By Jenée Desmond-Harris, Vox
Dylann Roof has been charged with murder for killing nine black people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church on June 17 in an attack that’s being investigated as a hate crime. He’s 21 years old. His birth year — 1994 — means he’s not just a millennial, but one of the younger ones.
The accused killer’s youth is a reminder that the cultural myth of racism eventually dying out along with an aging, backward-thinking generation is nonsense.
Obviously, as time passes, many of the elderly people who were alive and just fine with it when legalized segregation was enforced, who took full advantage of the days when saying the n-word was normal, and who could publish a racist rant in the local paper without any consequences are leaving the Earth and taking their brand of stubborn, proud bigotry with them.
But to look for comfort in the idea that their departure will make America a place where black people can enjoy equality and peace is a piece of American fiction that’s as dangerous and lazy as it is seductive.
Roof, according to his roommate, is “big into segregation and other stuff” and worries that “black people are taking over the world”; is a fan of the former racist regimes of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia; and, according to police, uttered a “racially inflammatory remark” at the scene of the church massacre. A manifesto attributed to him details his hatred of African Americans. Roof developed these twisted views not in pre-civil rights movement America, but in the past two decades. He — along with many more who perpetuate racism in lower-profile, legal ways — is proof that it’s not just the elderly who continue to have and act on racist views.
The myth: We just have to wait for racists to die out
The idea that younger is better when it comes to racism, and so we must simply await a generational shift that will bring about the end of the worst of American racism, is a cultural mythology that’s rarely questioned.
This thinking crosses the political spectrum and is shared by people who probably wouldn’t even define “racism” in the same way.
In a 2014 interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer cited Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and Paula Deen — all people over the age of 60publicly criticized for making racist statements — to conclude that racism was tightly linked to the views of older Americans and would leave the country as they reached the end of their lives.
“In my son’s generation — he’s in his 20s — this is so different that I think you can see this is a problem that is literally dying with a generation that grew up in a different day,” Krauthammer said.
That idea, that racism is “literally dying,” is a common one.
In an interview with the BBC to promoting her 2013 film The Butler, Oprah Winfrey echoed it. “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism,” she said. Her simple remedy: “They just have to die.”
This sentiment is appealing. It’s the same reason we find stories like the one comedian Tom Papa told Conan O’Brien 2013 so delightful: He proudly proclaimed that his kids didn’t “see race,” and said they were so thoroughly confused by the idea that black people were once excluded from playing sports with white people that his daughter asked, “No, wait, isn’t it the black people who let the white people play?”
Once little ones who are so innocent that they don’t even know in which direction racism works replace their racist grandparents, the country will be all set, right?
It’s not that easy
To be fair, if you want to be hopeful that Americans’ average racism will decrease as the biggest bigots die, there are some reasons to be: For example, a 2013 Gallup poll found that approval of black-white interracial marriage is the lowest among those 65 and older and highest among younger Americans.
But unfortunately, that goes hand in hand with data that tells a different, less optimistic story — especially one incredible 2011 finding by sociologists from Harvard and Tufts: A sample of white Americans (which included more than just the elderly) said that discrimination against them had increased — and 11 percent of whites gave anti-white bias the most serious possible rating, compared with only 2 percent of whites who did so for anti-black bias.
Add to that the fact that the majority of Roof’s fellow millennials — even the ones with the purest possible intentions — believe “never considering race would improve society” (73 percent, according to a 2014 MTV survey). That’s sweet of them, but there’s also a strong case to be made that this colorblind approach is the perfect way to make sure the racism that exists around them goes undiscussed and unchecked. Evidence of that is that a full 62 percent believe — against all the evidence of racial disparities and the explicit and implicit bias against African Americans that perpetuate them — that Obama’s presidency proves that blacks “have the same opportunities as whites.” This basic misunderstanding provides one ingredient for the kind of confused anxiety about white victimization that seems to have fueled Roof’s thinking.
Out-of-touch elderly people are not the only racists
Roof is not the only young person with a lot of years left on Earth who’s just as bad if not worse than older people when it comes to racism.
Recall that the white men from Mississippi who were sentenced for hate crimes last year after they beat a black man and ran over his body with a truck were just teens when they committed the horrifying act.
And remember that the Ferguson, Missouri, city officials found by the Justice Department to have systematically discriminated against African Americans, and the San Francisco police officers whose hateful text messages revealed their deep anti-black biases, were all, by definition, pre-retirement. These are people who are going to be around for a while. They’re also people who we can assume are communicating their views to their children.
And of course, these are just examples. They barely scratch the surface of our nation’s thriving systemic racism that needs no help from a gun-toting 21-year-old with a bowl cut or elderly racists to do its work. In fact, it would survive just fine, even if every American with graying hair were to suddenly disappear.
There are a lot of people who are working very hard to decrease American racism and its often deadly effects. Even the leading thinkers on this topic admit that the implicit biases most people hold are really difficult to shake.
Still, while it’s a major challenge to snuff out racist views and policies and to reeducate ourselves and our communities, there’s more hope in that plan than there is in sitting around waiting for racists to die as a generation that includes people like Roof replaces them.