It seems that every successive generation of Americans has to have a name or label. I’m sure you’re already familiar with the “Baby Boomer” generation that was born in the two decades after World War 2. Most have presumably also heard of “Generation X” (to which I belong), who were born between 1965 and 1980.

Most recently, we have the “Millennial” generation — those born between 1981 and 2000. Growing up in the age of computers, the Internet, cellphones, social networking, and multimedia proliferation, in many ways the Millennials represent a milestone generation within American society. To capture and describe some of their characteristics, the Pew Research Center recently conducted a series of reports on various demographic and cultural traits and attitudes of this generation. Below are some highlights of their report that relate to the cultural and racial/ethnic views and composition of the Millennial generation:

They are the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation’s history. Among those ages 13 to 29: 18.5% are Hispanic; 14.2% are Black; 4.3% are Asian; 3.2% are mixed race or other; and 59.8%, a record low, are White.

They are starting out as the most politically progressive age group in modern history. In the 2008 election, Millennials voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by 66%-32%, while adults ages 30 and over split their votes 50%-49%. In the four decades since the development of Election Day exit polling, this is the largest gap ever seen in a presidential election between the votes of those under and over age 30. . . .

They are the least religiously observant youths since survey research began charting religious behavior. . . .

Acceptance of interracial dating by generation © Pew Research Center

The graph shows the percentage approving of interracial dating for each of four cohorts (or generations), tracking their responses across the 13 separate waves of polling between 1987 and 2009. Several things are evident from the graph. One is that there is an upward trend in acceptance of interracial dating in most cohorts as time passes. . . .

Another conclusion from the graph is that each younger cohort is more supportive than the cohorts that preceded it. Baby Boomers were more supportive in 1987 than members of the Silent Generation, and remained that way throughout. Generation X (at 82%) was more supportive than the Baby Boomers when it first appeared in the surveys. And the Millennial cohort is the most supportive of all.

The part of the Pew reports about the racial/ethnic composition of the Millennials was not surprising, although I expected the proportion Asian American to be a little higher. Nor am I surprised that the Millennials tend to be the least religious of all the generations, although I expect their levels of religious participation to increase as they get older.

I am also not surprised that the Millennials are the most supportive of interracial dating, as the graph illustrates. However, in looking at the graph, it shows that somewhere around 2007, the approval rates for interracial dating actually declined slightly for Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. Further, at this point, we do not yet know whether the approval rate for interracial dating will continue to decline, or whether it will rebound and continue its upward trajectory.

I find this recent development a little perplexing, particularly considering that was when Barack Obama, the child of an interracial couple, began his rise in popularity on the way to the Presidency. I am left to wonder, could it be due to the subtle rising White backlash against the increasing levels of racial/ethnic diversity in this country?

In other words, as I’ve written about before, starting even before Barack Obama’s rise in popularity and even accelerating ever since, there were indications, events, and incidents that showed how racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. were becoming increasingly polarized, with a rising group of White Americans increasingly feeling resentful and threatened by such demographic and cultural changes taking place in “their” community and “their” country.

If that is indeed the case, the Millennial generation indeed represents a watershed moment in the evolution of American society. On the one hand, they might replicate the racial/ethnic and cultural splintering of the country that may lead to the de facto split of American society into a White part and a non-White part. On the other hand, the Millennials have the opportunity to draw upon their shared institutional beliefs and cultural practices and help the country heal its racial/ethnic divides and lead us toward coalescing into a true multicultural nation.

I believe that this will be the primary challenge — and ultimate legacy — of this Millennial generation.

Today we celebrate Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and legacy as a national holiday. I would like to use this occasion to reflect a little bit on one part of Dr. King’s dream and how far we have come toward accomplishing it.

Specifically, I refer to Dr. King’s wish that one day soon, we would live in a society in which, as he eloquently put it, people “would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” a vision that we commonly refer to as a “colorblind” society. This ideal has remained an ultimate goal for many in American society, from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. But are we there yet? How close are we to achieving that dream?

