Ryan Knapick and Josh Baker have been best friends since fifth grade. Colette Gregory entered the picture in high school. She and Josh are dating now. Knapick is white, Gregory is black and Baker is half-Hispanic. To them, race doesn’t matter.
“People are finding people with common interests and common perspectives and are putting race aside,” says Knapick, 22, a May graduate of Indiana University who works at a machine shop and lives with his parents in Munster, Ind.
He and his friends are among an estimated 46.3 million Americans ages 14 to 24—the older segment of the most diverse generation in American society. (Most demographers say this “Millennial” generation began in the early 1980s, after Generation X.) These young people have friends of different races and also may date someone of another race.
This age group is more tolerant and open-minded than previous generations, according to an analysis of studies released last year by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, part of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. The center focuses on ages 15 to 25.
Another study by Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill., found six of 10 teens say their friends include members of diverse racial backgrounds.
Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s teens and twentysomethings grew up with “diversity,” “multicultural” and “inclusion” as buzzwords. Many were required to take college courses in cultural diversity. Now the media fuel this colorblindness as movies, TV and advertising portray interracial friendship and romance.
“Race is becoming less of a deal in dating,” says Kriss Turner, a television writer and producer from Los Angeles who wrote the screenplay for the movie Something New, which opened Friday. The ensemble cast features Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker, Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood in a tale of a single black woman who finds her dreams of marrying an “ideal black man” shattered by her attraction to a white guy.
Some attitudinal changes are based in demographics. About 33% of those under 18 are racial or ethnic minorities, and about 20% of elementary- and high school-age students are immigrants or children of immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Racial diversity is especially common in college friendships because that age group is exposed to a wider range of people, and college students have more opportunities to become friends with peers of other races, says Anthony Lising Antonio, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, who has conducted research on friendship diversity.
Many would say a new generation that considers race irrelevant is something to be celebrated—the fulfillment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But some experts say the notion of a generation that ignores race paints too rosy a picture.
They worry that decades devoted to ending racial segregation and creating a colorblind society may have created a new problem: a generation so unconcerned about race that it ignores disparities that still exist.
“People think this sort of colorblindness is a kind of progress, but I see it as more pernicious than that,” says Tyrone Forman, an associate professor of African-American studies and sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
His research, based on data from the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future survey, suggests a troublesome side to racial colorblindness.
Even though young people report having friends of other races, Forman says, those friendships don’t necessarily lead to a reduction in negative attitudes toward a racial group, because people view their own friends as an exception to whatever stereotype may exist.
Such feelings, along with studies that show less concern for racial issues among white high school seniors in 2003 compared with 30 years ago, makes him believe there should be more and not less talk about race, Forman says.
The data suggest young people “are increasingly becoming comfortable with racial and ethnic inequality,” he says.
“In the socioeconomic indicators—wealth, income, housing—we see persistent patterns of racial and ethnic disparity.”
Forman says his analysis reveals a generation that doesn’t believe these social issues—at the heart of the civil rights movement—affect them personally. In 2003, 17% of students said they were “never concerned” with hunger and poverty, compared with 7% in 1976, he says. And on race, 27% were “never concerned” three years ago, compared with 13% surveyed in 1976.
Rebecca Bigler, 42, a psychology professor who directs the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the University of Texas-Austin, traces such attitudes to baby boomer parents who may have set a tone for raising colorblind kids.
“It makes us feel racist if we acknowledge race, so we try not to, and we end up being color-mute,” she says. “Children learn from their parents that you don’t talk about race.”
A Gallup Poll on interracial dating in June found that 95% of 18- to 29-year-olds approve of blacks and whites dating. About 60% of that age group said they have dated someone of a different race.