Don't Call Them "Post-Racial": How Young People Actually Think About Race
Editor’s note: This essay is the first in a three-part Colorlines series based on a series of focus groups conducted earlier this year by our publisher, the Applied Research Center. Part two will explore the language young people use to discuss racism and part three will highlight innovators working to help young people organize around structural racism. You can download the full findings of the focus groups at ARC.org.
“I think that’s a big fat lie,” responded Jose, 20, when asked the question so many people want to know about his future: whether the fact that his generation elected the first black president means America is, finally, over race. He’s a young Latino man of Mexican descent who works multiple part-time jobs, including painting cars, being a security guard, and doing construction. “It’s been a thousand years that racism has been going on, up ‘til this date,” Jose said. “It’s still a whole bunch of things going on.”
Andy, a 19-year old white community college student, was more blunt still. “That’s a load of crap. There are still racists everywhere,” he scoffed. “[It] can still hold you down, and make you less successful. And impact your life.”
Jose and Andy are members of what sociologists and journalists have dubbed the Millennial generation. The parlor game of naming and identifying themes for every crop of Americans can be inane, but there’s no denying that people are a product of their times—and, in turn, that each generation collectively gives birth to a new cultural, political and economic ethos. Children of the Depression intuitively grasp sustainability and saving. Baby Boomers can’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Generation X took its own revolution online. And the young people born after 1980 have been correctly recognized as the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation the United States has ever known.
The Millennials have already helped usher in two massive, irreversible changes in the 21st century: the election of the first nonwhite president and the news, as of the 2010 Census, that America is just a generation and a half away from being a majority nonwhite nation. As a result of these tectonic shifts, everybody wants to know what young people think about the country’s maddeningly perennial problem: race.
Or, more accurately, everyone wants to declare what young people think about race. Too many journalists, political commentators, and even researchers have taken the established fact of increased racial tolerance among today’s youth and hastily labeled them “post-racial.” The conclusion fits neatly with the mainstream political narrative of the Obama era—that race and racism are no longer significant barriers to success in our nation. Mass market publications have outdone one another with trend stories suggesting that Millennials’ comfort with diversity—whether in identifying as multiracial or dating outside of their race—is proof of that equity.
At the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com, we found this narrative a bit too tidy. So we decided to do something that needs to happen more often: Actually ask young people what they think about race and racial equity in their lives and their futures. We conducted more than a dozen in-depth focus group discussions in the Los Angeles area with 80 young people like Andy and Jose, ages 18 to 25. We will be expanding the research to additional cities later this year, but so far, two themes emerged clearly from these conversations.
One is that Millennials do believe that race still matters. The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.
Of course, the fact that most Millennials believe race still shapes American life should not mask the very real differences of opinion both across and within racial groups about the extent to which it matters. Which is the second theme that emerged from our focus groups: There are real differences in how young people of different races and ethnicities think and talk about this subject. Young people of color are more likely to independently bring up race, resources and access to them, while white Millennials are less likely to make connections across systems like housing and education, and less likely to prescribe political action to fix it.
There’s little question that most Millennials struggle to articulate their views on how race and racism operate in their lives. But our focus groups’ deeper discussions revealed that a structural understanding of racism—of racism as something that grows out of political and economic systems rather than individual animus—is not completely lost on this generation. And that, of course, has serious implications for how they will go about eradicating it from our society.
The Margin of Error on Race Polling
The United States is undeniably becoming more diverse. The 2010 Census found that 39.7 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds are Latino, African American or Asian American / Pacific Islander, and that the population of people of color increased by 80 percent between 2000 and 2010. Preliminary estimates based on these findings project that people of color will become the majority of the U.S. population by the year 2045.
Ever since Barack Obama won the Democratic primary, reporters and commentators have eagerly spun this expected demographic shift together with the president’s political ascent to create the story of America’s post-race future.
Pollster John Zogby, who has labeled Millennials the “First Global Citizens,” wrote in a post-election op-ed, “I anticipate the race issue will diminish as the nation gets more comfortable with [President Obama] as its leader, and as the First Globals are followed by the next wave of young adults, who will be even more accustomed to a multi-racial society.” In early February 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama was gaining traction in the primaries, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Tim Rutten, who argued that Obama was the beneficiary of young voters eschewing both the polarized “racial identity politics” of the left and the religious, “confessional” politics of the right. “What the post-racial perspective of this new generation gap may offer us,” Rutten wrote, “is a chance to see that many of the problems we continue to regard as most intractable are rooted in issues of class rather than race.”
