Millennials were the chosen generation. It was said that they would destroy the old social order, not join it. They were to bring equality to the world, not leave it in darkness. This is Part Two of one Millennial’s cynical take of the Leftist potential of his generation.
by Allan Branstiter
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Millennials, as a single generation, are the most diverse generational cohort in American history (20 percent are Non-white Hispanic, 14 percent are African American, and 6 percent are Asian). Almost 40 percent of Millennials are bilingual, and a whopping 71 percent say that they appreciate the influence of other cultures on American life. Observers often note the demographic diversity of our generation when attempting to explain what makes us uniquely liberal as a whole.
As I mentioned in Part One of this series, I question the intrinsic liberality of our generation. Whereas Part One sought to undermine the notion that Millennials are rejecting capitalism as a generation, Part Two seeks to explore the racial dynamics of our generational cohort. In the end, I argue that while Millennials are diverse and culturally aware, these traits do not inevitable lead to racial harmony and justice.
Millennials and Race
“But what about the White people that are left behind? What about the White children who, because of school zoning laws, are forced to go to a school that is 90 percent black? Do we really think that that White kid will be able to go one day without being picked on for being White, or called a ‘white boy’? And who is fighting for him? Who is fighting for these White people forced by economic circumstances to live among negroes? No one, but someone has to.”
-Dylan Roof, Millennial and White Supremacist
On June 17, 2015, a 20-year-old white Millennial named Dylan Roof attended a prayer meeting at Emmanuel A.M.E. before killing nine African-American parishioners. He left a manifesto outlining his experience with race and poverty in the American South. Repeating widespread inaccuracies about history, race, and ethnicity, Roof tied his actions to a legacy of white supremacy not only in the United States, but also in Africa and Europe. Although an extreme example, Roof should serve as a stark reminder that Millennials, despite their diversity, have not wholly rejected or separated themselves from a heritage of racial violence and bigotry.
It is easy for people to disavow the sentiments found in Roof’s manifesto, but it is unwise to assume that his sentiments do not echo those espoused by other people his age. A seething hatred flows across the surface of his condemnation of black, Hispanic, and Jewish people. But beneath that is an intense feeling of neglect, and anger that Roof shares with many other Americans. Roof is distinctive in the extremism of his violence, but he is unexceptional in his bigotry, rage, and sense of alienation.
Dylan Roof is the child of a misguide culture of white supremacy, and he is emblematic the often overlooked racist segment of our generation. Lost in all the talk about Millennial racial tolerance and cosmopolitanism is a deep racist streak that connects our generation to those who preceded us. Yes, our diversity should give us hope, but we should also pause to recognize our racial failings. As Millennials, we must take the good with the bad, the tolerance with the bigotry, of our generation if we hope to revolutionize the racial life of our nation.
Shaun Scott, a contributor to Jacobin, recently wrote that “if Millennial Twitter activists are emblematic of a specific generational condition, then so are the trolls they battle” and pointed out that Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, and Martin Shkreli are Millennials. I’ll add George Zimmerman, Michael Thomas Slager, Darren Wilson, Johannes Mehserle, and Raymond Tensing to that list, along with Deryl Dedmon, John Aaron Rice, and Dylan Butler. And so are the young men (including aspiring Marine Joseph Pryor) who assaulted black and Hispanic protesters at a Trump rally. The next you see pictures or videos of Neo-Confederate “flaggers,” spare a moment to notice the Millenials in their midst as well. For all of the talk about a post-racial world inhabited by revolutionary Millennials, we bear more in common with our racial past than we’d like to admit. Perhaps we’d be more aware of how racially biased we are as a generation if the feel-good multiculturalism ascribed to our generation wasn’t so effective at selling beer, soda, Apple products, and political agendas.
As Scott aptly points out, the Millennial, as constructed by generational experts, has become a stand-in for larger questions. Conversations about our generation’s experiences with debt, economic insecurity, and underemployment are, he argues, “really about the bigger issue of how resources are allocated in capitalism.” I’ll also add that notions of Millennial diversity are used to conceal deeper questions about racial inequality and injustice that continue to plague American life. For older and liberal observers, Millennial diversity gives them hope for a fairer future. Fairly or unfairly, view multicultural, highly educated, and bilingual nature as the validation of their own history of activism.
To fully appreciate the ramifications of our diversity, we should seek out the ways our generation defies these generalizations. Of course our generation is racially and ethnically diverse, but our version of the American Dream continues to relegate racial minorities into low-income ghettos. This is a fact of life in obviously segregated large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but it’s just as true in “The Miracle of Minneapolis” where a black family earning $157,000 a year is less likely than a white family earning $40,000 to qualify for a prime loan to move into a suburban white enclave.
While many liberal Millennials decry gentrification, spatial segregation, and racial inequality, they are more conservative in their actions. We like our Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and tech sector, but we often think of how these things serve our interests rather than the people who are being slowly priced-out and abandoned by the soft prejudice of gentrification. We enjoy having a choice of goods schools for our children, but we hardly do anything to counter the fact that student selectivity adversely effects most racially marginalized children. Millennials know these things are wrong, but gentrification has become our guilty pleasure.
It can be argued that we aren’t to blame in all this. Faced with a tough economy and housing market, most Millennials have little choice but to become as self-interested and clannish as their elders. But if we really are going to be the generation that revolutionizes the economic and racial life of our nation, we’ve got to do better. Otherwise we’re proving our conservative elder right—faced with the harshness of reality, Millennials will eventually have to abandon their progressive ambitions and settle for the old tried-and-true way of doing things. You might as well buy a Margaritaville Mixed Drink Maker and give up.
The path forward isn’t clear to me, but I do have a few thoughts. It doesn’t entail an emphasis on low-income housing as a solution to spatial segregation, especially when the fact remains that systematic racism keeps minorities poor and prevents them from buying homes in integrated neighborhoods. It entails more than the feel-good “one-for-one” model of economic development and progress—white folks need to give “one” to black and brown folks without expecting something in return. Further, it entails white Bernie Sanders supporters leaving their comfort zone to understand the good reasons why black and brown folks are so hesitant to support their political revolution.*
If Millennials desire to truly revolutionize race relations in our country, we must be bold enough to identify and challenge the bigots in our midst and the casual racial biases and privileges we too often embrace or overlook.
* History has not been kind to racially marginalized people who joined whites in even the most moderate revolutionary movements, but that’s a post for another day. If you’re interested in doing more reading, check out Celcelski, Tyson, and Franklin’s Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, or Torres-Rouff’s Before L.A.: Race, Space and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781-1894, or Sylvia Frey’s Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age.