Children of the civil rights era

May 07, 1992

A recent report by the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way begins with a quotation: "Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; 10,000 recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained. . . will divide us," Thomas Jefferson wrote in assessing the future of race relations in America. Two hundred years later, those words seem frighteningly prophetic in a nation that remains deeply divided by race.

The depth of that divide is the subject of the lobbying group's "Democracy's Next Generation II," a study of racial attitudes among young Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. These children of the civil rights era have no memory of the events that produced the landmark legislation of the 1960s. Yet they have grown up in a world shaped by that revolution. They came of age during a time of increased racial integration, but also of widespread backlash against affirmative action and greater polarization between blacks and whites.

How do young white and black Americans view each other today? While there has been undoubted progress, the findings tend to confirm the accuracy of Jefferson's gloomy prognosis. Like their parents, younger Americans of different races frequently view each other with suspicion and mistrust. Large pluralities of both white and black youngsters think relations between the races are "generally bad," and many young white Americans cling to sweeping negative stereotypes of black America. The most divisive issue is affirmative action, with many whites perceiving any help for minorities as a threat to their prospects in tough economic times.

The report also documented some bright spots. Young Americans of all colors share core values about family, personal responsibility and fairness. Majorities of blacks and whites report having significant personal interaction with people of other races, including friendships. Today's young people also see themselves as part of a positive generational change on race. Although they know that the struggle to eliminate discrimination is far from over, most believe that a racially integrated society is a desirable goal for the nation and they are hopeful about America's ability to achieve it.

The findings suggest that young Americans' views about race are complex. The persistence of negative stereotypes of blacks among young whites shows how deeply ingrained are the prejudices born of our history of racial injustice. Yet young people of both races share high ideals and hope for the future. Ironically, they may be the best generation America has yet produced in their attitudes about race. Yet even they fall short of living up to the nation's promise of racial fairness and mutual respect.

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