The most commonly said thing about the “Millennial” generation is that it’s more diverse and more tolerant than its predecessors. Millennials are more likely to be persons of color, more likely to show acceptance of same-sex relationships and more likely to have diverse social connections. With that said, none of this means that we’re somehow immune to problems of racism, prejudice and privilege.
Indeed, you don’t have to look far for examples of young people acting with an eye toward ignorance. There’s the “ironic racism” of Girls writer Leslie Arfin, the incredible outpouring of hate toward African-American actors in The Hunger Games and the annual stories of kids who throw blackface parties or complain about Asian students for existing.
All of this is lead in for a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, which polled adults aged 18 to 24 on everything from religion and morality to economic issues and the 2012 election. They also posed questions on race and ethnicity: Does government pay too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities? Is “reverse discrimination” a problem in today’s society? Is demographic change a good thing for American society?
The results weren’t heartening. Overall, 46 percent of Millennials agree that the government pays too much attention to the problems of minorities, with 49 percent who disagree. 48 percent also agree that discrimination against whites is a genuine problem. When you disaggregate by race and count only white Millennials, the picture is much worse.
A solid majority of white Millennials, 56 percent, say that government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities. An even larger majority, 58 percent, say that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
The pollsters at PRRI don’t try to tease out what this actually means, and honestly—as an African-American myself—it’s hard to figure out. Discrimination against minorities takes many forms, and most are easy to identify. There’s the overt bigotry of day-to-day life, the subtle discrimination of laws and institutions (the arrest rate for black men, the predatory lending aimed at minority communities) and the miasma of racist ideas that flow through our culture and sit in our subconscious, ready to act.
These things might hinder white Americans in a spiritual sense, but it’s absurd to say that they have a material effect on the prospects of white people. If you are white in the United States, almost everyone in a position of power or influence looks like you. You won’t be questioned if you find yourself in a nice part of town, you won’t be the picture of criminality, and few people will ever question your right to take government help. Cops won’t give you a hard time as a matter of course, and no one will ask you to speak for white people as a whole. Sports fans won’t go apoplectic and shower you with racial slurs because you scored a goal. The list goes on.
A quick note for those of you who will say that all of these things have happened to you. I’m not saying that individual white people are immune to being hassled by the cops, or being followed in a store. What I am saying, however, is that none of that will happen on the basis of your skin color. Being white doesn’t carry a host of negative assumptions. It’s considered neutral. Being black (or Latino) does, and that’s the difference.
With all of that in mind, I don’t quote understand how anyone could plausibly say that discrimination against white people is a problem in the same way that it is for minorities. But if I had to hazard a guess as to why a majority of young white people believe it, here is what I would say:
Because many young people are either in college or preparing to go to college, affirmative action is a salient issue, and there’s a widespread perception that minority students have an easier time of getting into school. Of course, this isn’t true at all; affirmative action adds racial (and ethnic, and gender, and religious) disadvantage to the collection of things that colleges examine when determining an applicant. There are no quotas and it doesn’t guarantee entry; a bad candidate is a bad candidate, regardless of their race. But if a Latino student and a white student are equally matched, the university might lean towards always choosing the former.
(Another note: just because the white student didn’t get in doesn’t mean that someone took “their” spot. Colleges don’t owe spots to students, and if you don’t get in to the school of your choice, the college took nothing away from you. With or without affirmative action, the odds of getting into a selective college are low).
What's more, we live in a culture where honest conversation about race is rare, especially among white people, where it’s surrounded by fear and anxiety. For many white kids, if not most, racial conversations are limited to a few units in elementary and middle school. Otherwise, they’re left to fend for themselves, which either leads to a sense of privileged obliviousness—i.e., you live and act as if this were a “colorblind” world, despite the fact that color matters for many people—or confusion and resentment.
Indeed, at the end of the day, Americans do a terrible job of teaching our history, and an even worse job of teaching our awful racial history. By and large, slavery is treated with appropriate horror, but everything after that is passed over and ignored. In my experience, students—white or otherwise—are ignorant of the violence and economic oppression that characterized much of the black experience for the better part of a century. Racism is morphed into a personal force—represented by Bull Connor or George Wallace—and there’s no attempt to show the economic and social effects of Jim Crow and segregation.
For a lot of young white people, I think, racism has become completely untethered from history. They’ve been taught “colorblindness” sans a sense of what it means to grow up in a country where white supremacy was once the ruling ideology. “Reverse discrimination,” then, is a catch-all for frustration at rules they don’t understand (white people can’t say the “N-word”), and double standards that seem unfair (e.g., “Why can’t we have White History Month and a White Entertainment Channel?). It’s understandable, but also a little depressing.