“I don’t see race” is the oft-heard refrain of many Millennial men and women. Surveys have shown that people of this generation believe themselves to be more tolerant of racial differences than older Americans. These are young people who see the progress America has made in addressing racial disparities as irreversible. This sense of finality stems from a belief—proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s—that federal, state, and local governments have made a concerted effort , through measures including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and affirmative action, to eliminate racial injustice in our society. To some, the election of a Black president in 2008 further symbolized a national transcendence of past prejudices. Because of these assumptions, many Millennials have failed to critically analyze the condition of African-Americans, who continue to face discrimination and inequality. This failure, in turn, has led to a dearth of substantive policy solutions to change the structural foundations of a system that has underserved too many for much too long.
As a low-income Black student at Columbia University from the South Side of Chicago, I am well assured that the breadth and depth of my experiences are not immediately relevant when compared to the experiences of my peers from more affluent places. Discussing Greece based off a literary interpretation is daunting when a majority of the class has seen the islands firsthand. However, I am certain that I belong here just as much as the next person. The influx in recent years of low-income students, most of whom happen to be racial minorities, in elite and selective college environments has provided for a mixture of class and race that has never been experienced on so massive a scale. From 2000 to 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics has measured a 12 and 14 percent increase in college enrollment for Black and Hispanic students, respectively. The wealth of difference between these groups has catalyzed the belief, in Millennial circles, that this is a post-racial generation.
There is a tendency, in the logic of post-racial America, to equate interpersonal racism (i.e. “I don’t like you because you’re Black”) with the racial barriers that structures and institutions have created (i.e. white students graduate from elite and selective colleges at significantly higher rates than Black students). Thus the students of the Millennial generation, and the schools that facilitate their interactions, are treading in uncharted waters when it comes to dealing with subtler racial disparities, and the results have been mediocre at best. The racism of our forefathers took the form of bricks and billy clubs, while today’s prejudices move more like an “invisible hand,” guiding young people—mostly Black and Latino—from urban ghettos to prisons and from impoverished schools to massive student loan debt.
Only by interrogating the structural foundations of American political and economic institutions does one begin to understand the fault in post-racial logic. For example, Columbia explicitly accepts qualified students on the basis of their economic indigence through certain programs. The retention rate, much less the graduation rate, does not even begin to rival that of wealthier students, who also tend to be whiter What is lost is that these students need different kinds of support than the university is used to giving. To say that race plays a role is to draw the ire of administrators who earnestly believe that the system is absolved of doubt because they are not personally racist. This is the work of structural racism: a demonstrated inequality cannot be labeled racial unless there is tangible proof of intent to discriminate based on race.
White Millennials, unlike their forebears, are not typically characterized by active interpersonal racial animosity; they are characterized by their silence in the face of the oppressive structural conditions that society engenders. It is not that people say that they accept me despite the color of my skin; it is that they openly express fear about walking in Harlem in the middle of the day even though the people they fear look like me. It is their acquiescence to and wholesale endorsement of a school that has made gentrification a commodity ready to be sold. The only way to truly root out this inequity is to call racism what it is.
Once the underpinnings of an actively unjust structure are called into question, progress can be made. Perhaps more accurately, policy can be made. The Civil Rights Movement used policy to effectively ban segregation in the United States. Ferguson and Baltimore have shown that the tradition of advocating for justice at the grassroots level has not waned; the challenge moving forward will be creating solutions that ensure unjustified police homicides will be prevented and not go unpunished. The outdated policy measures of the past will not suffice to rid the United States of its racial ills; we must show Millennials—the leaders of today and tomorrow—that racism still exists so they can press on ever more firmly toward its extinction.
Riley Jones is a Roosevelt Institute Campus Network member and a rising junior at Columbia University.