What’s Racism? That’s Harder for Youth to Answer Than You Think

In a series of focus groups, young people of all races struggled to describe the ways in which institutions and social structures produce racial disparities.

By Dom Apollon Jun 16, 2011

Editor’s note: This essay is the second in a three-part Colorlines.com series on research conducted by our publisher, the Applied Research Center, on young people’s opinions about race and racism. Part one challenged the conventional wisdom that today’s youth are "post-racial." Part three will highlight innovators helping young people organize around structural racism. You can download the research project’s full findings at ARC.org.

If someone asked you to define contemporary racism, what would you say? What would be the first things that came to mind? And do you think your answer would be any different from people of a different racial or ethnic background?

If you are anything like most of the young participants in a series of focus groups conducted by the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com, you’d struggle for words. In fact, when we asked dozens of 18 to 25 year olds to answer this question, remarks about the difficulty of the seemingly simple query were perhaps the most common response.

"This is a hard one. Racism today would be, um…" stumbled Jenny, a 21-year-old Asian-American college student in the Los Angeles area, where we held focus 16 groups in late 2010 and early 2011. "I guess discriminating based on the color of someone’s skin," Jenny continued, falling back upon the type of relatively generic description that many participants of all races and ethnicities used. (Our focus groups consisted of four sessions each with African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and white Millennials.) Carmen, a 19-year-old unemployed Mexican-American woman, answered similarly, defining modern-day racism as "when you’re judged by the color of your skin, by your ethnic background."

Language describing "institutional," "systemic," and "structural" racism may be commonplace in the racial justice movement and related activist circles, but they are not on the tips of young people’s tongues, based on our in-depth study of Millennials’ attitudes about race and racism.

Last week, we published the full findings from our study, "Don’t Call Them Post-Racial," which debunked the growing conventional wisdom declaring today’s historically diverse youth to be post-race. In fact, once asked to discuss racism in depth, the majority of young people in our focus groups declared race still matters in our society. (Here’s my previous Colorlines essay describing those findings.)

But notably, the young people struggled to come up with language describing racism itself. To be sure, our discussions brought out some responses that showed an understanding of institutional or structural racism–mostly from people of color with some organizing or political experience, and from some white college students who had taken courses focused upon race and ethnicity. Generally though, our participants–60 percent of whom were current college students or college graduates–kept their answers simple.

"Racism is when a person bases their behavior toward or treatment of another person solely because of their race," according to Courtney, a 19-year-old, white female college student.

Daniel and Luis, two Mexican-American participants in their early 20s from a session in South Los Angeles, also chose words of emotion to describe racism, but notably in more explicitly group, rather than individual terms. Racism is "a little bit of everything. Jealousy. But mostly it’s built up when that other race knows you’re moving up," stated Daniel. "Grudge, envy [because] they are getting left behind," added Luis. "People of a different color try to go against you."

Luis and Daniel’s responses provide a window into the first major difference between how white Millennials and young people of color define racism today. Although a majority of Millennials in each racial and ethnic group stumbled at the question or defined racism in interpersonal terms, young people of color were more likely to see it as a shared, group experience, while white Millennials saw racism as something that is perpetrated or experienced by a single person.  

To be fair, it was relatively rare even for young people of color to automatically describe racism in institutional terms–as a series of unfair policies and practices in schools, courts, hospitals or other institutions that help produce broad racial disparities. In broader discussions about those institutions, young people of color made it clear they think race limits opportunities and leads to discriminatory treatment. But when you ask them to explicitly define racism, the institutional dimension is usually included only as an implication. 

Talking Race

We asked a total of 80 young people in our focus groups how they define racism today, first asking them during the 90 minute discussions and then again in a post-session survey. Data from the written responses reveal that white Millennials tended to use the word "someone" far more often (more than 40 percent of the time) than young people of color (only 10 percent). As indicated in the word clouds below, in fact, only the words "race" and "racism" appeared more often than "someone" in whites’ written responses. In contrast, "group" was one of the most commonly used words in the responses of people of color. White Millennials used the word "you" as often as they used the word "group." The top 12 most commonly used words by people of color didn’t even include "you." These word choices show that white Millennials think about racism more in individualized terms than do young people of color.

