This weekend, I saw the new satirical film “Dear White People.” I was curious what it would tell me about how young people view race today.
Each generation plays out the drama of race in the movies. Baby boomers flocked to“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which raised the question: Could a well-educated black man ever be good enough for a white family’s daughter? The jury was still out in 1967, the year my mom, who is black, saw that movie several times. Two years later, she married my dad, who is white.
Then came my generation. Born in the ’70s, we grew up glued to depictions of black slavery and impoverishment, with the television miniseries “Roots” and the sitcom “Good Times.” We came of age with Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” released in 1991, which asked the question: Will the gulf between black and white ever be bridged? Lee’s answer seemed to be: Don’t hold your breath. In 1992, I left my predominantly white high school for a predominantly white Ivy League college.
Now we have the millennial generation, the most ethnically diverse, socially liberal cohort America has ever seen; kids who never wondered whether America could elect a black president. About 90 percent report being “fine” with a family member marrying outside the race. Yet, for much of this generation, the civil rights movement is ancient history, and systemic black poverty and incarceration take place on a separate planet. Millennials feel deeply ambivalent about acknowledging race, even for the purpose of righting wrongs: According to one poll, 70 percent feel it’s “never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.” Nearly half of white young people today believe that discrimination against whites has become “as big a problem as discrimination against racial minority groups.” By comparison, only 27 percent of people of color share that belief.
Therein lies the disconnect. Clashes over race have not disappeared. They’ve simply gotten more personal. Although “Dear White People” leaves much to be desired in terms of plot and character development, it speaks to the zeitgeist of this era: Nearly every romance in the movie is interracial. But that doesn’t produce racial harmony. Instead, the main character, a sexy Angela Davis type, fights to protect her black dorm from integration. She rings a gong when white students walk into the cafeteria, including her own white lover. Then a rich white kid throws a party called “Release Your Inner Negro.” All hell proceeds to break loose.
On the surface, “Dear White People” appears to warn whites about liberties they shouldn’t take, even in age of alleged post-raciality: (Dressing in blackface, fondling a stranger’s afro, and dismissing a nerdy black guy as “only technically black” are all no-nos, in case you’re wondering.)
But, despite its name, the movie doesn’t really speak to white people. Instead, it explores the angst felt by blacks who occupy a mostly-white world: What does it mean to be black if you’re affluent, popular, and the son of the college dean? How black can you be if you love “Star Trek?’’ Or Mumford and Sons? Or your own white father? And how big a role should race play anyway in determining our identity in an era that preaches that race shouldn’t matter?
The truth is, the deepest dilemmas in this movie are caused not by white rejection, but acceptance. It’s the same theme as the new ABC comedy “Black-ish,” which features the trials of raising black kids in a white suburb. One episode features a black dad’s horror when he realizes his son has no black friends. In another, his son asks for a bar mitzvah.
To be clear, neither “Dear White People” nor “Black-ish” addresses the enormous challenges of the black underclass in America today. Instead, they focus on something new: The existential threat of assimilation. A generation after upwardly mobile blacks struggled for acceptance in white neighborhoods and schools, we’re faced with another problem: preserving a sense of identity inside the mainstream.
W. E. B. Du Bois famously defined a black man as anybody “who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia,’ ” writes Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs in her new book, “A Chosen Exile.” That “raises the question, What would a black man be without Jim Crow in Georgia?”
If overcoming slavery and discrimination lies at the heart of the black American experience, who will we be once that battle is won?
For the first time in history, we have a generation that stands a chance of finding out.