White Millennials are products of a failed lesson in colorblindness

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. Mychal Denzel Smith argues that Millennials misunderstand a key part of Martin Luther King’s message. Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

What I’d like to believe from my observations in the streets of Ferguson and New York City at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests is that, among young white people, there is a real awakening around issues of racial justice. Indeed, the number of white people who have shown up, marched, carried signs, and chanted along with calls for an end to institutionalized racism often surprised me. At a time when optimism was difficult to come by, their presence carried the potential of inspiring hope of a coming revolution. But as a frequent participant and observer of conversations that deal with the quest for racial justice, I know better than to place too much hope in these optics.

For one, movements toward racial justice have always attracted a sliver of the young white population with a disposition geared toward radical politics. They are not necessarily representative of their entire generation. Furthermore, with respect to this particular generation, the Millennials, the education these young white people have received have left them ill-equipped to understand the nature of racism and subsequently supplied them analysis that won’t address the problem. As children of the multi-cultural 1980s and 90s, Millennials are fluent in colorblindness and diversity, while remaining illiterate in the language of anti-racism. This may not be the end of the world, if weren’t for the fact that Millennials don’t know the difference between the two.

To be fair, that’s not entirely their fault. They were taught by their elders, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, about how to think about race and racism. The lessons Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers gleaned from the Civil Rights era is that racism is matter of personal bigotry — racists hate people because of the color of their skin, or because they believe stereotypes about groups of people they’ve never met — not one of institutional discrimination and exploitation. The history Millennials have been taught is through that lens, with a specific focus on misunderstanding the message of Martin Luther King, Jr. Certainly, a world where we all loved one another would be ideal, where each person is seen as equal, where “the dream” of children of all different racial backgrounds holding hands with one another without prejudice is a reality. But Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers generally decided to ignore King’s diagnosis of the problem — white supremacy — and opted to make him a poster-child for a colorblind society, in which we simply ignore construct of race altogether and pray that it will disappear on its own.

It’s as Luke Hales, the lead researcher for a study on Millennial attitudes on race conducted for MTV’s Look Different project, told NPR’s Code Switch: “There’s this weird kind of snake-eating-its-tail thing where so many of our audience was brought up to be colorblind, to not talk about race. There’s this whole generation that is scared to tackle this subject, and they were brought up in a world where the topic was fraught with anxiety and danger.”

That anxiety results in deeply misguided ideas about what a future of racial equality would look like. It also produces statistics such as these, summed up by Sean McElwee for Al Jazeera America: “A 2012 Public Religion Institute poll found that 58 percent of white millennials say discrimination affects whites as much as it affects people of color. Only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of black millennials agree. Similarly, the MTV poll found that only 39 percent of white millennials believe ‘white people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups.’ By contrast, 65 percent of people of color felt that whites have differential access to jobs and other opportunities. Still, 70 percent of millennials said, ‘it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.’”

Millennials have inherited a world in which the idea of “reverse racism” has been legitimized, but “reverse racism” only makes sense through the erasure of the power dynamics of racism, which has been accomplished through the teaching of racism as a strictly interpersonal issue of hatred and intolerance.

Similarly, McElwee notes: “Millennials are more likely to view Obama’s electoral victory as proof that racial discrimination has been alleviated. Research shows that his election led to what is called symbolic racism, the belief that discrimination no longer exists and that persisting inequalities are due to blacks’ weakness. When whites were reminded of Obama’s victory (regardless of whether they supported him) they were more likely to say that racism is behind us and that blacks receive undeserved advantages. They were more likely to say that a continued push for racial equity is unjustified and that any failure of blacks to succeed is their own responsibility.”

For Millennials, racism is a relic of the past, but what vestiges may still exist are only obstacles if the people affected decide they are. Everyone is equal, they’ve been taught, and therefore everyone has equal opportunity for success. This is the deficiency found in the language of diversity. We have spent the post-Civil Rights era concerned with whether or not there is adequate representation for racial minority groups within our existing institutions, not questioning whether these institutions are fundamentally racist and rely on white supremacy for their very existence. Armed with this impotent analysis, Millennials perpetuate false equivalencies, such as affirmative action as a form of discrimination on par with with Jim Crow segregation. And they can do so while not believing themselves racist or supportive of racism.

In a piece for The New Republic, written in response to the University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity video in which members repeatedly said the “N-word” in a chant about excluding black men from their fraternity, Chloe Angyal says, “We need to have an understanding that we aren’t special, unique, and different, but subject to the same forces as everyone else in our sociocultural group.”

One of those forces is history, and in America that is a history of white racial supremacy as the prevailing ideological commitment. Anti-black racism has been the law of the land, manifest in policies regarding housing, employment, education, and the justice system. Our potential to overcome this history is impeded by our unwillingness to interrogate it honestly. Until we do, we will not be able to reckon with the ways in which these forms of discrimination are still with us. And if we aren’t able to make these basic connections, we will pass along our misunderstandings to the next generation, who will still somehow be heralded for their increasingly more tolerant views.

It may be true that white Millennials are more tolerant of the existence of non-white people (though I wouldn’t make a definitive statement on that either way), and even their viability as romantic partners, but this doesn’t translate into a desire for racial justice. As products of an uninterrogated history, their tolerance doesn’t mean they would like to see an end to white supremacy and institutionalized racism. Tolerance has no material impact on the livelihood of those suffering from discrimination and exploitation. Tolerance is not justice. Diversity is not always progress. And while they shouldn’t take a hundred percent of the blame for understanding race and racism the way they do, Millennials will be responsible for unlearning these falsehoods and equipping themselves with analysis that dismantles systems of oppression.

A world where Black Lives Matter is dependent on them doing so.