Looking at recent events on college campuses and elsewhere begs the question: Why are white millennials so racist? Looking at millennials is like a tale of two cities. On the one hand, the public is told that young people are progressive and open-minded. In the Democratic primary season, the popularity that Bernie Sanders garnered was in no small measure due to support from young voters. And a Harvard University survey earlier this year found that a majority of millennials reject capitalism.
Yet, even as millennials came of age in the era of Obama, they are perpetuating racism. In some polls, large numbers of a new generation of whites believe there is no racism, or that Blacks, Latinos and others do not experience it. Further, despite the perception they are racially tolerant, white millennials believe whites face just as much discrimination as Black people.
While Dylann Roof — the white supremacist mass murderer and architect of the Charleston massacre — is one of the most extreme examples, there is a greater problem with younger white folks, nonetheless, suggesting that some of this generation are not so much different from their parents.
Consider recent events: In September at the University of Missouri, an institution rocked by more than its share of racial strife, white fraternity members allegedly shouted racial and sexist epithets at a Black student group, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.
At East Tennessee State University, a white student interrupted a Black Lives Matter rally wearing a gorilla costume and carrying a banana dangling from a rope, as Inside Higher Ed reported.
At American University, hundreds of Black students protested after two Black women were the victims of racial incidents, with a banana thrown at one of them, and a banana left at the door of the other.
Further, a former Penn State student named Nicholas Tavella pleaded guilty to felony ethnic intimidation, harassment, terroristic threats and other charges when he asked a student if he was from the Middle East, then grabbed him by the throat and threatened to put a bullet in his head, as The Huffington Post reported. Tavella then invoked Donald Trump as his defense, claiming the presidential candidate inspired his hate crime. And the University of North Dakota has decided it will not punish white students who in two incidents posed in blackface and posted photos on social media.
Is it simply a matter of some white young people not being properly raised by their parents? Are white supremacists emboldened in the current political climate, in which Trump is giving young racists permission to be themselves and attack Black people like it’s the 1950s?
“My first thought is it’s like the chicken or the egg,” Ali Michael, Ph.D. — who is the Director of K-12 Consulting and Professional Development at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators — told Atlanta Black Star.
“So, does the political climate produce millennials that feel so free to be racist on social media and in public, or is it because of Trump, for example, that people are being more out with their racism, or is racism something that people are feeling more willing to express and then Trump is feeding on that and also stoking it? Or maybe it’s unrelated to Trump,” said Michael, who is the author of Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Inquiry and Education, and co-editor of Everyday White People Confront Racial and Social Injustice: 15 Stories.
In helping to provide answers, Michael referred to a book by sociologist Joe Feagin of Texas A&M University and Leslie Picca of the University of Dayton called Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. In the book, the researchers developed a theory of “backstage” and “frontstage” racism, in which whites have learned to be more socially correct and less blatantly racist in public, but still very much racist in private.
The authors asked hundreds of white students to keep diaries about racism and racial events they encountered. Of the 9,000 accounts that students recorded, 7,500 were “blatantly racist,” mostly jokes, conversations and acts of violence toward African-Americans but also Latinos and Asians. Meanwhile, the students challenged racism in 100 of the entries. However, as Michael noted, social media has emerged since that research was conducted.
“And this is from the early 2000s, and it was clear that for a lot of students, it was unacceptable to be publicly racist, but that there were jokes and commentary and TV, like these racist costume parties happening on campuses, and it just strikes me that in the early 2000 there was no social media. So, with social media you take private moments and make them public really quickly. Maybe the people in the pictures don’t even intend for them to be public,” she noted.
Michael works with white families in talking to their children about race and racial socialization. And white adults are not talking to their children about racism, lacking not only the necessary skills, but the cross-racial relationships to address the issue. Consider that most white people live and work in a completely white world. A 2014 study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 75 percent of whites have no non-white friends. In addition, whites prefer white neighborhoods. In 2008, the General Social Survey found that 28 percent of whites approved of racial discrimination in selling one’s home. Similarly, 20 percent of whites said their ideal neighborhood was all white, while 25 percent said it would have no African-Americans, and 33 percent said it no Latinos or Asians. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of whites surveyed said they would live in a community that was 50 percent Black.
“It’s clear that a lot of white families want to raise their kids not to be racist — middle of the road or even liberal families who think that it’s wrong to be racist — but they think racism is like a word — KKK type racism — and they don’t see the shades of microaggressions, or aggressive racism. They don’t see that there is systemic or historic racism,” Michael said.
“That’s not on their radar, they just don’t want their kids to use the N-word. And so they really don’t want their kids to be racists, and part of what we found in our research is that the parents don’t think race should matter…White parents don’t think race should matter, and they don’t want it to matter. And so they tell kids that it doesn’t matter. And then the kids who are mostly the millennials really think race doesn’t matter. And so they have this very well-cultivated mindset of colorblindness where they’re like, ‘We’re beyond racism, we don’t see race, we don’t talk about it,’ and they have no skills for even self-identifying as whites or recognizing racism in any way that’s not overt violence.”
In addition, Michael noted that whites, having few skills and lacking a blunt understanding of race, believe talking about racism is itself racist. Racism, she says, is like McCarthyism for whites, a type of “gotcha” moment.
“It’s like you see the thing you’re trying to get away from that’s trying to hunt you down and expose you,” she said, as opposed to viewing racism as “something we can all stand up against that actually threatens all of us,” she added. “So, they have a long list of things they’re not supposed to do, including don’t be racist. Don’t say racist things, but they don’t actually know how to be anti-racist and they also don’t know how to be just members of a healthy multiracial community where people talk about racism as something that we face together as a community.”
