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Today's teens are more skeptical that racism will go away than teens in 1966

Demonstrators in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting.
Demonstrators in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting.
Anadolu Agency

President Barack Obama reassured Howard University graduates during his commencement address last Saturday, "If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted, and black’ in America, you would choose right now."

But a new survey of American teens by Newsweek suggests teens today aren’t as confident that racial discrimination in America is better than American teens 50 years.

After polling 2,057 teenagers ages 13 to 17, the survey showed that 82 percent of American teens today believe racial discrimination is a problem for their generation, whereas only 44 percent of teens in 1966 had this attitude. The difference is especially stark for black teenagers: 91 percent of black teens now believe racial discrimination is here to stay, compared with 33 percent of their 1966 counterparts.

These statistics paint a grim picture for racial progress: What does it mean for today’s teens to have a more grim outlook on the state of race in America at the end of the second term of the first black president compared with teens half a century ago who were just beginning to feel the impact of desegregated schools?

Racism certainly hasn’t gone away. But the divergence between these two generations doesn’t necessarily mean racism is worse. Instead, racism is experienced differently. Contemporary teens may see the dreams of their predecessors more like dreams deferred.

"Teenagers are growing up under this black president, yet at the end of his presidency we are seeing a constant stream of police killings and a new civil rights movement that’s really turning the narrative on its head," New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told Newsweek.

Millennials are considered the most racially diverse generation in American history and are generally more tolerant of racial differences than their predecessors. But that doesn’t make it any easier for them to grapple with race and racism today, especially when advances in technology give us all front-row seats to once-niche messages of hatred or videos of brutal police killings.

According to a 2014 ProPublica report on police shootings, black kids ages 15 to 19 were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white kids who were the same age. Images of the murders of children like Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown that are instantly accessible on the internet make this statistic much more palpable for teens today than those past.

But teens today aren't backing away from doing the work their predecessors engaged in generations ago. In addition to the emergence of online activism, Newsweek noted that the NAACP, a longstanding civil rights advocacy organization, has seen a 28 percent increase in its youth membership over the past two years.

"At a moment of conflict, crisis and challenge, rather than sliding into a civic and depressive funk, what do teens do?" asked NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. "They join organizations. They take to Twitter. They do something about it."

So while American teens may not believe America is where is should be in its path to eradicate racism, at least the youngest among us don’t deny that the problem continues to exist.