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?