By Stefani Cox
The Bay Area is home to a wealth of protests on a seemingly weekly basis. For each protest, there are some people who get behind the action, and others don’t. The #BlackLivesMatter protests, which strive to raise awareness about the over-policing of black and brown people, unsurprisingly brought out both sides in full force, especially when public transit was shut down. However, I was surprised that among the usual dissenters frustrated by the inconvenience of direct action and protest, was an unexpected demographic – liberal white millennials.
In my own social media platforms, and through conversations observed in passing, I heard many comments similar to the one below.
The gist usually captures some level of ideological support for the protests, but is combined with an expression of extreme annoyance at being inconvenienced. Often dissenters proffer a suggestion to take the protests elsewhere – to the police, to Congress, to anyone else basically other than everyday residents.
I find the white millennial anti-protest comments intriguing, because there’s a deep misunderstanding about the role of non-police as targets of protests. The white millennial demographic are, in fact, a critical subset to be disrupted through protests. This is because the newly-imagined “hip” American cities that white millennials have been flocking to in recent years (with city-living in many ways defining the millennial identity), actually depend on the existence of police presence in order to maintain spatial and economic barriers between well-off white people and poorer city residents of color.
For white millennials, the essence and idea of a “City” relies on the protection of certain principles and ideals. In that ideal world, the city is a well-curated playground, rich with transportation, jobs, and entertainment that white millennials can access to their heart’s content. Developers, city governments, and other change agents are all too happy to oblige the interests of these harbingers of wealth, who augment tax bases and project a certain type of public image to would-be investors.
However, with economic investment also comes methods of protecting that investment and increasing returns.
People and “unsavory” elements that threaten the newly-cultivated environment – no matter who was there first – are to be physically displaced elsewhere. Aside from the ever-present reality of actual law enforcement surveillance, we see this policing activity in a walkable neighborhood that suddenly elects to hire a private security guard to watch for “suspicious” people. We see it in the business owners who band together to prevent visibly homeless people from sitting on public sidewalks. And we see it in the apartment building owners who suddenly find themselves in a hot market and decide to evict “undesirable” tenants who are slightly behind on their rent, or maybe are just Section 8 affordable housing voucher holders.
White millennials may not be the only ones pulling the trigger on these actions, but they certainly enjoy the results of a city that looks one step closer to their urban utopia. And the pervasiveness of a colorblind mentality isn’t helping them notice what’s going on.
Research shows that while white millennials generally see themselves as a racially compassionate demographic, 60 percent of them believe that discrimination is just as much a problem for white people as it is for people of color, while only 35 percent of black millennials felt the same way. Research also shows that levels of implicit bias haven’t decreased between older and younger white generations. Hence, even if white millennials think they are more racially tolerant than their parents or grandparents, this might not be true.
On the other hand, for black millennials, and other millennials of color, racism isn’t something we need to try and believe in because we live it every day. Even as the privileged among us may be sheltered from the worst of racism through class, we still know what it feels like to have people perceive you differently and assume that you don’t belong. Take the example of W. Kamau Bell for instance, a successful black comedian who simply walked into a popular Oakland café to say hello to his white wife and was yelled at in a derogatory manner by an employee.
White millennial identity is wrapped up in seeing the city as the great equalizer, the place where all sorts of people mix freely and have access to countless jobs and resources. Yet, as highlighted by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this post-racial attitude of many white millennials creates an inability to see beyond the casual diversity of their daily lives – street and work encounters with other races for example – to understand the deeper issues with policing and violence that many poor black and brown communities experience. There is a cognitive disconnect between their very presence and ownership of the city and the fact that they are partial targets of the protests.
Social movements are disruptive. Otherwise there would be no point. If you are being disrupted, it’s important to think about why, rather than just getting upset and pointing fingers to someone else. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the many other racial justice campaigns that people of color and their allies rally behind, demonstrate important lessons we can all learn from – but only as long as we are willing to pay attention.
Suggested Reading: “Where Young College Graduates Are Choosing To Live.” New York Times
Follow us @BlkMillennials.