Generally, when asked to provide examples, participants of color reflected upon their personal, family, and/or group experiences within institutions or systems. For example, Alexis, a 23-year-old African-American junior college student, reported, "I had an economics teacher who didn’t teach us absolutely nothing … because obviously he didn’t care. So that’s racism."

On the other hand, Justin, an 18-year-old first-year college student who is white, said when asked if the public school system is racist, "I mean, in my experience in my life, from the schools I have been to, I haven’t experienced racism. I haven’t seen, you know, my schools deny service to any specific race. It is just predominantly white, predominantly Jewish, because that is where I live, and that is how it is. I have never witnessed, you know, someone’s race being a factor in school."

Justin’s answer revealed a broad tendency among our participants who were white college students, and came from comparatively privileged backgrounds. They didn’t believe their high schools intentionally discriminated against anyone; the segregation they witnessed and the corresponding difference in resources were just "the way it is," and there was no need to question that fact. Participants like Justin generally did not talk about the policies and practices that created their public school systems–property tax-based funding, abundant availability of college-prep courses, and low student-counselor ratios, among others. 

During our focus groups, we discussed for almost an hour the ideal purposes and actual performances of various key systems in our society–from the criminal justice system to public schools to the employment system. Then we asked participants if they believed any of those systems could be described as racist, and how they could know one way or the other.

Most young people of color had little hesitation labeling at least two or three of the systems as racist (criminal justice system and employment, in particular), and in many cases argued that "all" of them were at least somewhat racist and, moreover, intertwined in their inequity. Among white Millennials, however, many participants bristled reflexively at the suggestion, at least when the question was first posed.

"Well, what do you mean by racist?" college student Anna asked her session’s facilitator, after a puzzled pause. Jody, another white female college student from the same session, added, "Calling a whole system racist is, like …" before trailing off skeptically with Anna’s approval. "Besides immigration," Jody continued, "I guess the public schools system is more ‘classist,’ if you will, than racist. But it comes to the same thing sometimes in some areas. Criminal justice? Probably. It depends on the judge or jury, I guess. Employment? Also, technically not supposed to be, but maybe [it] is, depending upon the employer."

After Anna acknowledged that there were definitely "aspects" of racism in all the systems, Courtney, a third young white female college student from their session, felt compelled to explain why she, too, hesitated to label any of the systems racist as a whole. "I think none of them, at least today, intend to [be racist] … but because of corruption … because unfortunately, a lot of, like, lower-class areas are filled with minorities, you know, unfortunately they have the effect of being racist. But I don’t think that any of them really intend to be racist. Some of them have in the past. … At least now, none of them overtly strive to be racist."

The Burden of Proof

Young people of color, like Filipina college student Margarita, believed that it’s easier for more people to say racism no longer exists "because we don’t have the overt racism of, like, segregation where it is spelled out, like, ‘You can’t come here because of your color.’ "

That appeared to be the case when white Millennials were asked, "So how would you know if any of these systems were racist?"

I guess you could go back to segregation if you really want to see racism. There wouldn’t be any Black kids or Asian kids going to the same school together…Now, obviously, we’re all pretty much in the same places. Like at my school, there were a bunch of races. In the jails there’s a bunch of races.
–Jody, white female college student

After the reconstruction in the South, you had all these laws being re-enacted that prevented African Americans from voting. Inherently racist right there, the grandfather clause, the literacy test, that kind of stuff, and you know you can clearly see that a certain group is being discriminated against. If you are in L.A. and you had one school that just outright denied African Americans from going there, like, then that is, like, racist.
–Justin, white male college student

You’d have to have like a blatant. I don’t know that is hard cause you’d have to have someone saying that "They refused to sell me this because I’m, you know Asian as opposed to Black" or whatever. I don’t know, but then the real estate agent could just be like, no they didn’t fit the [profile]… like their money situation just wasn’t… I mean it is hard to say.
–Mirna, 20, white female college student

For Jody, Justin, and Mirna if it’s not overt, racism must not hurt. In fact, it might not even exist save in the overt form. The almost entirely white neighborhood that created Justin’s affluent public school isn’t evidence of any racism. Jody manages to gloss over the striking racial imbalance in our state and federal prisons. And Mirna’s not thinking about the steering of black and Latino borrowers to subprime mortgages, even when they qualified for more favorable loans. So even when there is strong evidence of a race playing a role in how people succeed or fail in a given system, the absence of an explicit rule showing racist intent kept these young people from seeing racism at work.

