The Varied State of Race Relations on College Campuses and Among Generation Y

Updated Dec 20, 2011

This is the time of year when many undergraduate college students either begin their first year as college freshmen or return to campus as upperclassmen as they continue their pursuit toward a bachelor’s degree. Some post-undergraduate students embark on the journey to graduate from medical, law, business, divinity or other professional school. Just last week, I was hanging out at one of the local coffeehouses talking with several students. Two of the students were in their final year of medical school. One was a divinity student at a local college. Two were graduate students in education and another was a completing a masters degree in English.

The gender balance among the students was even—three males and three females. Four of the students were White, the other two were Black. To be honest, I frequently mix it up with students, fellow faculty and other professionals and in some cases, total strangers whenever I am out and about at one of the local coffee shops. They are ideal environments for people to wind down and get into their intellectual and Socratic groves. Perhaps it was just coincidental that each of the students I had engaged in conversation with already had earned their bachelor’s degree, nonetheless, this was the case. To be sure, there are many undergraduate students who frequent the local cafes in the area.

The conversation was a pleasant and insightful one. I learned much about the varied experiences and career goals of each of these aspiring young professionals. I also learned (yes, I asked them their ages) that the oldest person in this group had just turned 31. This meant he was born in 1980, which made him a member of Generation Y or what many demographers refer to as the Millennials. This is the group of young men and women who, according to the mainstream media, are supposed to be more racially progressive and less prejudiced than all previous other generations, including my own, (Generation X). They supposedly have little, if any problems with interracial marriage, gay and lesbian lifestyles, non–Christian religions and other integrated avenues of American life. In fact, the racial diversity of the group reflected this sentiment to some degree.

The reason I bring this issue up is because some of these twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings talked about how they did not see race as such a big deal and how they had dated across racial lines and had a number of friends of different races while in college. In fact, one of the students in question (he was White) was engaged to a person of a different race. Given their current behavior, I certainly had no reason to question, challenge or dismiss their stories. After all, it would have been very arrogant and disrespectful for me to do so! However, I did question (privately in my own mind) if the behavior and attitudes of this group of young people was representative of their cohort in general. To cut to the chase, I wondered if young people in their early 30s or younger are really that much more racially tolerant than the rest of us, especially those of us who are 40-plus.

I pretty much conceded that, on average, they probably are given the fact that they have grown up with rap and hip/hop, multiculturalism, the Internet, witnessing very influential non-White celebrities and other forms of racial pluralism. They even witnessed a nation with a tormented history of historic racial conflict elect a Black president before many of them had completed living the third decades of their lives! Racial diversity, whether real or imagined, at close range or from a distance, was par for the course in their lives. In fact, a large number of people in this age group are either biracial or multiracial themselves. Thus, they see a direct reflection of themselves represented in the mainstream media.

Nonetheless, I was still aware of the number of racial incidents over the past few years that have roiled a number of college campuses including my own—ghetto parties, south of the border parties, students posting pictures of themselves in Blackface, on the Internet, some White students complaining about “too many” Asian American students on campus, and the infamous affirmative action bake sales. In fact, just this past spring, a Black student on the staff of The Daily Penn at the University of Pennsylvania (an institution that has had a history of racial strife for decades) discussed how he was harassed by a few, drunken, White students one weekend as he headed to his dormitory after hanging out with some fellow friends. His article prompted a flurry of comments on the campus website, many sympathizing with him, while others ridiculed, denounced and even challenged the veracity of his story. Although these are isolated incidents, the fact remains that college campuses can still be very hostile places for students of color. In some cases, the same can be said for gay and lesbian and certain disabled students as well.

Despite such sporadic episodes of disturbing behavior, I am confident that many students, even those that harbor latent or below the surface racist viewpoints, are less likely to enact such vile behavior. To quote a student who was profiled in the August 18, 2011 issue of USA Today op-ed page discussing the hypersensitivity of his friends and acquaintances “You’re afraid to be characterized a racist, afraid you can do the littlest thing that can be misconstrued. You’re always watching yourself.” The fact is that I do not want to see students living in a prison of fear, unwilling or unable to express their feelings, despite how malicious or misguided such opinions may be. College campuses are supposed to be the primary citadels where the rational examination and of ideas are exchanged.

This being said, students need to be aware of the fact that there is a sharp distinction between free speech and hate speech. The first is protected by our constitution. The second is not. Moreover, such young adults must understand that, with free speech, there is a level of responsibility that must be adhered to. The future may be brighter than some people think.

Dr. Elwood Watson is  a professor of history, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several books and articles. His latest work Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture published by Indiana University Press.