Over the past 11 years, I have had the opportunity to work closely with the Godfather of Hip-Hop, Russell Simmons. We co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) in 2001. We have convened more than 75 Hip-Hop Summits across the United States, Canada, and in South Africa, all dealing with such empowerment issues as education, financial literacy, civic engagement, housing and cultural transformation.
Summits that ranged in themes from “Get Your Money Right” to “Get Your House Right” drew thousands of young people. One of the essential findings that we experienced in those youth summits was that young African Americans today who consider themselves to be in the hip-hop generation see the question of race from a more transcendent and optimistic perspective than from the views of their parents or from generations the past.
Consequently, it was not surprising that a recent study by CNN found that African-American children were more optimistic on the issue of race than White children of the same age categories. Although the study that was commissioned by CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 was widely distributed through the news media, it was strange to hear that somehow the “groundbreaking” results provided some new revelations about racial progress in America. The timing of the release of this study was ironic given the latest national divide on the issue of race in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.
How a 6-year-old child feels about race or how a teenager or a young adult understands the significance of race in society is often determined at a very early age by what the child experiences or observes from parents and others who interact with them.
According to the study, “A white child and a black child look at the exact same picture of two students on the playground but what they see is often very different and what they say speaks volumes about the racial divide in America. The pictures, designed to be ambiguous, are at the heart of a groundbreaking new study on children and race commissioned by CNN. White and black kids were asked: ‘What’s happening in this picture?’ ‘Are these two children friends?’ and ‘Would their parents like it if they were friends?’”
The study concluded that there was a significant “chasm” and difference between the racial perspectives of the youth involved in the study who were as young as age 6.
CNN reported, “Overall, black first-graders had far more positive interpretations of the images than white first-graders. In fact, only 38% of black children had a negative interpretation of the pictures, whereas almost double – a full 70% of white kids – felt something negative was happening.”
The study also revealed that by the time Black children reach the age of 13, their views about race become much more pessimistic, similar to the views of White children their age. An explanation was offered by the study’s author, Melanie Killen of the University of Maryland: “Experiences of rejection and the harsh realities of race relations most likely explain the trend.”
The burden of eliminating racism and the ideology of White supremacy from the institutions of this society and from the mindset of people is not consigned to one racial group versus another racial group. In a multiracial society, there has to be a full commitment and serious responsibility for all people to work together to bridge the nation’s complex racial divide.
There is no question that we have made racial progress during the past 100 years in the United States. There is also no question that we have not overcome yet. Our youth are intelligent and conscious of the ways that race still is a discriminating factor that can determine ones quality of life. All youth, not African American youth alone, have to rise to the historical and contemporary challenges that must be faced and transformed. That is why, from my vantage point, it is healthy for so many young people to become energized in response to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. We all must remain vigilant and active. There is much more progress to be accomplished.
The 2012 national elections, the reform of the educational system, the upcoming Supreme Court rulings on health care, the attempts in 30 or more states to suppress the Black vote, and other issues that will impact how our young people and others can have a better life are all matters of urgent concern. Let’s avoid cynicism and fear of change. Let’s make social change occur as the result of our collective determination and struggle for freedom, justice, equality and empowerment. Our race and our blackness are not a curse. We are a blessed people with a great future ahead, but we must not relent or retreat in the face of the resurgence of racial discrimination. Let’s continue to push forward and make our nation and world a better place for all.
Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and Education Online Services Corporation and serves as the national director for Occupy the Dream. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org