There were certainly a minority of young people of color who, like Courtney and a large portion of white Millennials, also seemed to require the presence of "intent." Typically, such participants were like Martha, a Latina college student who said, "I’d have to add that maybe it’s not the systems, necessarily, that play on these identity roles, but more so the people in the systems…. [It] depends on the individuals running the public school systems, individuals running the healthcare systems."

Nevertheless, some young people of color–particularly those with experience in community organizing or other social and racial justice volunteer work–articulated definitions of institutional racism.

Leata, a 20-year-old college student whose family is from Samoa, said, "I don’t think racism today is like racism was in the ’60s–like very overt: ‘You’re Black, drink from that fountain.’ … I think it’s more institutional and hidden in the laws that we create." 

Harold, an African-American youth organizer, described how his aunt helped him understand present-day racism. She told him, "Race is a system. And so white folks don’t have to, like, call you an n-word to your face now. They just make sure that you live, you know, close to the 110 freeway. Or they just make sure you go to schools like Manual Arts, or Dorsey, or Crenshaw." Another African-American participant, Stacie, said, "Racism plays out a lot within policy and things that are institutionalized. It can be within school, within prisons, the county. Within public entities in general."

Some white college students who had taken race and ethnicity courses in sociology or other related fields also showed signs of being able to articulate definitions of racism at the institutional and structural levels. One female college student contributed: "I think today structural racism is kind of more prevalent than just like one-on-one interaction racism. So, like, today racism is the fact that there is severe residential segregation that leads to economic stratification. And just … the fact that the system puts minorities at a disadvantage, whether that it is on purpose or not, but just the fact that the way that the system is disadvantages minorities is like the main racism today."

Racism Today, and Tomorrow

Defining racism today for Millennials and all others in society needn’t be about the same pin-the-tail-on-the-racist game of older generations, where one person accuses another of being or doing something racist, while the others deny being racist or make counter accusations. This is often a fruitless stalemate, particularly when the dominant white majority (and a minority of people of color) holds a definition of racism that requires proof of intent.

One Latina college student, Martha, expressed frustration late in her session: "I hate the topic of race. I hate it. Because you start seeing … people who are Latinos, who are blacks, hating white people." Whereas Julia, another 19-year-old Latina college student, said, "I feel like if the white privileged communities were to pay attention to all this research they would be like, ‘Oh, well, they are just playing the race card,’ or something, and might not pay attention to it. Or maybe they just don’t understand at all, like what is going on. Like we grew up in these communities so we understand that there is, you know, these serious issues that they are not affected [by]. And maybe people towards the top, they don’t see that and they feel their policies are working."

Martha is not alone in wanting to avoid talking about race, and Julia is not alone in having little faith that whites want to engage in the conversation.

But before political commentators and journalists officially declare racism dead, perhaps we should gain consensus upon what exactly we collectively believe racism to be. We need to ask ourselves what type of society do we want to proactively create? If racial justice is to be a key component of that ideal society, can we say we have achieved such a society given our past and current racial disparities–in incarceration rates, in high school and college graduation rates, in household and extended family wealth, in health and on and on. 

Until our collective understanding of racism moves beyond the interpersonal level, and regularly includes an understanding of how broad and interconnected policies and practices profoundly impact opportunities and racial outcomes in our society, our spectrum of solutions will remain painfully limited. 

PART THREE: Next week, Colorlines will profile several organizations and campaigns that are working with young people to address institutional and structural racism. 

All names of focus group participants have been changed. This essay has been altered since publication.