A boy in plaid shorts is lazing on a black leather couch when the recording begins. Offscreen, someone asks, “What would you do with the world in 2040?” Twirling a pair of aviator sunglasses in his hand, then putting them on, the boy emphatically lays out his plan: segregate the country, brand black people and “send ’em back to Africa.”
The video, posted to Facebook on Wednesday, has gone viral, prompting school officials to investigate and internet users to condemn the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, youth for his racist comments in the latest instance of a student’s racial remarks gaining national attention.
In mid-May, Brentwood School in Los Angeles disciplined a group of white students after a YouTube clip surfaced, showing them singing along to the A$AP Ferg song “Dump Dump,” chanting “I f----- your b---- n-----.” In San Ramon, California, administrators had to get involved after a student shared a Snapchat video in which he hurled homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs at a fellow eighth-grader. Just last week in Arlington, Texas, five students were arrested for spray-painting the words “Whites Only” over a water fountain.
Generation Z, which includes anyone under 18, is said to be the most diverse, open-minded age group in American history — even more so than its immediate predecessors, the millennials. But these incidents and others can raise questions about how true that is — and what could be affecting teens’ perspectives on race.
Margaret Hagerman, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University in Starkville, whose research focuses on young people and racial ideologies, said youth racism isn’t necessarily surging, just being expressed in new ways, for reasons ranging from people’s upbringing to their social media habits and the rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Children are interpreting the world around them and forming ideas as a result of what they see,” she said. “As more of the stuff that’s been always beneath the surface is rising up, kids feel like it’s OK to do that, or document this behavior they weren’t previously documenting and sharing.”
Hagerman, who recently spent two years studying 30 white middle schoolers and their affluent families in the Midwest, said she sees three categories of teens: those who feel post-racial, those who feel victimized by other races and those who feel they should be advocates.
As for the first group: A 2014 MTV survey found that 84 percent of young people were raised to to treat everyone the same, and 72 percent thought their generation believed more in equality than others.
“Our life experience has driven a whole new outlook on race and gender,” 17-year-old Grace Masback wrote in the Huffington Post in March. “We’ve had a black president for more than half our lives. White children will be a minority in this country by 2020. Race doesn’t matter when so many of us are mixed race.”
Ideologically, most teens are rejecting racism. So what explains these incidents?
Hagerman said teens who claim they don’t recognize race as an issue in a modern era can sometimes subconsciously act racist. They’ll say skin color doesn’t matter, but then they’re at McDonald’s, see a black person and say, “Oh, this must be a dangerous neighborhood.” Or an older sibling will tell a brother not to share a locker with a black student, because he must have drugs, Hagerman said. Often, they feel OK sharing these opinions because they’re among peers, not adults who might chastise them. Sometimes, they’re not even aware they’re being offensive.
Teens develop their attitudes toward and understanding of racism in many ways. A major factor is what they observe around them, Hagerman said.
They’re undeniably observing a lot in school where they spend a lot of their time. In Grosse Pointe, administrators have come down hard on the students in the racist video, calling the clip “deplorable” and vowing to make “appropriate decisions regarding consequences for those involved, including student separations from school.” But that’s not always the case.
A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education found black students were three times more likely than white students to be expelled or suspended. Black students make up 16 percent of the student population but 31 percent of kids arrested for school behavior while white students make up 51 percent of enrollment but 39 percent of students arrested. Schools are also “highly segregated,” according to the Urban Institute, despite the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education six decades ago. In 48 of the 50 states, the average white student goes to a school dominated by white students.
That could play a role in creating a second group of kids who feel race does matter because people — especially Americans of color — have brought it up. Teens will complain about affirmative action or create videos that contain slurs as a way of expressing their views, Hagerman said. And because we’re living in a digital age, that content gets spreads.
Social media is simply a way of life for Generation Z. Nearly 90 percent of teenagers have access to a cell phone, and 56 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds do, according to the Wireless Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington. Sharing is an instinct, and it may make it easier for racist incidents to get media coverage.
Regardless of the medium, teens may feel more comfortable sharing their opinions because of Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Hagerman said. Trump has advocated for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, has proposed freezing Muslim immigration and has suggested Mexicans are rapists and criminals. The fact that he, such a prominent would-be leader, is so outspoken on race and ethnicity could be convincing teens to talk about their own racist stances, Hagerman said.
She referenced reports of high school soccer fans yelling “Donald Trump, build that wall” during a game in Wisconsin involving black and Latina players and chalk graffiti on campus at the University of California, San Diego, reading “Mexico will pay.”
“I don’t think that Trump is creating racist white kids. He’s just giving kids permission to express what many of them have been learning growing up in America from their parents and media,” Hagerman said.
Amid all of this, there’s a third subset of teenagers who are fighting against racism. They’re bringing it up in class discussions, organizing walkouts and calling out their peers when they say something inappropriate.
“For some kids, it’s cool to be marching with Black Lives Matter. They want to be there,” she said.
Hagerman cautioned against drawing any conclusions about an entire generation’s attitudes toward racism because teens’ experiences are so varied. Only time — and YouTube and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and Vine and Twitter — will tell.