Martin Luther King Jr. © Howard Stroman

Many Americans thought that Barack Obama’s election was the culmination of Dr. King’s dream and concrete proof that we have evolved into a “post-racial,” colorblind society. Unfortunately, as I and many other sociologists and commentators have argued, even in this past year, we have seen numerous incidents that illustrate just how prevalent racial distinctions and racism still are in American society.

As another example, just recently, there was the uproar over Senator Harry Reid’s comments from the presidential campaign that Barack Obama had a good chance of being elected because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Many conservatives charged that Senator Reid’s comments were racist and that similarly due to the racist comments uttered by former Senator Trent Lott, Reid should resign. Others pointed out that conservatives were being hypocritical in pointing out this particular example of “racism” while basically ignoring other examples of racism directed toward Barack Obama over the past few years.

Similarly, others like Professor Joe Feagin point out that Harry Reid was just verbalizing an implicit reality that still operates within American society — the “backstage” racism that still exists among many White Americans who are reluctant or unwilling to vote for an African American candidate (or even any candidate of color) unless that candidate looks and acts as “White” as possible.

The point of these examples is to illustrate that in contrast to what many Americans had hoped, unfortunately we are not yet close to living in a colorblind society. While Dr. King’s dream remains the ideal, the realities of the U.S. racial/ethnic landscape are quite different.

With this in mind, I would also argue that allies and supporters of anti-racism and racial equality should accept this reality, that race is still a significant marker of differentiation in our county, rather than naively proceeding with the assumption that being colorblind is the best approach within this context.

In other words, many Whites (and other Americans of different racial/ethnic identities) try to fight back against racism by trying to be colorblind in their daily lives. They try to treat everybody they meet, interact with, or hear about, solely as an individual rather than as a member of a racial group. They genuinely believe that ignoring race is the best way to move forward toward a colorblind society. Even worse, many Americans who otherwise consider themselves “progressive” criticize people of color for “obsessing” over race and that we somehow create our own oppression by recognizing race.

While trying to be colorblind is indeed a noble and well-intended idea on the individual, interpersonal level, the problem is that the idea of colorblindness is not reinforced on the institutional level and therefore, it is just not practical given how American society continues to be racialized, as I described above, and how racism continues to largely operate independently of individual motivations. In other words, ignoring the problem will not make it go away, nor will it solve anything.

As many educators point out, if anything, trying to be colorblind only makes racism worse because people then mistakenly and naively believe that all forms of racial inequality and discrimination have been eliminated, that everybody is now on an equal playing field with equal access to all social opportunities, and that American society is a true meritocracy.

More generally, the fundamental problem is not racial differences themselves. Instead, the root of racism is that certain racial markers or characteristics have been assigned institutional value judgments of “good” versus “bad,” “normal” versus “abnormal,” and “human” versus “sub-human.” This process has led to certain racial groups being privileged and systematically advantaged over others. Or in the words of Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Ultimately, the best way for us to work toward achieving the ultimate colorblind ideal is to recognize, accept, and understand that racial distinctions still matter and that they are still the basis for continuing discrimination and inequality in American society today. Only by doing so will we move forward on achieving Dr. King’s final ideal — true racial equality.

First, I hope everyone had a nice holiday season and that your new year is off to a good start.

As reflected in the origin of its name (Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings), the first month of the new year is traditionally a time to reflect on two “opposite” ideas. In this case, I’d like to use a recent Time magazine article profiling Harvard University basketball player Jeremy Lin as an opportunity to explore opposing and contradictory racial presumptions in college and professional basketball.

Jeremy Lin © Harvard University Athletics

First, the article describes the success Jeremy is having as Harvard’s star player:

It’s been 64 years since the Crimson appeared in the NCAA tournament. But thanks to senior guard Jeremy Lin, that streak could end this year. Lin, who tops Harvard in points (18.1 per game), rebounds (5.3), assists (4.5) and steals (2.7), has led the team to a 9-3 record, its best start in a quarter century.

