OP-ED: Kids give hope for less racist future

Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead
Tribune News Service
Milynn Saxon, 5, of York City, as about 100 people gather in Continental Square in peaceful protest of the death of George Floyd, to remember others who have died and to celebrate the communication experienced throughout the week between community members and officials in York City, Friday, June 5, 2020. Saxon was at the rally with her mother, Natalie Saxon, her sister, Abby Fisher, and her nephew Athen Fisher, 7, both of West York.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

I learned of the murder of George Floyd not on the news or in a newspaper, but on my 11-year-old son’s Instagram page. The story ran with the hashtags #EndRacism and #BlackLivesMatter and featured a series of images depicting the fight against police brutality and racial injustice.

When I asked my son what drew him to these posts, he answered: “Because without racism, everything would be fairer.”

In the United States and throughout the world, young people are playing a prominent role in helping raise the volume of calls for racial equality. At a protest in Ohio, one young demonstrator, 9-year-old Aubrey Johnson, delivered a powerful message, shouting tearfully into a megaphone: “Black lives should matter as much as white lives.”

Historically, children have been important in the fight against racism and for equal rights. For example, in 1963 thousands of black children marched against racial segregation in Alabama, as part of a larger strategy to help keep the protests nonviolent.

But today’s kids have greater tools at their disposal to amplify their call for racial equality. Digital technology has revolutionized how civil rights movements can respond to racism, inequality and police brutality. After meeting on social media, for example, six teen girls in Nashville, Tenn., organized a 10,000-person march in the city.

Keedron Bryant, a 12-year-old gospel artist from Florida, took to Instagram to share a moving song about racial equality. It went viral, generating millions of views and was even mentioned by Barack Obama in the statement he posted about the death of George Floyd on Twitter.

There is an assumption that each new generation will be more tolerant and open-minded than its predecessor. Evidence and trends certainly back up this theory. During the past 50 years, white support for segregated schools — a defining feature of racial prejudice — has significantly waned, according to Howard Schuman’s book “Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations.”

Research also shows that younger white people are significantly less supportive of racial stereotypes than their older white counterparts. Exploring the effect the election and presidency Barack Obama had on whites’ perceptions of African Americans, Susan Welch and Lee Sigelman’s research titled “The ‘Obama Effect’ and White Racial Attitudes,” found that negative stereotypes of blacks were least pronounced among younger whites.

Modern schools are also playing a role in teaching children about anti-racism. A former head teacher at a primary school in the predominantly white, working class town of Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, told me that encouraging racial tolerance and treating everyone with the same respect was a key ethos of the school.

“Antiracism was often a discussion point of assemblies and in Circle Time and the children would always embrace it with maturity and passion,” the former headteacher said.

Black Lives Matter at School is a national coalition for organizing racial justice in education in the United States. The initiative was launched in opposition to a system that uses harsh discipline policies that push black students out of schools at rates disproportionate to their white counterparts.

By encouraging the end of “zero tolerance” discipline, implementing restorative justice, hiring more black teachers, mandating black history and ethnic studies in the school curriculum and by funding counselors instead of cops, the Black Lives Matter at School initiative is helping create greater equality and inclusion.

Whether it’s the result of being taught about antiracism at school, following and sharing anti-racist content online, today’s youth are less willing than prior generations to tolerate racism, giving us hope for a less racist future.

— Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead, a writer whose work is centered on issues related to equality, human rights and social and economic reform, lives in the United Kingdom. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.