My brother-in-law pointed out this article over at Slate wherein staff writer Jamelle Bouie interprets data from a recent MTV-sponsored poll (yes, really) on Millennials’ attitudes toward race and bias. Here’s Bouie’s summary of the findings:
Overall, MTV confirms the general view of millennials: Compared with previous generations, they’re more tolerant and diverse and profess a deeper commitment to equality and fairness. At the same time, however, they’re committed to an ideal of colorblindness that leaves them uncomfortable with race, opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality, and a bit confused about what racism is.
Bouie concludes: “A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.”
This is a bold claim and, on the surface at least, is one that many of us probably want to disagree with as my brother-in-law did when he shared it, writing, “Millennials may not understand racism the way the author wants them to, but that’s a good thing. Doesn’t the data simply support what would naturally occur in a society solving its racial problems?”
I initially had the same reaction, but in thinking about it more, I’ve come to agree with Bouie. But where Bouie identifies Millennials’ claim to “colorblindness” as the issue, I would put it another way. I think the problem is that many Millennials think of racism as a matter of personal belief. That is, racist people are those who believe that whites are superior to blacks and other minorities, and as such they espouse these views publicly.
Here’s an example of how that attitude comes to bear. I recently noticed, while walking my dog, that a neighbor on my street has a bumper sticker on his gigantic SUV that says “Impeach Obama.” While the desire to impeach the first black president is not a racist attitude, the fact that the word “Obama” is set in a typeface that is supposed to resemble Arabic script actually does reveal a racist bias.
It is easy for me to look at that and make the judgment that the owner of the SUV is racist. He holds a certain set of beliefs, which he has made public in the form of an ugly bumper sticker. But that is only one kind of racism — the obvious kind.
The fact is, racism is more than a personal belief; it is a societal ailment. I, like many Millenials, have been taught my whole life that all people are created equal and thus worthy of equal treatment. My parents did an excellent job of ensuring that my sister and I were raised in communities that were ethnically diverse and as such we’ve come to know and love people across all races. No one ever taught me to be racist; in fact, I’ve been taught the opposite my entire life.
And yet. And yet, I have been surprised, at various times throughout my life, to find ugly biases living deep within me — feelings I didn’t know were there and that were never directly taught to me. But they were taught to me. Despite what my parents, teachers, pastors, and friends said, society is an influential, if not subtle, teacher. Because of my education, however, I am able to encounter those personal biases and work to overcome them, but they still exist despite my desire to treat everybody fairly and equally.
But even if I am able, through education and self-discipline, to overcome all of these biases — even if every Millennial is able to do the same — racism will continue to exist in society. We have inherited a world polluted by millennia of racism, and that doesn’t change just because we’ve become enlightened and believe it should. In his piece at Slate, Bouie says it this way, “When a black teenager is unfairly profiled by police, we say it’s ‘because of the color of his skin,’ which—as a construction—avoids the racism at play, from the segregated neighborhood the officer patrols to the pervasive belief in black criminality that shapes our approach to crime.”
If racism were a purely personal belief, then surely we could overcome it by simply changing our beliefs — a process that we, as a country, have been engaged in for decades. But it is much more than what people profess to believe. Racism is deeply entrenched.
Rooting out racism means more then changing minds, it means changing systems that perpetuate it, even while we claim to be post-racial. I’d like to believe, like my brother-in-law, that we are in a society that is “solving it’s racial problems,” but I don’t think we are doing enough to get to the heart of the problem.
Oh, and, incidentally, when I first saw that “Impeach Obama” bumper sticker on the SUV in my neighborhood, I assumed it belonged to a crotchety old dude whose racism will die with him in a few years. But, the other day I drove by as the owner was getting into his car. Turns out, he’s a Millennial.
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