A poll that came out a few weeks ago showed that Millennials are less racially prejudiced than earlier generations. But they are also more averse to talking about race at all, and they want to make society "colorblind". Jamelle Bouie worries that ignoring racial issues will end up perpetuating white supremacy:
Seventy-three percent [of Millennials] believe that “never considering race would improve society,” and 90 percent say that “everyone should be treated the same regardless of race.”
From these results, it’s clear that—like most Americans—millennials see racism as a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation. If we ignore skin color in our decisions, then there can’t be racism.
The problem is that racism isn’t reducible to “different treatment.” Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality—like the Voting Rights Act—would be as “racist” as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.
And the magic of white supremacy is that its presence is obscured by the focus on race. 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. Likewise, it obscures the extent to which this isn’t just different treatment— it’s unequal treatment rooted in unequal conditions.
Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism—or don’t talk about it at all—and where “skin color” is the explanation for racial inequality, as if ghettos are ghettos because they are black, and not because they were created. As such, their views on racism—where you fight bias by denying it matters to outcomes—are muddled and confused.
Which gets to the irony of this survey: A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.
I understand Bouie's concern. Anyone who has ever talked to white American racists knows that they love to conceal their bigotry behind a facade of "colorblindness". That's because they know what Bouie knows - pretending like racism is a thing of the past, when it's not, is a great way to discourage actual measures to fight it.
But even so, I think the Millennials have the right idea. I'm betting that most of the people in that survey are not white supremacists - most really believe in "colorblindness". My bet is based on the fact that most of the nonwhites in the survey also say they believe in "colorblindness". And though I agree with Bouie that trying to ignore race has its drawbacks, I think it has some big benefits that he doesn't mention in his article.
How is the situation of black Americans going to be improved? Government programs (like Affirmative Action) did a lot of good for black people in the past, but their efficacy may have topped out. I think there is still room for some government interventions - for example, I'd like to see the return of busing and forced public-school desegregation. But I don't think that's going to solve most of the problem.
The problem is that many black Americans are cut off, economically and socially, from the rest of American society - not just white society, but white/Asian/Hispanic society (as Bouie notes here). To gain economic equality, black Americans are going to need to form lots of business connections with nonblack Americans. By "business connections" I mean the kind of interpersonal networks that are essential for getting jobs, starting businesses, and learning about market conditions. You can bus black kids into white schools - and I think this should be done - but you can't force the nonblack kids to make friends with the black kids. So the networks don't form.
But the Millennials' attitude gives me reason to hope that today's kids are more likely to form cross-racial friendships than in the past. Walking around and seeing groups of teenagers, I'm always startled these days by how multiracial they are; the MTV survey just confirms my anecdotal observation. If my hypothesis about the importance of interpersonal networks is correct, then Millennials' desire for "colorblindness" will end up helping black Americans get ahead in the long run.
Another important area where black Americans are disadvantaged is in terms of neighborhoods. As Bouie notes here, black Americans are often trapped in bad neighborhoods that white Americans of equivalent income levels would tend to escape. Part of that is the legacy of racial discrimination in housing, which created black "ghettos" that persist to this day. But part is a result of racial bigotry in the here and now - there are people with racist attitudes who don't want to live around black people. How can this latter problem be ameliorated? The government is (hopefully) not going to start dictating where everyone lives, so the best - the only - solution seems to be an attitude of "colorblindness". Nonblack people need to stop moving away from black people. And hopefully Millennials will put their money where their mouth is. Anecdotally, they seem to be doing that more, but I can't find data on this.
The final big area of racism in American society is the criminal justice system - the police and courts, which tend to victimize black people. Unfortunately, this problem seems like it won't be solved by a "pro-colorblindness" attitude (at least, not for many decades). Government intervention is necessary to end racial profiling and racial discrimination in sentencing, etc. But fortunately, there is some evidence that Millennials do recognize the racism of the justice system as a real problem; they don't seem to be ignoring it.
So I'm optimistic that, on balance, a "pro-colorblindness" attitude will be good for black Americans. It's not going to solve all the problems, but let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good.