Youths' shifting attitudes on race

They're the most multicultural generation ever, but most are also a tease with the old idea of 'separate but equal.'

Like many members of her generation, Denver-area high school senior Nichole Flores thinks integration is crucial to America's future. A Mexican-American herself, she's seen firsthand how ignorance breeds stereotypes and racial tensions.

But she also knows that the Class of 2000 is full of young people who think that separation of the races - at school, in neighborhoods, on dates - is OK. As long as there's equal opportunity, they feel, who cares about such social segregation?

"It's not necessarily a bad thing," says Nichole. "It's important to be with people who understand each other's experience."

Today's young Americans are the first to grow up in a nation without formal barriers to racial equality. Their culture is deeply multicultural, from music to clothes.

But some evidence suggests that they are also surprisingly comfortable with the idea of racial separation. For the hip-hop generation, the phrase "separate but equal" may hold little sting.

This apparent paradox reflects the far different educational experience of coming of age in an era when the civil rights movement is more diffuse than it was in the 1960s and '70s. These aren't your father's racial attitudes.

A just-released Zogby International poll, for instance, found that 50.3 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed with the idea that it is all right for the races to be separate as long as everyone has the same opportunities.

Today's kids "don't understand why 'separate' hasn't meant 'equal.' They don't understand that the two words were contradictory [in the past]," says Philip Klinkner, associate professor of government at Hamilton College and director of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

"At the same time ... it may be that, especially among whites, a perception has developed that whites and blacks aren't meant to be together," adds Mr. Klinkner, whose Hamilton students helped draw up the questions used in the Zogby survey.

The Zogby findings paint a picture of sometimes-contradictory racial attitudes among the young. On one hand, more than 56 percent of respondents felt that the federal government should make sure that blacks receive fair treatment in jobs. Over 60 percent felt that Washington should see to it that white and black children attend the same school.

On the other hand, almost three-quarters of respondents at least somewhat agreed with the statement that blacks should work their way up without special treatment, as Irish, Italians, and other minorities have in the past.

Young blacks, in fact, were more likely to strongly agree with that sentiment than were whites, 45 to 36 percent.

The poll found high levels of acceptance of interracial dating - though fewer than half of respondents had ever been on an interracial date. And fully 90 percent of young people said they heard racist jokes at least occasionally.

Jannett Matthews, a 1999 Hamilton grad who helped on the project, said her generation is one of increased racial tolerance. Nowadays, everything from MTV to government programs promotes multiculturalism.

At the same time, Ms. Matthews, who is black, says people in her age group don't want to range out. They want to stay in their own racial and socioeconomic group.

"People say we have come so far from the past, but we have so much farther to go," she says.

Sticking with your own doesn't necessarily equal animosity toward others. Nowadays, kids accept different races in a way they didn't in the past, claim other students. "Race is something that people are overlooking because there has been more education about it," says Vanessa Brockman, a bubbly senior at St. Mary's Academy in Denver.

As a Jewish student at a Catholic school with multi-ethnic friends, Vanessa says she finds universals that bring her group together. Every teen likes to go to the movies.

She believes that religion remains a dividing line between young people, more than race, perhaps because it has not been so much of a focus of adult concern and education.

Others feel that the black-white split is no longer the largest racial divide in their generation.

The gulf between Hispanic and white kids "is still a big racial thing," says Nicholas Levine, a senior at Regis Jesuit High in Denver. "I have some friends and I hate listening to them, they just go off on Hispanic kids and I can't shut them up."

Nicholas says he would prefer to attend an integrated school. But others of his generation do not always feel that way, he agrees. "Separate but equal might end up making things worse. But if that's how people are going to feel more comfortable, it might be a way to go," he says.

The Zogby findings come at a time when there is rising support in the nation for the dismantling of government-led school integration efforts.

A recent CNN/Gallup/USA Today survey found that 68 percent of respondents felt that school integration has improved the quality of education for blacks. Yet 60 percent felt that increasing funds for minority schools is a better way to help minority students than is integration. Only 48 percent agreed with that statement five years ago.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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