Zogby and Rutten are hardly alone in drawing these conclusions and trumpeting them. The loudest proclamations have come predictably from right wing commentators like Bill Bennett, who declared Obama’s election an end to “excuses” about educational achievement among kids of color, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which suggested “we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country.”
But the post-race idea is popular among more sober analysts as well. The Pew Research Center reports that “more than two decades” of its surveys confirm that Millennials are more tolerant: “In their views about interracial dating … Millennials are the most open to change of any generation.” Pollsters have been asking similar or identical questions about interracial dating continuously for about five decades, providing comparative data to demonstrate very real generational changes in attitudes over time on an historically painful issue. However, it is a great—and unjustified—leap from there to the assertion that members of the diverse Millennial generation are “post-racial” simply because they date each other, or don’t object when others do.
In fact, these sorts of surveys, and the media response to them, illustrate a large part of the problem in accurately gauging what young people think about race and racism in their lives: polling agencies generally demonstrate a lack of understanding of how racism functions on a systemic level. As a result, pollsters simply aren’t asking the right questions. Often, researchers (at least the ones who garner the most national press) are asking narrow questions about race relations and diversity to gauge attitudes toward race. Those sorts of questions miss the point, so it’s no surprise that the responses they generate seem to miss it, too.
Racism in the Obama Era
Among the 80 racially and ethnically diverse young people who participated in our 16 focus group sessions, conducted between October 2010 and February 2011, a large majority believes that race still matters in society, President Obama notwithstanding. Typically, young people did acknowledge that the 2008 election signaled racial progress, given our nation’s history. As Alice, a 23-year-old college student of Taiwanese descent, put it, “Ten to 20 years ago people would never imagine us to have a black president. So I think it’s moving in a good direction.” It’s the rest of her statement that so often gets overlooked: “But racism is definitely still around.”
Harold, a 22-year-old African American youth organizer, elaborated on the same point. “It took a lot of white people to get [Obama] elected, but [racism]’s definitely not over,” Harold said, quipping, “He’s kinda like Oprah.” Harold contrasted Obama’s individual success with more general indicators of African American male success in contemporary society, saying, “There are very few [black] men in four-year universities. And there are so many in prisons.”
Harold was not the only participant to consider the president an exception—as opposed to the rule—for what outcomes can be expected more broadly for African American men or other people of color. There were young people of all races who viewed Obama and/or his election as a special case. In contrast to many commentators on election night, young people in our focus groups largely recognized that the way race does or doesn’t operate in a presidential election can be very different from how it operates in more common arenas. “[Ok, so] about the presidential part, [race] don’t matter. But there are other parts,” said Vicente, a 19-year-old unemployed Latino.
Still, there was significant variation between our focus groups, which were arranged by race, in how young people see race playing out in the Obama era. Interestingly, black youth often felt they’d been backed into just the kind of defensive space that commentators like Bennett ascribed for them.
Participants in a focus group of African American college students, for instance, felt that white people were trying to get them to “stop whining” about racism. “I feel like since Obama has become president, Caucasians want to put it in your face,” said one participant. “We hear it in class, from professors with a PhD. That’s the scariest thing,” said Stacie, who grew up in a lower-income household in South L.A. Earl, who was also in that session, agreed. “I had a prof say that because we had a black president, he felt racism was ending, and that we don’t really have a racist country,” the young man recalled, twisting his face into an incredulous look. “I brought up the comment that also there’s the idea that [white voters] felt guilty.”
Earl also expressed a sentiment that distinguished him and other young people of color from whites in our study: concern about the increasingly hostile tone of the political climate, as reflected by white conservatives and the tea party movement. Two comments are worth quoting at length:
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.
—Theresa, 24, biracial (Filipina and white) college graduate
In my political science class, I’m hearing whites go off. They seem very angry. They kinda feel threatened…. The tension is there, you can feel it. It’s just interesting. They say stuff about immigration, where their money for taxes is going. They feel they should go to their schools, not schools in L.A. or Long Beach. They feel like their money should stay in their community. They don’t feel the need to help others. They feel like … why should they be penalized for our sufferings, basically.