Lin, a 6 ‘3″ slasher whose speed, leaping ability, and passing skills would allow him to suit up for any team in the country, has saved his best performances for the toughest opponents: over his last four games against teams from the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference, two of the country’s most powerful basketball leagues, Lin is averaging 24.3 points and shooting nearly 65% from the field.

“He’s as good an all-around guard as I’ve seen,” says Tony Shaver, the head coach of William & Mary, which in November lost a triple overtime game to Harvard, 87-85, after Lin hit a running three-pointer at the buzzer. “He’s a special player who seems to have a special passion for the game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the NBA one day.”

I think it’s important to first recognize Jeremy’s success. He’s worked hard academically and athletically to be in the position he’s in right now. In many ways, he represents a nice example of how Asian Americans can balance both model minority expectations with a physical or extracurricular passion on the way to a well-rounded sense of personal balance.

The article later acknowledges the elephant in the room and points out why Jeremy’s success is unique — he’s Asian American. Unfortunately, he’s also experienced some racism from opposing fans based on his racial identity:

A Harvard hoopster with pro-level talent? Yes, that’s one reason Lin is a novelty. But let’s face it: Lin’s ethnicity might be a bigger surprise. Less than 0.5% of men’s Division 1 basketball players are Asian-American. . . . Some people still can’t look past his ethnicity. Everywhere he plays, Lin is the target of cruel taunts.

“It’s everything you can imagine,” he says. “Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian.” Even at the Ivy League gyms? “I’ve heard it at most of the Ivies, if not all of them,” he says. Lin is reluctant to mention the specific nature of such insults, but according to Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, another Ivy League player called him a c-word that rhymes with “ink” during a game last season.

Just last week, during Harvard’s 86-70 loss to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., McNally says one spectator yelled “sweet and sour pork” from the stands. In the face of such foolishness, Lin doesn’t seem to lose it on the court. “Honestly, now, I don’t react to it,” he says. “I expect it, I’m used to it, it is what it is.”

It would be simple enough to point out the obvious contradiction in Jeremy’s situation — why is it apparently acceptable (or at least tacitly tolerated) to hurl racial slurs at an Asian American basketball player but not at say, African American players?

How would bystanders, teammates, coaches, security personnel, and even opposing players react if a fan in the stands yelled the N-word at a Black basketball player at a game? Chances are, that “fan” would immediately face backlash and would be ejected from the building faster than you can say “codes of conduct.” In fact, Dartmouth recently issued an official apology to Harvard in the wake of anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs hurled at some of its squash players at a recent match.

But in Jeremy’s case, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of collective backlash or outrage over the racist comments he routinely receives on the court. Apparently it’s another sad example of Asian Americans being seen as the invisible minority, perpetual foreigners, or as easy targets for racism.

But beyond that, I have to wonder whether his status as an Asian American — as opposed to an Asian — player plays a role as well. In other words, we have seen an influx of professional athletes from Asia in basketball (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian) and baseball (Hideo Nomo, Ichiro, Daisuke Matsuzaka, etc.) recently but unfortunately, there is still a glaring underrepresentation of Asian American professional athletes in the highest-profile sports such as football, basketball, and baseball.

Although it’s a documented fact that many Americans can’t or won’t distinguish “Asians” from “Asian Americans,” my question is, are Americans (or in this case, sports fans) likely to accept Asian athletes more readily than Asian American ones?

Perhaps fans consciously or unconsciously are more comfortable with the idea that Asian athletes are likely to remain “foreigners” and therefore will eventually return to “their own” country and won’t settle down in the U.S. and be in direct competition with Americans for jobs, etc., while Asian American athletes are in fact homegrown and are perceived to be a greater economic “threat” to “real” Americans. After all, many already perceive Asian Americans to be “taking over” other areas of American life such as colleges and universities.

So based on these perceptions, perhaps fans are unconsciously spewing racism — or at least remaining silent when such slurs are made — at Asian American athletes as another form of backlash against the ongoing socioeconomic success of Asian Americans.

The mentality and contradictions of racism are always subject to speculation but the examples keep adding up.