Thursday, March 15, 2012

Featured Reader Comment: Just What Do We Know About Young People's Attitudes About Race and Politics?

I do think middle school, high school, college kids think about race (to the extent they think about it at all) differently than someone my age, your age, or generations before did, but if you engage them I just can’t believe that they’d say race doesn’t matter. I also can’t buy that kids are tapped into any idea of the “market” and its “invisible hand.” I might be willing to concede that market speak is so pervasive that maybe they’re taking it in from the ether, but I would expect that more from young white kids with “conservative” parents (yes I’m stereotyping a bit) than young POC.
In an earlier post on nostalgia, the Culture Wars, and Minister Farrakhan, "ellemarie" offered a great comment that deserved to be bumped up for more discussion. There is a temptation to generalize from anecdotes, personal experience, and our own memories, about how other people feel regarding the state of race and politics during the Age of Obama. As ellemarie reminds us, my/your/our local opinions about young people's political attitudes, in general, and those of young people of color, specifically, vary greatly depending depending on our own social locations.

I am an empiricist: through rigorous, disciplined, methodologically sound, and nuanced means, I believe that there are answers to be found for most sociological questions (if we choose to ask the right ones). There is a practical aspect to this as well. We can actually go out and talk to people about what they think about politics. Unfortunately, researchers often do not take the attitudes of young folks on these matters seriously.

There is also a resource and social capital issue here as well--those who are older are in the position to impose their attitudes and beliefs onto young people. However problematically, "young" people are not viewed as "real" political actors; as the logic goes, their political attitudes are unsettled, so why pay attention to them?

There are interventions (and answers) to consider on these matters. As seen in the above video, Professor Cathy Cohen (founder of the Black Youth Project) has done some great research on young people's political attitudes. Her newest book, Democracy (Remixed): Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, is full of surprises about how race, class, and other identities are reflected in the opinions held by high school aged students.

The Applied Research Center also completed a report called, "Don't Call them 'Post-Racial'" on young people's political attitudes in the post racial, post civil rights, colorblind era. Their nationwide focus groups compiled a wealth of information. Most notably, young people of color know that race remains an obstacle to their life chances. However, white respondents tend to talk in vague generalities about racism and do not see it as a huge problem. This is not at all surprising. Decades of research have repeatedly found that white respondents of all ages tend to minimize the day to day realities of how racism impacts people of color.

White folks also tend to raise the bar very high for what constitutes racism, and are relatively detached from the lives and experiences of brown and black Americans. Both groups may "get" to varying degrees that racism exists. Yet, the litmus test(s) for if "racism" exists are extremely personal. Ultimately, racism is about mean people and hurt feelings, as opposed to trans-historical forces that are operative in the present.

Interestingly, young people across the colorline share an inability to think institutionally and structurally about power and social inequality in American society.

Knowledge gained through systematic and rigorous research is valuable and necessary. Personal stories still matter. Anecdotes can be a first step in theory building as we try to reconcile what the literature suggests about a thing, and what our instincts signal as real and true to us. The "I" can be a beginning. It should not be an end for good social science. In total, stories still matter.

For example, I have encountered students who are in the midst of a crisis in democratic vision: overwhelmed and exhausted, they simply do not care about politics. How do we take this anecdote and generalize a claim about the public at large? Can we?

I have also met students who proudly proclaim that the government should serve the rich, the elite, and "the 1%." When I challenge them on the basic idea that "one person, one vote" should be foundational to a healthy democracy the majority of students are silent. It appears that they cannot think outside of the framing and conceptual framework offered by neoliberalism, with its market logic of "efficiency" and "profit maximization" at all costs--the human consequences be damned.

Citizens are merely consumers. Tragically, it would seem that many young people cannot think outside of that box.

Do share an anecdote. Perhaps, we can build a theory around it? Are the young people--those in their high school and college years--in your life more (or less) politically engaged than you remember yourself being at that age?

There is an old theory that divergences and intensity in public opinion reflect the political issues of a given moment. To my eyes, the stakes are pretty high as we try to find our way during the time of the Great Recession and a declining American Empire. Occupy Wall Street is a response to this feeling. Ironically, the language of Red State/Blue State, and a narrative of polarized politics is so commonplace, I do wonder if young people who are coming of age in this moment are just numb to it all.

Share a story if you feel so inclined. Should we be hopeful or terrified about the political attitudes of young people regarding race (and other matters) in the Age of Obama?


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I can generalize from my personal history, but since you asked for anecdotes, here goes...

FWIW, there's a stark contrast between my K-12 education in the 60's-70's and the version my kids received 30 years later.

When I was a kid, my teachers spoke freely about current events and personal experiences (for example, my HS psychology teacher was a Vietnam combat vet, and was quite open with us about his drug use during that time... something that would NOT be tolerated today, methinks). It was a time of social upheaval, and my teachers weren't afraid to discuss it.

By contrast, my kids' teachers seemed allergic to controversy. The closest exposure my son got to any even remotely "dangerous" ideas, was when his 6th grade history teacher assigned a project on the 60's. It was an oddly scattershot project: the kids had to list 5 events from the Vietnam War, 5 bands that played at Woodstock, etc. And names/titles were all that were required - no in-depth reading or even summaries were needed.

I've often felt it was a "stealth" attempt to expose the kids to events that the teacher didn't dare discuss in the classroom. It worked, at least in my son's case: naturally, he asked for feedback and showed me his Vietnam list. I noted that it consisted entirely of battles and asked him why he left incidents like My Lai out. He gave me a blank look, and asked "What's My Lai?" He'd done his research in the school library, doncha know. The censorship extended to his history textbook, which contained exactly two pages on Vietnam. There was only one picture - a map of the country - and the antiwar movement was attributed to "isolationism."

Wow. Suffice it to say, we filled in the blanks, but whether other parents did the same is an open question. Let's just say that I have my doubts.

Thus, I'm not surprised that many young people lack the ability to think about power and social inequality in American society. If my kids' experience is anything to go by, young people aren't being given any sort of foundation on which to do it - reality is deemed too controversial (not to mention that discussing current social events takes valuable class time needed for standardized test prep). My own kids are more politically engaged, because we've supplemented their educations - but comparatively few parents are in a position to do that.

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Standardized testing. Children taught to think through routine and not creatively. And a school environment where critical thinking is not at all encouraged. Why? Those are dangerous things. This is decades in the making--the system wants to produce citizen consumers who are obedient. Henry Giroux has some sharp writing on these social forces you may find of interest.