—Ed, 24, Filipino American, part-time student, part-time product developer
Reactions similarly differed across racial groups when asked about the demographic projections for the U.S. population. Notably, the white participants in our study generally did not respond in depth when asked how they felt about the nation’s shifting profile and gave comparatively dispassionate responses. The responses of a group of white Millennials who are not in college, for instance, ranged from “it will be good [to have] more diversity” to “[it] will lead to more tolerance” to “there will be more conflict, but eventually things will cool down.” But as a whole, this group expressed a vague sense of optimism. “I don’t know anybody who’s angry/worried about it,” said one person.
Among young people of color, however, the topic generated much more spirited discussions. Reactions ranged from concern over the racist backlash against President Obama and anti-immigrant sentiment in today’s political climate to a minority view of sympathy for the loss of whiteness in the traditional American identity. Some also articulated a disbelief that the changing demographics would come with a change in material circumstances for people of color.
For instance, Daniel, a part-time junior college student in a Latino focus group, argued that having more people of color in the U.S. won’t necessarily bring about equity. “It’s pointless if we’re not moving forward. If we’re not getting the higher education. We could keep on having immigrants coming over, but it’s pointless if we’re stuck in the same place.” African American college student Stacie made a similar point:
In terms of who holds power more politically, economically … as far as, like, land, homeowners, things of economic value? And that really make the economy turn, and that kinda thing? We are not on the radar for that as much as we should be.
Sofia, a 21-year-old college student whose parents are from Costa Rica, similarly remarked that a demographic shift toward majority status for people of color is “not necessarily a great thing. The rich are getting richer. And the poor are getting poorer. It could just be a little bit of white people who are very wealthy, and we could have a lot more poor people, too.”
Our focus group participants’ responses make clear that, while most Millennials believe that race still matters in our society, there’s a wide variation in how they see it playing out in a world with a black president and a coming demographic majority of people color. But our discussions also delved into the more detailed ways in which race impacts life by focusing on the intersections of “Race and…” several key systems in our society—from public schools to criminal justice to employment to immigration. Those discussions made clear Millennials of different racial/ethnic groups also think in different terms about the extent of race’s impact. Young people of color typically had no problem labeling the criminal justice and employment systems as “racist,” for instance, while whites tended to believe there were simply some racist individuals within those systems. (I’ll describe this difference in more detail in a second essay on our findings next week.)
There is, however, one particularly striking point of agreement: a super-majority of all races/ethnicities in our study said that racism continues to be a significant problem in the criminal justice system. All but 10 percent of focus group participants circled criminal justice when asked, in a post-session survey, “In which of the following areas of society, if any, do you do you think racism is still a significant problem? Options: Educational system; Employment; Housing; Criminal Justice system; Health system; Other_”.
Even a handful of white participants felt comfortable labeling criminal justice as such. Andy, the 19-year-old junior college student, asserted that criminal justice is the “most racist system … on every level.” His friend Jon, who initially was one of the very few participants who did not believe race still mattered in the Obama era, said there was “definitely more prejudice” and “white cops are usually more mean.”
But while white young adults tended to focus their comments on racial profiling and speak about things that they’d heard about, people of color, particularly African Americans, often spoke in starkly personal terms. Donnell, a 24-year-old African American who is a part-time sales rep, offered a representative comment:
I’ve never seen anything correct about the criminal justice system, so I really don’t know what [it] is. I got pulled over two days ago for no reason. Right on the corner [in South L.A.] where I lived for over 20 years. And that’s not the first time, and I know it won’t be the last.
Besides criminal justice, employment was the only other choice that a majority across racial/ethnic groups agreed is an area where racism continues to be a significant problem. On education, a majority of all young people of color groups believed that racism continues to be a significant problem, whereas only a minority of white Millennials agreed. A majority of whites and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders believed that racism is still significant in housing, while less than a third of Latinos and African Americans circled this sector in the post-session survey.
Class, Culture and Action
Typically, all of our focus groups, regardless of racial and ethnic make up, had at least one participant who believed firmly that class is a more important factor than race in predicting individual and/or group outcomes in society. Though they never explicitly described it as such, these individuals viewed the racial demographics of the socioeconomic classes in our society as coincidental.
