I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee in the 1980s where diversity basically meant two colors: black and white. I am Jewish, but growing up, I was considered white. The southern anit-semitism I encountered was mostly out of ignorance and not hate (the Jews killed Christ, Christian kids praying for my soul out of sincere concern, the occasional comment about not getting "Jewed" or jipped related to money). When black teens and white teens did hang out together, athletics was typically the unifying factor. I'll never forget an experience I had in middle school when word got out that my best friend, who was white and blond, was fooling aroung with a black guy. The white kids shunned her completely and the black girls wanted to beat her up. Public interracial dating did happen, but it was pretty rare and always controversial.
A lot has been said about Generation Y or the Millennials (those born somewhere around or between 1978 and 2000) being both the most diverse generation in history as well as the most tolerant. In many ways this is true -- More young people today have friends of a different race or have dated someone of a different race than past generations. In the past several years gay-straight alliances have popped up in high schools around the country and gay and lesbian teens are coming out at younger ages. They have been raised on books designed to build self esteem and to embrace tolerance and "multi-culturalism." When I was a teen, MTV Raps was groundbreaking, now the hip hop aesthetic dominates MTV's programming. Shows popular with teens like "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Heroes" all have multi-cultural casts. The iPod has all but torn down the walls between different genres of music with many teens now listening to playlists smattered with hip hop, rock and salsa.
But while the population and pop culture have grown more diverse, the reality is that most white kids still hang out with mostly white kids. According to an analysis of 2002 Census Bureau figures by the Lewis Mumford Center at the State University of New York at Albany, the average white person lives in a community that is 83 percent white and only 7 percent black. So much of what passes for teen racial enlightenment is actually what Charles Gallagher, a Georgia State sociology professor, characterizes as "crossing color lines through consumerism" or white kids buying Ludacris CDs. At the same time, many of the teens who do hang out with friends of different races often believe that racism is a thing of the past -- something we ended with the civil rights movement. They have become the "color blind" generation, taking race forgranted. Many inner city teens today will use some form of the N word as a term of endearment with their friends. And while most teens can mimick Borat's anit-semitic lines knowing that the film is really just making fun of people's ignorance, some teens may be repeating these lines who do not get the joke.
The recent outbursts of Michael and Mel have reminded us that racist attitudes still lurk underneath the surface of most Americans, and are just waiting for a heckler or too much alcohol or road rage to bring them to the surface. But beyond the unconscious racist attitudes most of us have, institutional racism and discrimination still exists in this country in the judicial system, health care, housing and employment. Anti-semitism still plays a role in people's attitudes towards Jews in the United States and is a alive and well all over the Middle East and eastern Europe. These outbursts present all of us who work with teens as educators as well as parents, aunts, uncles and friends with a teachable moment -- that racism and racist attitudes still exist in all of us, that words can hurt, and that sometimes imitation (like a frat house party with a "ghetto-fabulous" theme) is not really flattery. Most of all it's an opportunity to remind this generation that while we've come a long way, there's still a long way to go.