For decades, our nation has witnessed changing demographics with people of color now presumed to be in the racial majority by the year 2060. With rapidly changing demographics – including greater numbers of people who are farther removed from slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow -- it can be tempting to think younger generations will automatically be more tolerant and progressive than their ancestors. But for those who seek comfort in thinking racism can be eviscerated with younger, more diverse generations, the violent mob in Charlottesville, VA was led by white millennials, some of them likely members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was cemented with the unforgettable image of angry white nationalist, Peter Cvjetanovic, a 20-year-old University of Nevada student.
For those who believed that millennials couldn’t be as violent or reckless as previous generations, Charlottesville had to have been quite a sight. James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old white nationalist from Ohio, allegedly rammed his car into demonstrators, killing one woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others. Moreover, the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church, was carried out by a white millennial, Dylann Roof. Nine African American churchgoers lost their lives to someone, who at age 18, hadn’t lived out half of his own.
While millennials have not consistently followed the path of prior generations –marrying at a young age, leaving their parents’ home upon graduation or settling on one or two careers – some have clearly embraced racism as though it were part of a familial legacy?
Charlottesville appeared to have been a symbolic and literal passing of the torch, as young white men clad in white shirts and kakis stormed the town carrying Tiki torches. Their fore-parents carried burning torches, and white millennials carried Tiki torches. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the image of white millennials brazenly embracing xenophobia and racial hatred warmed the hearts of prior generations.
It’s obvious that one can age out of schools, grow out of clothes and promote to different positions, but it’s impossible to outgrow racism. Racism will not end when the racists of the 60's die. While some people may be more discreet and others less vocal, President Donald J. Trump’s appeals to “Make America Great Again” was a dog whistle meant to unite the worst elements in our society. It was a rallying cry to remove the collars, uniforms, dockers or scrubs to head to Home Depot, grab the hoods if necessary, to pick up the torches of elders and yell, "Long Live Hatred!"
Sadly, Charlottesville was a reminder that people of color we were tolerated during our childhood, accepted for necessary appropriation in college and not consistently promoted at work because the hateful live among us. It was a reminder that anyone can harbor hate; the white millennials who stormed the streets of Charlottesville were likely school counselors, professors, social workers, doctors, lawyers, police officers and pilots who daily interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. It reminded some that we may not get the best medical treatment, not solely because of Congressional Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but because our doctors may very well have been some of ones parading through Charlottesville with firm held beliefs that they are better than others simply because of the color of their skin.
We were reminded that our children may go to school with needs beyond our understanding and receive no guidance because their counselors believe they are inferior or undeserving of assistance. It was a reminder that we stand before our peers with smiling faces and cautious optimism as they smile back, some harboring white supremacist beliefs as well as a desire to bring harm on communities of color.
What does it mean to see the parade of angry white millennials in a typical American city? It means we have not created a better America for our children. Be not deceived...racism will not age out. Seeds of hatred sown by the ancestors have harvested in many millennials. If we want progress, we have to deal with the impact of slavery and not blindly assume racism will age out with time.