The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Think millennials are woke? A new poll suggests some are still sleeping on racism.

The 1961 mug shot of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, one of the original Freedom Riders for Human Rights. (Courtesy of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland/Family Photo)

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When the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop was acquitted of all charges in June, my Facebook news feed lit up with posts from friends expressing their outrage. But one post stood out. It was a mug shot of a young white woman, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who had been arrested in 1961 for protesting segregation. The image was accompanied by several paragraphs of text.

In the text, Bri Traquair, 31, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., wrote that almost every white person she knows “has at least thought they would be like Joan” if they had been alive during the civil rights era. But Traquair also noted how easy it is for her as a young white woman in the face of the racial injustices of today to turn off the channel, to disconnect from the issue, and “to just not think about this anymore.”

Traquair makes clear that she is not content with looking away from the racism. Instead, she urges her peers to get involved. In the last paragraph of her post, Traquair addresses white people directly, calling their attention to the moment for action that is right in front of them.

“My whole point comes down to this,” she writes. “My fellow white people, if you think you would have done something then, but are doing nothing now, then you wouldn’t have done anything then, either. So think about what side of history you want to be on, because now’s the time for doing something.”

To date, the post has garnered 54,000 likes and was shared more than 43,000 times. Traquair seemed to have struck a nerve by highlighting a tendency among her white peers to distance themselves from the racial injustices happening in real time.

Stop trying to make ‘millennial’ happen

When it comes to police brutality, the divide is also stark. African American millennials were far more likely to list police brutality as a top problem facing the country today. For white millennials, more ranked health care as the top concern, followed by education and terrorism, which was virtually on par with the environment. Health care, education and climate change were the top issues for Asian American millennials. For Latino millennials, immigration, health care and racism made it into the top spots. For African Americans, health care, racism and police brutality were the most frequently cited issues.

Researchers for GenForward, a project of the University of Chicago, polled roughly 1,800 millennials ages 18 to 34 in June and July, making sure to include people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Too often, the researchers argue, surveys don’t take into consideration how millennials’ attitudes and opinions break down along racial lines. In this case, the researchers tried to contextualize why the divide around racism and police brutality exists, suggesting that major events could have primed the survey takers.

“Racism, for example, may be especially salient for African Americans and Latinos in the context of increasing video evidence of police brutality and incendiary rhetoric on immigration,” they wrote. “Shared concerns over health care, on the other hand, may be evidence of priming by national coverage of Republican attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.”

African Americans in Appalachia fight to be seen as a part of coal country

But although African American and Latino millennials might have paid more attention to these incidents, it’s hard to imagine that white millennials and Asian Americans missed them. The debate over the Affordable Care Act, video evidence of police brutality and President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on immigration have all made national headlines. According to a 2016 study by the Media Insight Project, 85 percent of millennials say that staying on top of the news is at least somewhat important to them. With so many of us trying to stay connected, it would be difficult for us to only see stories about health care while missing the ones on police brutality or immigration.

Despite the numbers, there are a few instances that suggest millennials could be coming together on the issues of racism and police brutality. Over the past two years, as more shootings of unarmed black people by police made national headlines, people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds protested in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Additionally, following the Castile shooting, many young Asian Americans took part in writing an open letter to their family members urging them not to tune out police violence against African Americans. The organizer of the letter, Christina Xu, had seen how many in her community protested when Brooklyn cop Peter Liang was convicted in 2016 in the shooting of Akai Gurley. Many thought Liang was being used as a scapegoat because of his Chinese heritage.

However, at a time when 42 percent of Americans say they worry “a great deal” about race relations, according to Gallup, the notion that millennials aren’t united to take on racism is worrisome. Although there has been progress over the years, we are still dealing with housing segregation, economic inequality and health disparities. These are issues that millennials will have to address as the generations before us pass on the mantel.

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