“I feel like it has more to do with money than race,” said Makeda, a 20-year-old black college student who is the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. “I feel like all these tie more into how much money you make. ‘Cause if you have more money you can go to better schools. You can avoid going to jail. Have a better job. Get better health care. Live in a nice home.” Edward, a 23-year-old unemployed, Chinese American college graduate, agreed. “Especially looking at that educational system. When [I was] applying for colleges, USC was among them, and the very first interview question is, ‘How are you going to pay for tuition?’ ” he recounted. “I mean in this country, money does, in fact, talk.”
From this point of view, the fact that the upper class consists overwhelmingly of white people, while people of color are greatly overrepresented in the ranks of the poor, is either an historical accident or currently irrelevant.
The American Dream defines aspiration in the U.S. The idea that ability and hard work will lead to material success for every individual is a dominant cultural and political ethos, regardless of race and class. Indeed, with all that divides our country, it is perhaps the most unifying belief. So it is not surprising that many participants in our focus groups emphasized the importance of individual effort and of education in changing the racial disparities they identified.
This was particularly true of the white participants and those young people of color who said class is a more important factor than race in shaping the 21st century United States. Both of these groups also tended to remark that society is “not perfect” and that individuals of color have the choice, and even “special” opportunities or “advantages,” to overcome most challenges they face.
Some of the young people of color who suggested that individual initiative was the key factor to success in our society used themselves or people they knew as proof that it could be done. Some college students, like Rajni, challenged their peers who, for instance, decried racially disproportionate educational resources:
Maybe the way of allocating money isn’t fair, but I think that coming from a school that is, y’know, kinda low income, we had—if people wanted to succeed, we had resources to succeed. My roommate’s from Inglewood, and she got [to college]. My other roommate [is from] the bad district of Long Beach, and she’s [received an academic scholarship]…So, I feel like the resources are there, it’s just changing the motivation in the kids who are there. You have to inspire them to want to do better and use the resources they have.
Some white participants, meanwhile, explained racial disparities as a function of not only individual initiative, but also “cultural” factors. Twenty-year-old college student Mirna pointed to an exchange she had with a Mexican American friend:
She was saying, basically, she wants to move in with her boyfriend, and her mom is going crazy, she is saying, “You are doing the typical Mexican thing where you are gonna move in and get married, and your husband is gonna have to pay, and you are, like, just gonna pop out a bunch of kids,” and, like, she was telling me that that is kind of, like, what somewhat like Mexican ethic. So if you are gonna have, like, people who do that, they are not gonna make as much money, they are just gonna keep, you know, the income inequality is just gonna keep going.
All of these ideas are crucial to understand because they also shape how this generation will choose to act upon racism and racial injustice. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who put stock in individual efforts to overcome the racial disparities they see at play also largely threw up their hands at solutions.
“I think that this is the best it is gonna get,” reflected Courtney in one of the white focus groups. “I think that somebody can probably think of something better than I can somewhere down the line. But as of right now this is doing pretty well, even though it is sometimes racist because of the individual aspect of it, but how are we really gonna fix that?” In fact, the most common response among white focus groups to the question of how change happens was that “time” would improve conditions.
This sentiment also came up in people of color focus groups, but there was typically a greater range of perspectives offered. In fact, to the degree that the Millennials articulated urgency around creating racial justice, it came perhaps predictably from people of color. And it was among these action-oriented individuals where the gap between Millennials and the conventional wisdom about race in the age of Obama was largest.
Harold, the 22-year-old African American high school youth organizer, for instance, drew a starkly different lesson from Obama’s election than did mainstream political and media commentators. “It was masses of people that got Barack Obama elected,” he pointed out. “You need to organize, like, masses of people. Any major movement or change involves masses of people.”
PART TWO: Next week, Dom Apollon will further explore the ways in which young people of different racial and ethnic groups define contemporary racism. “While white Millennials tend to focus upon individual-level racism, young people of color are more likely to think in terms of groups and have less trouble describing entire systems as racist,” Apollon explains. “But regardless, institutional and structural racism are rarely the first definitions that come to mind for Millennials of any race or ethnicity.”
You can also hear more thoughts from the young people in the focus groups by watching Dom Apollon’s Reporter’s Notebook video.