The Changing Race Dynamics in America



Note to readers: I'm writing this as a 58-year-old white man, who has never spent one minute being black in America. I readily admit this article is therefore limited by that perspective. But I'm also a futurist and trend-spotter, relying on research, intuition, and brain-power to deliver insights on shifts in our society and culture. If you feel I've missed on this one, let me know via the comments below. 

It’s great to live in a country where Black Panther is the number one movie. Wayne Simmonds won the NHL All-Star game MVP. LeBron James didn’t “shut up and dribble.” And Oprah might be running for president in 2020.

Wait, isn’t this the same country that has seen racial tensions escalating in recent years? Where pervasive racism and sexism still impact wide swaths of society — the lack of blacks, Hispanics and women at the top of organizations, the vast majority of blacks who do not feel they have an equal chance for promotion or pay raises in companies, a person’s longevity tied on their zip code, black men shot and killed from behind by police, even the experience of a black person receiving change from a cashier at 7-11 compared to what I might feel as a white man?

In that America, what does the future of race dynamics look like? Better or worse?

Assuming the pendulum is swinging one way or the other, we think race dynamics will improve. Here’s why:

As rough as things have been, as a Baby Boomer, I can tell you we live in a different America today than that of my youth (the 1960s). Truth be told, Boomers have been the generational pivot point for race relations in this country. Now, let's not fool ourselves. America has miles to go. But one might argue that through Boomers, the issue of race has been transformed. We rejected the status quo and created a new one.

A Pivotal Point in History

Most demographers agree that the experiences one has during their “coming of age” years, approximately between the ages of 10 and 20, are the ones that shape and form a generational world view. Boomers came of age from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, when the nation evolved from enforcing Jim Crow laws to delighting in The Jeffersons.

Young, impressionable, coming-of-age white Boomers watched as their parents’ generation first resisted Civil Rights, then enacted it into law. (I'm pretty sure black Boomers and their parents were big supporters of the Civil Rights movement). But I heard my parents or other adults refer to blacks as “colored” or “negroes” and other, less polite terms. But the nation also saw sit-ins on TV, or learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We knew something was changing, but more than likely we didn't think too long or hard about how it ultimately could impact us. At that age, we were sponges, absorbing it all.

In 1964, as the Civil Rights Act became law, things began to change. The watershed year of 1968 ushered the first Boomers out of college into young adulthood. Wide-eyed Boomers learned of Dr. King’s assassination, watched Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise black-gloved fists during the Star-Spangled Banner at the Mexico City Olympics, and were surprised when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner won an Oscar for best screenplay (again, black Boomers likely were rejoicing). Boomers attended integrated schools, ate at integrated restaurants and rode on integrated buses.

These events, and others, were experienced by Boomers during their “Wonder Bread” years, shaping that generation.

The Next Generation

In the 1980s and 1990s, Boomers became parents. In most cases, both worked and shared in the responsibilities of raising the children. Those young, impressionable Gen X, and then Millennial generation, children came of age during a period of diversity and equality. Our society evolved, and became more open and accepting of anyone with talent, smarts, and skills, regardless of race, creed or color. Yes, there was Rodney King and other issues, but the trend was positive.

Think of the evolution of Hollywood’s leading men over the last four decades: Paul Newman to Robert Redford to Tom Hanks to Denzel Washington to Will Smith. Ask a young person today why they like Will Smith and we bet there will be no mention of his skin color. Same with LeBron James or Tiger Woods.

That’s because most Boomer parents raised Gen X and Millennial children to be much more accepting of different genders, races, religions and sexual orientations. To borrow from Toni Morrison, race exists, but does it matter?

Millennials and Gen Zs

Not long ago a relative shared a story about her son, John, peering out the back window at age 6 and asking about “the black man” getting the garbage can. She looked out and saw four African-Americans around the truck and asked John, “What do you mean by ‘the black man?’” while thinking they are all “black men.”

“The man with the black shirt,” John replied.

To him, and many of his generation, one aspect of Dr. King’s dream has been realized. This generation doesn’t “judge based on the color of their skin” because they don’t even see skin color as a distinctive feature, and certainly not the defining feature.

This mindset is rooted in how they were raised, but also in their reality. Millennials are less likely to be white. For Boomers, about 4 in 5 are white. But only about 3 in 5 Millennials are white. It’s about 1 in 2 among Gen Zs. As there is no longer a white majority, the issue of us versus them and skin color could finally be diminishing in importance.

Race Dynamics and Tomorrow

To really see the future of race dynamics, visit a local public elementary school playground. It’s like visiting the U.N. That’s what tomorrow looks like.

Now, the pivot by Boomers is not universal. There are still Boomers, and younger people, who have race issues. We optimistically think they are the minority these days.

For the rest of us, let’s keep moving the discussion towards inclusion and the content of one’s character. It’s a future I certainly want.