Race Still Matters For the Millennials

Recently, a focus group-based study of Los Angeles-area Millennials (those born after 1980, who are between 18 and 30 years of age) found that despite popular belief, the majority still believe that race matters. The study created race-based focus groups, each paired with a same-race facilitator, and asked participants to define racism, and opine on whether or not it was still a factor in five areas of society (housing, employment, education, healthcare, criminal justice system). Overall, the key findings were:

  1. A large majority of millennials assert that race continues to matter;
  2. Millennials are not monolithic. There are differences in how young people of different races and ethnicities view the extent and continued significance of racism in various systems of society;
  3. Like most Americans, the majority of young people have difficulty defining present-day racism when initially asked and typically fall back upon generic terms of interpersonal racism.

To be honest, these conclusions do not surprise me in the least. I know that race continues to matter to many millennials because race-based activism is still popular in colleges. Conferences like ECAASU (East Coast Asian American Student Union) wouldn’t be able to survive if APAs weren’t still interested in some sort of activism. True, not all the attendees of the annual conference are gung-ho political activists, but why otherwise would so many pay to hear speakers like congressman Mike Honda or Helen Zia? Even the offering of Asian American Studies (or Black Studies, or Chicano Studies) suggests that there is an interest in racial differences and issues, which is far from a color-blind course of study. And I know that millennials aren’t monolithic, because I have seen a wide range of opinions on racism, especially in regards to racially motivated events on a college campus. And I’m not sure I could even properly define racism, without having been exposed to discussions and classes on it.

I am one of the Millennials.

I’m not using this to discount my opinions (I’m too vain for that), but rather to suggest that the proper audience for this study isn’t necessarily those in the same age cohort. For example, it is much easier for a 20-something to understand where another 20-something is coming from, but it is much harder for an 80-something to understand where a 20-something is coming from.

The older generations are the ones who are calling the Millennials “post-racial” based on the observation that many 18 to 30-year-olds don’t refer to their “Asian friend” or their “white friend.” After all, this is the era of the Black president when we could have elected the white guy! But in the study, three people from different races responded to the often-touted “exceptionalism” of President Barack Obama:

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? 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. [Pilar, 23, Latina graduate student]

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. 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. [Courtney, 19, white college student]

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. [Edward, 23, unemployed Chinese-American college graduate]

I can understand that the youngest generations are often the first to adopt change, but in this case racism is something that is tied to the very structures and institutions of our society. While young people may have a more tolerant view toward people of other races and ethnicities, until the underlying structures change our society cannot be truly post-racial. On an optimistic note, maybe a more racially-tolerant generation can later exact the necessary changes to create such a neutral environment.

Realistically, though, until enough of a majority understands what general racism (not just interpersonal racism) is, and can identify the structures which need change, this probably won’t happen. One concrete example is the model minority myth. This myth is based solely on a perceived notion of a given race (Asian), and is used negatively towards other races (Black, Latino). It reinforces the racial divides: why aren’t the other minorities making it, if the Asian immigrants could? When Asian Americans are no longer seen as any smarter than any other race, we will be one step closer to the idealist’s post-racial world.

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