Add white entitlement to the mix and place white millennials on college campuses, and we begin to see the problems of racism and sexism arise.
One manifestation of racism among young white people, including recent college graduates, is the Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right. Think of hipster dude-bros joining a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines the movement as “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew ‘establishment’ conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.”
Stephen Bannon — who ran the Alt-Right-friendly Bretibart.com before managing Trump’s campaign — represents Trump’s embrace of this white supremacist movement.
Looking at the future of white nationalist millennials, Edward H. Sebesta — author of Pernicious: The Neo-Confederate Campaign Against Social Justice in America and co-editor of Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction — points to Matthew Heimbach, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “head of the white nationalist and anti-Semitic Traditionalist Worker’s Party.” A few years ago, Heimbach drew attention for starting a White Student Union at Towson University in Maryland and a safety patrol supposedly to protect white students from “Black” crime. And he did it all with politeness and a smile.
“A key aspect of the new racists is that they avoid the stereotypes of racists,” Sebesta told Atlanta Black Star. “Heimbach understands exactly the shallowness of anti-racism in America and also the stupid stereotypes.”
“What is interesting is that Heimbach’s use of Confederate flags isn’t seen as proof — obvious proof — that he is a racist,” he added, noting that it doesn’t occur to reporters covering millennial racism that the use of Confederate symbols is blatant racism. “When they have good table manners, people who think they are anti-racist become just worthless. The anti-racism of a great many white Americans who claim to be anti-racist is just that they don’t like poorly behaved people,” Sebesta maintains.
Sebesta believes the white nationalist sentiment these days reflects what he calls a banal, or everyday white nationalism, borrowing from Michael Billig’s groundbreaking book, Banal Nationalism. Billig argues that the sudden prevalence of American flags and patriotic paraphernalia during the Gulf War did not mean that people became more patriotic, but rather there are so many familiar, everyday manifestations of nationalism in society that we simply do not acknowledge them. Sebesta believes this holds true for white nationalism as well.
“I think that probably 80-plus percent of white Americans are banal white nationalists. Our history textbooks, our monuments, etc., create at a non-conscious level a banal white nationalist public. They may sincerely believe they are not racists, but at an unconscious level they imagine this to be a white nation. They may want some type of civil rights, but they are just wanting as good white people a nice guest house for non-whites,” he said.
“However, Obama gets elected as president. We see him as president, he is visibly represented every day. For a lot of people at some level it is disturbing. Subconsciously they imagine a white nation and now they see an African-American president, it is an upsetting disconnect. I have been watching the nation become unglued over the last eight years. Also, minorities are making some type of progress. It can be seen that there might not be a white nation,” Sebesta added.
“In conjunction with this, economic conditions have been difficult, in particular for young people. These student loans are terrible. Young people are frustrated. In an environment of developing hysteria over race with Obama’s election, some young white millennials are feeling victimized by the system and see minorities being favored. Scapegoating minorities is a classic in this situation. Also, in a bad situation, one strategy that is used by many groups is to come up with one reason or another that they should get priority to the resources. If there isn’t enough to go around, then maybe there is enough for a subgroup,” he said.
The white nationalists that Sebesta studies argue that the great majority of the white public agrees with them, but won’t admit it.
“They hope for an event or situation to transform banal white nationalism to explicit white nationalism,” he argued. “There have been those waiting for this moment for decades, generations. So there is this context in which Trump is the igniting factor, but I think is just surfacing what is already there,” Sebesta added.
“With Trump’s comments, white nationalism is legitimized and normalized. Also, by aggregating individuals into a group of his supporters, they feel safety in numbers and are more confident in expressing their white nationalist sentiments. All this exists in the context of an economically stressed banal white nationalist nation and a reactionary movement which is looking for the populist leader to overturn liberalism.”
Invoking Beverly Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and the president of Spelman College, Michael said white people don’t choose to identify as white because they are not given attractive options.
“You can be racist, you can be ignorant or you could be colorblind. Those are the ways that white people show up,” Michael noted of the three categories Dr. Tatum uses. “Then (Dr. Tatum) says there has to be a fourth way. We have to let people know you can at least try to be anti-racist. That’s another identity option, because what white people do is they don’t even identify with their whiteness. They don’t see it as connected to them. And they don’t see it as something that benefits them, and so it’s kind of hard, because it’s an invisible identity that they’re not willing to get. So many of us aren’t willing to acknowledge that there are ways that it benefits us, but it’s invisible. It’s not even like talking about sexism with men, because at least men usually knowledge that they’re men,” she said of white people’s denial of their own whiteness, which she believes might be changing, as this conversation about race is just entering the public discourse.
“I think part of what we need to do is…say look, you’re white, you benefit from racism, but that doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. You don’t have to uphold the racial contract, you don’t have to adhere to racism, you don’t have to stay colorblind. You might not have many skills for talking about race or confronting racism, but you can learn them. These are not things that you’re born with. Everybody who has them worked to get them. You know, even people color were not born talking about race. They had to learn how. Everybody can,” she added.
In that regard, as The Daily Beast reported, some universities are holding “white identity retreats” to educate students about white privilege, begin a dialogue to fight racism and “conceptualize and articulate whiteness from a personal and systemic lens.”
Michael says part of the solution is teacher education programs, and creating more culturally competent instructors and college professors: “Being racially literate should be a requirement for any educated person in the 21st century,” she insisted.