Mayoral Musings: Youth Bias Rap Session

By: Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

BRIDGETON, N.J. — If the stats are right, one out of every four young people between age 15 and 24 have been targeted in some way because of their race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, or immigration status. This isn’t a new thing; discrimination and bias have always been present in society. What is relatively new is that we no longer just accept it as the price of being different, which is why I encouraged young people (and the not-so-young) to take part in the Youth Bias listening session on Thursday, Nov. 21, 6 to 8 p.m., at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Bridgeton.

It matters because there was a time, not all that long ago, when I believed that our country was leaning in the right direction as far as discrimination and bias. I’m not sure why I believed this, but I did. Maybe it was the blood that was spilled for the sake of civil rights and equality or maybe it was the naïve notion that more of those reflexive tribal hatreds would go to the grave with each successive generation. Whatever it was, the glass was always half-full.

But these days it’s awfully hard to hang on to that optimism, and I’m afraid I’m slipping into glass half-empty territory. I’d like to think that some of my cynicism is simply a byproduct of growing old, but I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that those old tribal hatreds have been legitimized, given a champion, and made to be the underpinnings of policy and governance.

So the glass seems half-empty and I’m tired—but not so much the young, who will ultimately have to decide for themselves whether the tribal hatreds will harden into yet another generation going forward. I wouldn’t bet against them, but it won’t be easy. In reviewing data from a report entitled “Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America” from PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and MTV, today’s youth face more issues than previous generations.

In terms of race, Hispanic (24%), black (30%), Asian/Pacific Islander (35%) youth were more likely than white youth (4%) to have experienced racially-motivated discrimination over the course of the last 12 months. No less than 32% of young people who identified as LGBT were targeted specifically because of gender or orientation and more than half the young women surveyed (54%) either witnessed or experienced gender discrimination.

Some other conclusions from this lengthy report include the fact that there is widespread agreement among young people that Muslims face substantial discrimination in the U.S., most young people believe that discrimination against Muslims and transgender people is on the rise, most young people who experience discrimination believe it is purposeful, and more than four in 10 report fearing for their personal safety. On the plus side, roughly half of young people who have witnessed bias say they have intervened, and are more likely to do so if they know the victim.

As for our current moment, the report indicates that young people express more negative than positive views about recent protests and marches (close to half of young women overall view them favorably), young women are more socially and politically active than young men, and young people support free speech on campus, even if its content is offensive.

However, drilling into the nut of the matter, eight in 10 (80%) black young people and a majority of Asian/Pacific Islanders (55%) and Hispanic (52%) young people say race relations are a critical issue to them personally, while only 37% of white young people feel that way. Nearly half (46%) of white young women say race relations are a critical concern to them personally, compared to only 29% of white young men.

This is just a sampling, but the report has far more detail then I can cover here and I encourage anyone interested in these issues to view the report in its entirety.

My fatigue and cynicism of the moment notwithstanding, the report says that young people (age 15-24) have a positive outlook on the country’s future. Nearly six in 10 (59%) say America’s best days lie ahead, while only 41% say the country’s best days are behind us. That’s no small thing.