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DIVERSITY BOSTON

Color blind

Will the latest generation succeed in making ‘race’ a thing of the past?

(Dadu Shin for The Boston Globe)
By James H. Burnett III
December 4, 2011
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In the realm of wishful thinking, now that I’m a dad I have just one lofty thought on my mind: what the future holds for my 10-month-old son’s generation, where race and race relations are concerned.

Our household will be an intimate case study for my son, as I’m black and my wife white. But what I’m hoping - right along with my dreams of a stable economy, a revival of basic civility, and the invention of beer that has no calories and doesn’t taste like kindergarten glue - is that by the time my Max is an adult, skin color just won’t be important anymore.

Experts say it’s possible, given that every generation in this country, dating to the early 1800s, has been responsible for a significant social game-changer.

More recently, the Greatest Generation won World War II and engineered the defeat of Nazism as a form of government. Baby Boomers championed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Generation-Xers became the first to be significantly better educated than their parents. Gen-Y, aka the Millennials, was the first generation raised on computers and electronic gadgetry.

And if Millennials continue to make progress, their successors - Max and his peers - could be the first generation to wholly dismiss skin color and other physical characteristics as insignificant. Ironic, considering that brown and black people are expected to make up a majority of the US population by 2040 or 2045, according to the Census Bureau.

But the study also sheds a ray of hope on one characteristic that Millennials don’t share with their elders: A growing number of Millennials don’t view race as a primary physical marker. They instinctively describe peers and strangers alike as the “tall guy,’’ the “girl who always answers questions first in math class,’’ or the “guy who drives that red truck,’’ rather than the “black guy,’’ the “blonde girl,’’ or that “Latino guy.’’

Even if the post-Millennials pull off what has evaded their elders, it won’t mean “the end of racism, just the beginning of the end,’’ says John S. Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield. “Our grandchildren will wonder about our obsession with race the way our children wonder about our old model of network television: outmoded ideas, but still with some influence.’’

I guess this means Max is not likely to sit on the couch with his old man one day, cackling and slapping his knee to “old’’ DVDs of comedians Chris Rock and Daniel Tosh, but will instead ask me, “Why are all their jokes about color? It’s just skin!’’

A few weeks ago I found myself sitting on a park bench outside of a suburban Boston YMCA, holding Max on my lap. I thought Max and I blended in, because for the better part of an hour, a virtual parade of parents and toddlers walked past us and into the Y. Some lingered out front on other benches. Moms smiled and urged their kids to “look at the pretty baby!’’ Empathetic dads nodded silent hellos. Grandparents cooed in his face and tried to pinch his fat cheeks.

One elderly man broke the routine though, when he approached Max and me with a big smile and said, “We’d like to commend you.’’

I smiled back and asked, “For what?’’

“For committing time to your son. He is your child, right? So many dads in your position don’t find the time. . .’’

I’d like to assume that by my position the man meant seated, and that what made me stand out to him from the dozens of other dads with children just a few feet away was that I am tall and incredibly good looking, or that I have a visible heavenly aura about me. Of course, those things are true. But let’s not kid ourselves: He was referring to the fact that I, a black man, was playing with my child - and maybe that I was doing so while wearing a wedding band?

My wild imagination made me wonder what Max would have asked at that moment if he could talk. Perhaps it would have been, “Why did that man say nice things to you and not one of the other daddies?’’

My answer would have been, “For no reason at all, at least not a good reason.’’

James H. Burnett III is a Globe reporter. He can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.

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