of the focus group — which included blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans and whites between 18 and 25 years — young people of color were able to make more of a connection between race and disparities in opportunity and resources. Many whites, on the other hand, had more of a problem connecting the dots.
In addition, the ethnic and racial groups in the survey held different viewpoints on how important a role race plays. For example, while most whites and Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders believed racism in housing is a significant issue, less than a third of blacks and Latinos agreed. And while a majority of participants found that racism continues in employment practices, and a majority of millenials of color believed there is racism in public education, only a minority of whites thought the educational system poses problems of a racial nature.
And just as many millenials are concerned about race and want to talk about it, they tend to have a more open and tolerant view towards race relations. For example, a majority are in favor of interracial dating and marriage, a practice which was illegal in some Southern states until 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down this holdover from Jim Crow. And no other generation has entered into as many interracial marriages as millenials. This is a good thing.
Moreover, the individuals who were part of the Applied Research Center report had much to say about the election of the nation’s first African-American president, the significance of the Obama presidency and the backlash reflected in today’s national climate.
“Well, I think this could be just an edge-case situation where…one time somebody from a minority group is elected. But if you look at Congress, it’s still like 99-percent old white men,” said Courtney, a 19-year-old white college student. “I think that once we see more… minorities in all types of government, we can say that race doesn’t have that big of an effect anymore. Because right now we elected one half-black guy. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the long scheme of things.” Courtney added.
Edward, 23, an unemployed Chinese-American college graduate, agrees. “I mean there is still plenty of ethnic minorities who are doing very poorly in this country. Because one of them rose in the ranks does not necessarily say that they all can, or they are all provided the opportunity. It says that one made it. That is all it says.”
“He played by the rules…As a black man, he passed very well as a white man…If he was an African-American man with dreadlocks, do you think he would’ve been a president?” asked Pilar, 23, a Latina graduate student. “Like, let’s be real about that. So he played by the rules, and I don’t think there’s anything about like a ‘post-racial’ Obama society.”
Theresa, a 24-year-old biracial college graduate, expressed concerns about America’s political environment in the age of Obama: “Ever since Obama came into office, I’ve noticed that the political climate has become really racist and racial too. First, it was kind of towards blacks, and now we are having issues with the borders and ‘Let’s hate the Mexicans.’ And 9/11 — ‘Oh, we still hate the Muslims.’ And white people…there are groups of white people that are, like, ‘yeah, let’s embrace this racist attitude we have,’ and now it’s becoming okay to say some of these things in a political nature in media. And, wow, this is insane.” “In my political science class, I’m hearing whites go off. They seem very angry. They kinda feel threatened,” said Ed, 24, a Filipino-American, part-time student, part-time product developer. “The tension is there, you can feel it. It’s just interesting. They say stuff about immigration, where their money for taxes is going.”
Meanwhile, Earl, 23, a black college student, discussed the significance of the Tea Party phenomenon. “Everything that comes out of their mouth is this underlying thing over President Obama. ‘He’s destroying our way of life’ and ‘We need to return it back to the way it was.’ …That’s the constant message that comes up,” he said.
Earl continued, “I can’t really recollect Clinton, but it didn’t seem like people were pushing and telling him that he was destroying their way of life, and they needed to return stuff back. But I feel that with President Obama, it is that. And that is a clear blatant form of racism. And people are just masking it under a lot of other things.”
However, one area where America’s most diverse generation falls short is in their inability to articulate modern-day racial problems. In a nation where racism is an already difficult subject, a majority of young people find it difficult to define racism, according to the report.
Typically, millenials discuss racism in interpersonal terms — as something occurring between individuals, such as discrimination based on color, or stereotypes — as opposed to describing it as a system-wide problem that implicates entire societal institutions. While most white young people believe racism is an intentional act taking place between individual people, millenials of color will readily label a system as racist, even as they articulate racism in person-to-person terms. In contrast, those millenials with special education or training in racial issues view racism as systemic.
This tendency of the millennial generation to talk about racism as interpersonal rather than institutional reflects a generational divide. Completely divorced from the experiences of the Civil Rights movement, a new generation of Americans has reached adulthood without any frame of reference to provide them with a proper context, save their own limited and often lacking personal experiences.
But can we really blame the millenials for their shortcomings? Certainly not. Young people are only as competent on matters of race as society allows them to become. To some extent, an older generation — battle-weary from the days of the movement — sought to shield their children from the excruciatingly painful details of this country’s segregationist past. Old school veterans failed to teach, to pass along the lessons of the movement to those who came after, focusing instead on material values.
You cannot fault people for wanting to get paid, move ahead and seek a better life for their family. Yet, with young people lacking a proper grounding in history and socio-political matters — and in many cases also lacking a job after graduation from college and living with their parents — there is a sense that millenials are ill-equipped and unprepared. And the old folks let them down on so many levels.
With the unveiling of the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington only a few weeks away, the slain leader and civil rights icon has unfortunately been reduced to the least common denominator. So, the man who led boycott campaigns, condemned the evil triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation, and called for a “radical revolution of values” is painted as an idealistic dreamer who sat around praying and hoping for a colorblind society.
Obviously, public schools are failing to educate students on the significance of racism — back then and now. The potency of racism never was in the ability of a lone white bigot to wear a white sheet, fly a Confederate flag and call black people out their name. Real racism involves structures of power, not mere personal encounters, that breed inequality among racial and ethnic groups. Institutional racism does not equate merely with use of the so-called “n-word” or other offensive comments, but rather encompasses a system that moves some people up and others down and out.
Racism is the foreclosure crisis that has decimated black and Latino wealth during this Great Recession, with homeowners of color who were preyed upon by unscrupulous lending institutions offering subprime mortgages. Racism is a black unemployment rate at nearly double the national jobless rate. And racism is a criminal justice system in which a majority of the prisoners are black and brown, and the majority of the judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers are not.
Despite what Allen West thinks, institutional racism is not dead. And still, in 2011, there are those millenials who fail to realize that the Tea Party backlash against Obama is far more profound than a case of some aggrieved whites not liking the president because he is black — although his race does play a role. Rather, it is a deliberate, organized structure, bankrolled by powerful interests and supported by justices sitting on the Supreme Court.
With a majority in Congress — and through their policies against immigrants, voting rights, the social safety net and the religious freedom of Muslim-Americans — they have shown their willingness to throw people of color under the bus and widen the already gaping hole of racial and economic inequality. But when they don’t get their way, they’ll wreck the U.S. economy and everyone else in the process.