America should be shaken to its very core by what happened in Charleston.
The gruesome massacre of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., may amount to the worst racially motivated terror attack of our generation and a deeply violent reminder that racism and white supremacy continue to course through America’s veins. One cannot help but draw comparisons to the firebombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala., almost 52 years ago.
The shooting suspect in Charleston has been identified as Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old. He was arrested (peacefully, one should add) at a traffic stop. Many will argue about what words we will use to describe Roof, whether he should be described as a mentally disturbed kid (a description rarely applied when the alleged perpetrator isn’t a white male) or a rational adult responsible for his alleged actions. His age matters, but not for the reasons you may think.
Roof, who was born in 1994, violently shatters one particularly entrenched myth that society holds about racism — that today’s millennials are more tolerant than their parents, and that racism will magically die out as previous generations pass on. We think that millennials should be lauded for aspiring to be “colorblind.” There is the belief that tolerant young people will intermarry and create a post-racial, brown society and that it will be “beautiful.”
But the truth is that the kids are not all right when it comes to racial equality. Studies have shown that millennials are just about as racist as previous generations:
When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). White millennials (using a definition of being born after 1980) express the least prejudice on 4 out of 5 measures in the survey, but only by a matter of 1 to 3 percentage points, not a meaningful difference. On work ethic, 31 percent of millennials rate blacks as lazier than whites, compared to 32 percent of Generation X whites and 35 percent of Baby Boomers.
As Jamelle Bouie at Slate noted:
Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism — or don’t talk about it at all — and where “skin color” is the explanation for racial inequality, as if ghettos are ghettos because they are black, and not because they were created. As such, their views on racism — where you fight bias by denying it matters to outcomes — are muddled and confused.
Which gets to the irony of this survey: A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.
The danger in invoking the myth of the presupposed racial tolerance of millennials (and subsequent generations) is that it works to absolve today’s society of actively confronting and undoing the damage of the legacy of slavery, segregation and institutionalized racism. We think racism will just die out with older generations. Why confront America’s racial legacy as long as you believe that the younger generation will do it for you? To put it bluntly, it ignores how the cold logic of racism, white supremacy and anti-blackness has worked for generations and how it continues to work.
A 21-year-old millennial, in 2015, is alleged to have taken a page from the 1960s and assassinated a black political leader: South Carolina State Senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was among the dead.
A 21-year-old millennial, by allegedly saying “You rape our women,” invoked the centuries-old defense of protecting white women as a justification for the slaughter of black people.
A 21-year-old donned early-20th-century symbols of apartheid and racist colonial regimes in Africa on his Facebook page.
A 21-year-old allegedly copied from the age-old playbook of racial terror, adding another bloody chapter to the long history of assaults on black people at churches in America.
All of these examples are not signs of individual mental illness. From South Africa to the United States, symbols celebrating segregation, assassinations of black community leaders, mass violence and the desecration of sacred spaces for black people are the historical tools of black suppression. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that this massacre occurred in a state that flies the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of white supremacy, at its state house. These symbols and tactics remain in our national conscience, passing on from generation to generation, like a sinister genetic code in America’s DNA.
As long as society refuses to confront this legacy of the ugly sin of racism today, we cannot depend on tomorrow’s generations to come to our rescue.