The young age of Dylann Roof, who's charged with sitting alongside nine black churchgoers for an hour before standing up and shooting them dead, is sure to inspire some head-scratching in the wake of his attack. He's 21, which means he's a millennial, which means he's not supposed to be racist — so the thinking stubbornly (if disingenuously) persists, despite ample research showing that it's just not true.
For many, a flush of racial optimism that followed Obama's first election, which saw younger voters turn out in record numbers to support him, lives on. Roof's generation, after all, is the one that's been quoted in big newspaper articles about its impressive tolerance, saying things like, "People are people," and "At our age, that's the big thing, being diverse and promoting equality and everything."
Indeed, a big survey by MTV last year found that most people age 14 to 24 do think racism is largely a bogeyman of the past, not one standing in the way today. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they don't see people of color any differently than they do white people. So how to reconcile it: we have here a generation consisting of both Roof and his desire to start a "race war" (it almost sounds quaint), and Dionte Savage, a black teenager from the Chicago area who, a couple years into Obama's first term, told the Chicago Tribune that in his history class, "we talk about how it used to be all the time ... Now, we have multiple ethnicities mixing and working together, and everybody's cool about it."
Of course, every generation houses extremes, and most people Roof's age will never commit a hate crime. But the misperception that they're largely free of racial animus persists in many corners, and that's dangerous in itself.
There are two big, glaring problems with the idea that millennials have shed the racial baggage that the Greatest Generation and the Boomers and the Gen Xers couldn't — or wouldn't. First off, despite the floor-to-ceiling media obsession with millennials, the label covers a fairly narrow slice of the population. As the Washington Post's Emily Badger explained last week, the term is really "code" for a particular kind of young person — coastal, college-educated and upwardly mobile:
"We have this juxtaposition of millennials who are better off, who have college degrees, who've had the luxury of moving in," she says. "They're coexisting, not entirely harmoniously, with millennials of a different kind who are not going to be able to afford to continue living in the neighborhoods where their parents raised them."
You can take one look at Dylann Roof, an apparent high school dropout with a bowl cut, and get that all the hand-wringing over how millennials spend their every waking moment — do they text their parents too much? How do they get their news? Gap or Walmart? — isn't really about young people like him. Roof will read to many as some sort of fossilized outlier, a remnant of a vanishing tribe. And this feeds the second problem. As others have noted, any close scrutiny shows that the colorblind millennial is less evolved than we like to believe. There's an awful lot of data out there suggesting that on issues of race, that cohort is lugging around the same baggage as the rest of us, and they're particularly ill-equipped to talk about it, since that data also shows that they believe talking about race is part of the problem.
More tellingly, it turns out that even as this generation is on the whole "cool" with interracial marriage and dating, there's a lot of daylight between the way white millennials and those of color feel about a bunch of other questions about race. In that aforementioned MTV survey, young white people were nearly twice as likely to say that the government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups. They were also nearly twice as likely to say that discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
In many ways, this and other data suggest the attitudes held by white millennials aren't that different than those held by their parents. In the Oxford journal Public Opinion Quarterly, researcher Vincent Hutching combed through public opinion surveys taken before and after several presidential elections and found that "younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988."
And really, why would they be? America's public schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. Americans continue to live in very different worlds; a 2011 study showed that ethnic identity outranked income as a predictor of where people live.
"Among minority households, even those with relatively high incomes tend to be clustered in neighborhoods where most of their neighbors are the same race and many are poor," the Huffington Post found. The racial gap in household wealth has exploded since the housing bubble burst in 2007. And in the MTV study, white millennials were significantly less likely to say they grew up in families that talked about race compared to people of color the same age.
There's also good data suggesting that white millennials have a far rosier view on race relations than their contemporaries of color. This too makes sense when you think about the schools, the stark housing segregation, the fact that on average white people have hardly any friends of color, and, perhaps more importantly than we realize, the fact they they just don't have much experience talking about this stuff. (In fact, it's safe to assume that Roof has spent far more time discussing race than most people his age.) As Politico's Sean McElwee put it, the data that's out there "suggests that millennials aren't racially tolerant, they're racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it."
Despite all of this, we still hold out hope that the kids are all right. It's a hope that seems fueled by the idea that America's coming non-white majority and rising levels of intermarriage augur some harmonious beige future. But even that premise is shaky. A big Pew study on multiracial Americans released in June found that most of the country's multiracial adults are likely to identify with one race — usually a non-white one — often because of their own experiences with race-based discrimination.
The idea that all that we're going to, um, cross-pollinate our way out of entrenched racist beliefs and race-driven life outcomes is worse than just a form of magical thinking. It's a way of handing down debt. It requires a tremendous amount of political and social heavy lifting to topple the pillars of structural racism, but instead of rolling up our sleeves, we've decided to leave the work of doing so to to our kids, anointing them as some sort of magical post-racial elves in the process.
In the interim, we'll scratch our heads and wonder just where Roof's parents were and just how he got so twisted at such a young age. But then we'll comfort ourselves that Roof is a freakish holdover, an outlier out of his time, and that the real millennials are still out there building a better world, "being diverse and promoting equality and everything." But it turns out neither Roof nor the rest of his generational cohort are as untethered from history as we fervently want to believe.