They know that Monday is more than just a day off, but University of Akron students asked about the confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the second inauguration of America’s first black president believe it is a bigger deal for their parents than for them.
Perhaps that is because race has not impacted their lives in the way it has for older generations.
“I think there is a big gap between ages … We are more interested in existing together, growing together, learning together … that’s how we know the world,” said Stephanie Mullens, a 21-year-old music major who described herself as half Italian, half Puerto Rican. “I think we have kind of skipped the whole race issue … it was not really an issue for us.”
Despite that perception, a recent Associated Press survey shows that 51 percent of the general population expresses anti-black sentiment. That is up from 48 percent in 2008. Yet young people are more optimistic. When they do think about discrimination, the college students believe that things will get better as their generation matures.
Mullens’ friend, Joshua Austin, a white 25-year-old sports management major, said he is hopeful that all forms of discrimination will diminish.
“It’s the same with any kind of bigotry, even with things like with gay rights,” he said. “People are just beginning to see it’s more accepted in the people around them and so they are less likely to share that in public … The bigots have become the minority instead of the majority, and I think that’s the biggest difference from five years ago.”
Music major Matt McClendon, 18, of Kirtland, who is white, said he has seen changes in himself since coming to the university campus.
“I think I have started to view the world more differently … that there are more ways to look at things,” he said.
His new vantage point is changing the way he relates to other people.
“I’ve started thinking more openly,” he said. “I’ve started to see my friends as, ‘Maybe I should drift away from these people or help them think more openly,’ because we [as a society] are starting to move away from that closed-minded opinion. And people should at least try to be more open-minded to help the world become a better place.”
Ronald Thompson, 18, of Akron, who is black, said he is rarely a victim of racism. His parents and their peers, on the other hand, have faced discrimination, mostly in the workplace.
“I noticed older people do have a more sensitive touch to racism,” he said.
Thompson worked with a relative on President Barack Obama’s campaign but said he doesn’t talk about politics or race with his friends.
“It’s never been a problem,” he said. “I just never thought about treating someone different or the color of their skin. It just doesn’t seem important.”
Because race is not a focus for his generation, he is enthusiastic about the future.
“I just believe it is going to be better when we get up there,” he said.
Nichole Mosley, a 22-year-old jazz major from Maple Heights, said she learned that her first college roommate didn’t want to live with her because she is black. She believes that some things won’t change and sees little difference in race relations since Obama was elected in 2008, noting that it’s hard to erase hundreds of years of racism.
Jason Ball, 26, of Stow, said he also thinks that race will continue to have some impact on the way people are treated. But racism is not as intense as in the past, he said.
“In white-black relations [interracial relationships], I feel like it’s been more of a norm now … it’s more relaxed” said Ball, who is white.
He does not, however, think that politics (inclusive of the election of the first black president) is the reason for the improvement in race relations. He believes that the more tolerant environments that his generation have experienced have shaped new attitudes and views.
“Most of the changes I’ve seen I don’t think have been due to politics,” he said. “It’s just children being raised by family, the effect church is having, the effect that culture is having.”
Ball’s friend, Cassundra Gillison, 21, of Copley, who is black, said she is cautiously hopeful that race relations will continue to improve.
“I don’t think [racism] will ever go away” — people still make certain comments and have certain reactions but “I think people are realizing it’s time to change.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.