The Charleston Shooting and the Surprising Persistence of ‘Millennial’ Racism

by Kathleen Goodwin

Emanuel-african-methodist-churchFollowing the murders of nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by 21 year old Dylann Roof, many have noted the significance of Roof's being born in 1994. Despite growing up in “post-racial” America, in an allegedly “colorblind” generation, Roof is a white supremacist who adopted the symbols of some of the most patently racist and violent institutions in global history—namely the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, and the white African colony of Rhodesia. Suddenly, the optimistic talk of millennials being open-minded and racism being a fading relic is ringing false. Survey data about those born after 1980 is now being dredged up revealing that white millennials are not considerably more tolerant than Generation X (born between 1965-1980), or even their parents, the Baby Boomers. Yet, the “stubborn myth” of the unprejudiced millennial persists despite plenty of available information to the contrary.

The main problem with this myth is twofold—the first is that millennials are a homogenous group of bike-riding, social media preoccupied, workplace disruptors. It doesn't take much reflection to realize that the “millennial” that the media is fond of writing about is actually a very small portion of the 65 million people born between 1980-1995. The vast majority of them can't afford fair trade organic coffee and in some demographic groups aren't college educated or stably employed. As Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post, “Often in the media (and I'll raise my hand here), we evoke the word ‘millennial' to describe a subset of people born after 1980 who hold college degrees and live in cities. We're not talking about 20-year-old single moms in small towns, or fast-food workers in the suburbs trying to get by on only a high school diploma.” Dylann Roof is a representative of the type of millennial that publications like the New York Times ignore in their coverage of the young adults currently living in major metropolises and being hired by Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Hence the surprise when Roof's values appear to conflict with widely disseminated views about the tolerance of his generation.

The other problem with the misconceptions both about who “millennials” are and what their belief system is, is that while this generation may seem to be accepting of different races at a surface level, the persistent segregation of American society shows that an absence of racism may be more revealing of a lack of concrete experience with confronting racial difference in daily life. On the one hand, there is an oft-cited 2009 Pew Research Center Survey where only 5% of those born between 1980-1991 believed that interracial marriage was a “bad thing for society” compared to 10% of Gen Xers and 14% of Baby Boomers. The optimistic interpretation of that data would be that racism will be eradicated as white Americans begin marrying and procreating with non-white Americans to create a “blended” society where racial difference ceases to be salient.

However, interracial marriages between black and white people made up less than 1% of total marriages in 2009—implying that there is a big difference between approving of someone's marrying a member of a different race and actually practicing it oneself. In reality, black and white Americans may live in the same country but in general they don't live in the same places or have the same opportunities. A 2013 MTV survey of those born between 1989 and 1995 reveals that only 37% ever discussed race with their families—and why would they if most of them grew up in neighborhoods where almost everyone was the same race? The subject of interracial dating and marriage is a pertinent symbol of the kind of loopholes that allow white young adults to justify avoiding talking about, thinking about, and doing anything about race relations in the U.S. Because most young white people are theoretically opposed to racism, they may not take the time to recognize the inherent issue in the fact that 75% of white Americans don't have a single non-white friend. It is rare for white and black people to interact often enough to become friends, never mind dating and marrying each other—rendering a post-racial future America improbable.

Roof is clearly an outlier when it comes to the extremity of his racist beliefs and his desire to resort to violent means, but I urge Americans to treat this crime as a reflection of the problems we face as a still segregated nation where black and white people think of themselves as more different than we are similar. These nine horrific murders were shocking, but it is even more shocking that race relations in America haven't improved much over a fifty year span. The eerie juxtaposition of photos of the 1968 Baltimore riots following Dr. Martin Luther King's death with this year's riots following Freddie Gray's death reveal the limited success of the Civil Rights Movement. One has to wonder how many more black Americans will be murdered before true progress is realized in this country.

For white “millennials” like myself it is too easy to attribute racism to uneducated extremists like Roof, but there is institutionalized racial violence in the ways that most of us grew up in neighborhoods that were predominantly white, attended colleges that were mostly white, and spend our days in workplaces that are mostly white. Black, and other non-white Americans, have been withheld the privileges of white Americans for generations. While there are some obvious examples of successful integration and progress, it is clear that equal treatment is still being systematically denied to non-white Americans— beginning in early childhood by their teachers, as well as by their doctors, and, as recent events have made clear, by the police. It is the responsibility of our generation to actively combat conditions and policies that further disenfranchise people of color.