The Web is still buzzing with chatter over a New York Times feature last weekend that explored how and why an increasing number of young people identify as "mixed-race." The Census Bureau will release race-based data from its 2010 decennial count later this month, and everybody from sociologists to marketers are eagerly waiting to see what the next generation of Americans, dubbed the "Millennials," looks like. If the Times story is correct, a whole lot more of them are people who aren’t invested in a racial identity–or, at least not a singular one.
But the story got me thinking about focus groups I’ve been conducting for the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com, over the past few months. We’re talking in Los Angeles with separate groups of 18 to 25 year old African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Whites. Our project is not yet complete, but already the conversations we’ve heard within our four groups, including with a handful of respondents from multiple racial/ethnic backgrounds, suggest a significant gap between the sort of individual identities that the Times explored and the broader reality in which those young, post-identity people live.
It’d be easy for the casual reader to conclude from the Times piece that this growing group of individuals who refuse to be pigeon-holed into distinct racial or ethnic classifications will inevitably transform our society into one without racial prejudice. As the Times’ reporter explained, optimistic observers "say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action."
Well, that sounds so nice and inevitable, doesn’t it? The problem is, it’s an optimism born of our society’s collective, subconscious yearning for relief. Relief from what, you ask? Relief from the deep discomfort we continue to feel about race, and the continued racial disparities (in high school and college graduation, unemployment, wages and work standards, homeownership, etc.) that challenge America’s understanding of itself as a place defined by equal opportunity.
As we’re finding in our focus group discussions, many young people instinctively see these disparities and, as such, continue to believe race does matter considerably in key areas of their lives and those of their peers of other races and ethnicities.
"Nothing says that you can’t go on the other side of La Brea [Avenue]," said one African-American male who was raised and went to school in South L.A., where blacks and Latinos live at poverty rates exceeding most other areas of the region. "But it’s a different world over there. [I visited] Beverley Hills High School once. They had a gym that had a pool under it. … My school didn’t even have books," he said about his resource-poor institution.
A young Latino male from the same area had similar thoughts on racial disparities in education. His friend who was on the high school honor roll had no money for college. "He’s an immigrant," he explained, and after being unable to afford higher education, "he fell into drugs." "The system is not giving [immigrants] a chance to get that education" was another sentiment we heard from Latinos about racial differences in opportunities in young people’s lives.
Young Latinas we listened to spoke about family members who stay at home sick instead of going to the hospital because they don’t have money to pay for health care. An Asian participant told us about a community college classmate who worked for a mortgage company that was "less likely to give someone a loan if they had a last name that was different. Or if they did have an American last name then they felt more comfortable maybe letting them slide if they didn’t fit one of the other requirements," she recounted. "There are certain ways they can manipulate rules to treat people differently."
And young people of all races, including many of the white youth we’ve held discussions with so far, acknowledged that the criminal justice system is racist, given experiences with racial profiling that they or others they know have had and plainly inequitable incarceration rates.
These are all examples of how our increasingly diverse youth population understands very concretely that race does still matter in the systems (education, health care, housing, criminal justice, etc.) that surround their lives and their communities.
Do all young people readily identify contemporary racism in the opportunities and outcomes of all these systems? No. Some young folks continue to see race only as a rare inter-personal phenomenon, and some believe that money, gender and class have more influence than anything else.
But the fact that some young folks are ticking off multiple boxes on surveys to express their racial and ethnic identities doesn’t mean much if the opportunity gap between whites and people of color throughout society is not changing, too. When we see less disparity in outcomes in education, in health and health care, in housing and more, then we’ll know we’re approaching something close to a "post-racial" society.
Just as the "mixed-race" students in the Times piece have experienced some conflict with their peers of other more "traditional" racial identities, the young people we’ve interviewed in Los Angeles also spoke to us about the interracial conflict, even violence, that they’ve witnessed or experienced in their neighborhoods. Some choose not to associate with people of different races, but the ones who have built bridges across racial lines agree that "it’s about the relationships you build."
They understand that racial progress in America will not just happen naturally over time because their generation is diversifying our population. It will take deliberate work, not a passive, collective assumption that everything will work itself out if we all just check different boxes on the Census form.