With the election of President Obama in 2008, Americans were lulled into a false sense that the country had entered a post-racial era where whites do not discriminate or hold racist attitudes and everyone is treated equally regardless of race. In this fictional America, Black people and other people of color face the same future as whites, and the younger generation of whites—who helped elect Obama—are incapable of racism. Racism is relegated to the older generation, and according to this line of reasoning, as they die racism will die as well.
Then along comes Dylann Roof, 21, a millennial infused with so much racial hatred that he walked into the oldest Black church in the South, a symbol of Black freedom and resistance to oppression, and gunned down nine people in a Bible study group. As society, particularly white America, deceives itself into believing that racism is dead or is dying with an older generation, new racists are born. Millennial racism stands as evidence of a problem that will not go away.
After all, young people, not the elderly, are joining white power groups and committing hate crimes against Black people. And the officers who are beating, choking and gunning down Black bodies in the streets, in the back of the police cruiser, in the paddy wagon or in the police precinct, are not old folks.
An MTV study from last year found that millennials believe in equality and are coming of age in a racially sensitive society. A large majority—72 percent—believed their generation believes in equality more than older people, and 58 percent said that racism will become less of an issue once their generation takes over. In addition, 62 percent (58 percent of people of color, and 64 percent of whites) pointed to the election of a Black president as proof that people of color have the same opportunities as whites. Moreover, while a substantial majority (81 percent) believes in celebrating our differences, most (73 percent) also think that never considering race would improve society, and 68 percent believe focusing on race prevents society from becoming colorblind.
According to a 2011 survey from the organization Race Forward, among the generation of Americans ages 18 to 30, racial attitudes are not post-racial. For example, while only 10 percent believe that race is not a factor in the criminal justice system, and a majority of people believed employment discrimination continues, there were differences in viewpoints based on race. For example, while a majority of millennials of color said there is racism in public education, only a minority of whites agreed.
Millennials are the largest and, the stereotype of the white hipster notwithstanding, most diverse generation in U.S. history. According to Rolf Pendall, director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, there are 65 million millennials in America today, and 62 percent are white. Moreover, there are divisions based on wealth and race. For example, while 45 percent of white women in their 20s have attended at least four years of college, only 15 to 20 percent of Black and Latino men are in the same category.
Inheriting the baggage of their parents, a new generation of white Americans is growing up with no sense of what really constitutes racism, and no sensitivity or awareness of its role in systems of oppression. A younger generation with no sense of the struggles of the civil rights movement views racism as an individual issue rather than a systemic one. Oblivious to white skin privilege, institutional racism and persistent segregation in housing and education— and living in a society that does not teach people to challenge or even recognize the injustices around them— they erroneously conclude that because they are not racist, there is no racism problem.
A recent Washington Post analysis of a 2013 Pew Research Center poll supports this argument, finding that about half of whites (49 percent) do not think Blacks are treated less fairly than whites in a variety of areas, including health care, voting, in employment, in dealing with the police and in the courts, in public schools and in stores and restaurants. However, only 13 percent of Blacks and 24 percent of Latinos see nor racism.
Whites who see no racism are much more conservative, typically male and rural dwellers. Among whites, three-fifths of Republicans and a third of Democrats see no racism around them.
The data from these studies reinforce the notion that a younger generation of whites are not as different from their parents as we may think. Unless the nation comes to terms with racism and is able to discuss the issue in frank terms, America will continue to raise more Dylann Roofs.