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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Youth are both optimistic and pessimistic about race relations

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Recently, Saul Garcia, a 16-year-old student at Renaissance School in the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, approached a basketball court, only for a white man who lived nearby to walk up to Garcia, call him an immigrant despite not knowing Garcia and demanded he leave.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want immigrants to be in my yard,’ and he pulled out a gun on me,” Garcia said. 

Garcia ended the situation by walking away. While he was able to stay safe, the encounter made Garcia feel as if race relations in the country are moving in the wrong direction.

Young people are not sheltered from the current state of race relations. In 2019 the term “young people” often refers to millennials and Gen Zers. There is no unanimous agreement of the age range of these generations, but the Pew Research Center defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996 and Gen Zers as those born between 1997 and 2012. Members of these generations are often involved in political discussions, and, like Garcia, experience tensions in their everyday lives. 

Millennial and Gen Z opinions on race relations are as diverse as the people in the generations. Trinity Edwards, a 17-year-old student at Renaissance School, is pessimistic on the current state of race relations. She feels like society too often views African Americans just by their race and not as individuals, and the situation isn’t getting better, she said. 

“We don’t really have a voice, if you ask me,” Edwards said. “Nobody gets to hear from our perspective. It’s always statistics, like he’s a Black boy, so if he’s walking down the street there’s trouble.”

These opinions are representative of African Americans across all ages. According to Pew, 7 in 10 African Americans believe race relations are currently bad, and half say it’s unlikely Black people will ever have equal rights with white people. Pew did not have numbers specifically for millennials and Gen Zers.

Bunmi Akintomide, the 28-year-old founder of Indy Black Millennials, is more optimistic. He said over the past 10 years businesses both within and outside Indianapolis have been more willing to admit there’s opportunity gaps for minority hires. In 2017 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for African Americans was 7.5% while the overall rate was 4.4%, and the rate for white people was 3.8%. This has caused companies such as Eli Lilly and Co. to enact diversity initiatives that emphasize hiring minorities. Akintomide sees this as evidence of positive change happening in the corporate world.

“There is a lot to work to do, but I feel like we are moving in the right direction,” Akintomide said.

DayJohn Williams, a 16-year-old member of the VOICES youth program said current events have a big influence on how young people perceive race relations. He said the Charlottesville riots in 2017, in which opposing political protesters violently clashed leading to the death of one woman, showed him how much America needs to improve race relations. 

“Right there, it was visible: racism,” Williams said. “People were fighting. Whites were arguing with Blacks.” 

Toby Miller, director of the Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network, said stories about conflicts between police officers and African Americans can influence how young people see race relations. He pointed to the recent response to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer punching an African American high schooler as an example.

“It becomes racially charged when the community perceives a white officer physically manhandling and using excessive force against a Black teen,” Miller said. “Did the officer do it because there was implicit bias working? We can’t say that right now. The fact that the community sees it through a racially charged lens tells a story.”

The way millennials and Gen Zers learn about these current events is most often the internet. According to Digital News Report, 69% of people under 35 use their phone as their main source for news. Adrianne Slash, the 35-year-old president of The Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League, believes technology can help young people better discuss race relations because they can learn more about the subject and have the tools to question established narratives.

“We used to only be able to use history books and get the version of history state governments agree on,” Slash said. “But through the internet a person can look up what year the first slave was brought to America, and you can get full stories around it that would be two to three sentences inside a history book.”

However, Miller warned the internet could also hurt discussions about race relations because it can create ideological echo chambers and spread hateful and misleading messages.

“It’s not even fun anymore,” Edwards said about social media.

Despite these weaknesses of social media, Slash believes the internet will remain an important tool for young people to discuss race relations.

“They have taken all the pages of the history books that the baby boomers wrote, and they’re applying them to modern day movements,” Slash said. “They are using not only what they learned from older generations to fuel their movement, but they are also digital natives who can use every piece of technology, every innovative software to fuel their movement and to reach beyond their neighborhood, to reach beyond their city, to reach beyond their states.”

Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.

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