Difficulty in convincing students of racism and racial inequality

An article about whiteness studies hints at a bigger issue: the difficulty of convincing today’s college students that racism and racial inequality are still problems.

But that progress [end of slavery and Jim Crow plus the election of President Obama] has slanted the mainstream narrative too far into positive terrain, they argue, leaving many to think that racial equality has arrived. Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before…

“The typical college student will always say ‘What racial inequality? Look at the White House,’” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I have to first convince them that inequality exists.”…

He says he starts the conversation by pointing to research such as a Pew Research Center report published last fall that showed the typical white family has roughly 20 times the wealth of the median black or Latino family. Thanks to the recession, the report said the gap is the largest it has been in a quarter century.

But some believe the idea of racism is shifting entirely. A 2008 poll by USA Today/Gallup and  showed that 40% of adults in America think racism against white people is widespread in the United States. A study published last year said that bias against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks.

While some indicators have improved (such as recent measures of residential segregation), there are still plenty of differences between different races. On the whole, life chances are still significantly determined by race. In Divided By Faith, two sociologists describe this as living in a “racialized” society where one’s race and ethnicity has a large impact on even micro-level decisions.

Part of this might simply be the process of continually teaching a new generation of college students. As their context and culture changes, college students arrive in the classroom with different concerns, knowledge, and passions. It would be interesting to track how incoming freshmen classes rate the importance of the issue of race, particularly compared to other concerns (like being able to find a job, terrorism, etc.). Perhaps this is cyclical, dependent on noteworthy events or political debates.

Of course, the world continues to change and academia will continue to shift toward studying newer trends. While the American case has historically been mostly about black-white relations, Latinos are now the largest minority group and how Latinos view themselves is something worth watching. Perhaps the trajectory of “whiteness studies” will change but the issue of race is still salient and is going to be studied for a long time.

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