Because we have been taught to believe in happy endings, it’s easy for young people to view racism as a problem that will inevitably be solved or perhaps already has been. In the history books, racial progress for African Americans occurs on a comforting positive slope, evolving from slavery to Jim Crow discrimination to the post-civil-rights era of equality under the law. And in our own lifetimes, we reached a new racial milestone when Barack Obama became the U.S.’s first black President, thanks in large part to a groundswell of support from young voters of all races.
What the history books miss is that change rarely happens in an orderly fashion. There are fits and starts. There are retrenchments. There are debates. Change has to occur not only on the macro level, in soaring proclamations by Presidents and civic leaders, but also on the micro level, through a shift in the thinking of everyday people. And big racial progress is always met with a measure of resistance–some of it passive, some of it active, some of it horrifically violent.
That is what happened in Charleston, S.C., last month. And it isn’t going to stop just because an older generation passes away. Dylann Roof, the racist accused of murdering nine black people in a church, was only 21. While he doesn’t reflect the attitude of most young people, it’s now our collective responsibility to address the societal issues that allow such hate to flourish.
We millennials like to see ourselves as progressive or postracial. But that may actually make it harder for us to have much needed discussions about race. In a 2014 survey by MTV, 91% of people ages 14 to 24 said they believed in racial equality and 72% said their generation believed in equality more than older Americans did. But only 37% of the respondents were raised in households that talked about race, and just 20% said they felt comfortable talking about biases against specific groups.
This is the crux of the problem. Many young people take “not seeing race” as a badge of honor that proves their progressivism and absolves them from engaging in discussions on the topic–even as racial rancor continues to play out in our streets, on social media and now even in our churches.
Thinking of yourself as color-blind can make it harder to see that America is a country riddled with systemic racial inequalities and that many are becoming more pronounced, not less. White households are now 13 times as wealthy as black ones, the largest gap since 1989. Blacks are 2½ times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug possession, even though about the same percentage of blacks and whites use drugs. And despite the promise of equal education enshrined 60 years ago by Brown v. Board of Education, more than a third of black students in the South now attend schools that are almost fully minority and are often doubly segregated by poverty. The challenges these kids face are virtually invisible to their white peers.
It’s not enough to remove the Confederate flag from our statehouses or to assume that change will come when the next generation of more-open minds rises to power. According to surveys conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago from 2010 to 2014, 31% of white millennials rated blacks lazier than whites, just 1 percentage point less than Gen X-ers and 4 points less than baby boomers. Twenty-three percent of white millennials rated blacks less intelligent than whites, compared with 19% of Gen X-ers. At the same time, the litany of racist incidents at college campuses shows that outright racial cruelty is still far too common.
These aren’t problems my generation can afford to ignore. As of 2014, the majority of children under 5 in the U.S. are nonwhite. By 2043, the majority of Americans will be. There are obvious financial and political dangers for people who deny these demographic shifts–just ask Donald Trump, who stands to lose millions after calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” But there’s a collective cost as well. A world where minorities lack the opportunities and protections that white people have will be a world of even higher incarceration rates, health care expenses and education inequality than the one we live in today. These economic penalties, in addition to the more obvious moral ones, will ultimately burden all of us, color-blind or not.
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This appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of TIME.