This piece appears in the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 20 Childhood
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“Trump does some bad things,” 10-year-old Kenny tells me one afternoon. I’m sitting across from him at a coffee shop in a small town in Mississippi. Kenny is black and loves soccer. As he talks, he anxiously spins a pen cap on the table between us. “Trump talks about racist things ... and he does racist things! He puts inappropriate things on Twitter. Like, people won’t admit it but saying, ‘I’m going to build a wall from Mexico,’ and saying bad things about Mexicans is racist and [people] won’t admit it!” Kenny pauses, looks down to the ground, and shakes his head with disbelief. “To me, that’s something.”
Kenny is just one of the millions of children growing up in the United States under the Trump administration. And he, like many of these children, is experiencing a shocking moment in American history. These are young people who have otherwise been taught that America is making progress when it comes to issues like racism and sexism. Their childhoods unfolded during the “post-racial” era of President Obama; their television programs celebrate multiculturalism and diversity; their T-shirts have girl-empowerment slogans; their schools conduct anti-bullying and inclusion campaigns. For the youngest generations in the United States, racial progress was the common narrative across the political spectrum. This changed during the 2016 presidential election, which marked a drastic turning point in this narrative. Things were suddenly different, and the election of Donald Trump deeply complicated how many children in America understand their country.
As many people have pointed out, Trump began his political career by propagating a racist conspiracy against President Obama. Sociologist Matthew W. Hughey argued that the effect of “Birther” movement was in fact twofold: it stoked white fear of a black man in power and encouraged fantasies of a white ethno-state as a remedy for those fears. Trump perhaps noticed its effectiveness. He went on to use explicitly racist rhetoric and antisemitic dog whistles in his presidential campaign ads. Even after taking office, Trump has continued to stoke racial division and white fear. He has used racist, derogatory language to refer to Mexicans, Muslims, and entire nations in Africa and the Caribbean. He has insulted a long list of black celebrities, politicians, and athletes. And his rhetoric is also backed up by action. Within its first year, the Trump administration advanced a ban on Muslim people and refugees entering the country; it has more recently enforced family separation at the border, taking children from their parents and putting them in cages; Trump has pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man with a long history of racial discrimination. Trump also famously refused to denounce white supremacists after their racist and antisemitic rallying and violence in Charlottesville. His racist rhetoric has only escalated in the run up to the midterm elections.
In October 2017, political scientist Cathy J. Cohen and her colleagues at the University of Chicago reported findings from their GenForward Survey of Millennial Attitudes on Race in the U.S. They found that across all racial groups, Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 believe that racism is one of the three most important problems in the United States today and that this problem is getting worse (Cohen, Fowler, Medenica, & Rogowski, 2017). However, nearly half of the white young adults in this research believed that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities.” Across all racial groups, very few young people thought racial relations were improving in the United States, and when asked if they believed Trump is a racist, 82 percent of African-American respondents, 78 percent of Latinx respondents, and 74 percent of Asian-American respondents said they did. White respondents were split almost exactly down the middle: 51 percent believed he is racist while 48 percent disagreed.
My conversation with Kenny was part of my ongoing research with youth and racism in the United States. My work as a sociologist focuses on racial socialization — I study how children learn about race and racism in the context of their families, communities, and everyday lives. Part of my work involves speaking with children directly about their experiences and perspectives of the social world. I knew from my previous research that for many white children who grew up in the Obama era, they believed that racism was “no longer a problem in America.” In many ways, it made sense for these children to feel this way. Although the United States has a long history of racism and white supremacy, in more recent years, social scientists have found that racism at the individual level has not disappeared but, rather, is expressed in more subtle and implicit ways. The circumstances, however, have clearly changed, and these same children are now confronted with explicit and overt forms of racism in the public sphere. I wanted to know what young people, particularly children in middle school, are thinking about racism in the new Trump era. What are their views on this matter? How are they feeling? What do they have to say?
Over the past year, a team of graduate students and I interviewed children between the ages of 10 and 13 in two distinct geographic locations: Mississippi and Massachusetts. We asked them a range of questions about current events, their schools and families, and their reaction to Trump’s words and actions as president. After interviewing more than 50 children, we found that children of color in both states expressed a great deal of anxiety, stress, fear, and anger about the present moment. The white children’s responses, however, surprised me. For many, their acknowledgment of Trump’s explicitly racist words and actions seemed to mark a rearrangement of empathy, and a rearrangement of how they thought about racism — and, perhaps more importantly, how much they cared.
One day after school in Mississippi, I talk with 10-year-old Crystal, who describes herself as “African American and mixed.” Crystal tells me what she remembers from the night of the 2016 presidential election. “We were very scared the night before...When I was sleeping, I did have a bad dream so I think I could kind of tell that it wasn’t going to end up as I expected.”
“What happened the next day at school?” I ask. She brings up race right away.
“Some black boys and girls were saying that that, like, they really didn’t want Trump to win or that he had won and [that they] didn’t really like him. And then some people who did vote for Trump were like, ‘I’m so happy!’ and they told their friends who also voted for Trump. ... It was like allll day.”
I ask her if the kids who supported Trump were black.
Crystal replies immediately: “No. They were all white.” For Crystal, the connection between whiteness and support for Trump is clear.
At the coffee shop, Kenny has similar ideas: “When Barack Obama was the president, I wasn’t thinking about politics,” Kenny explains. “I didn’t really talk about Barack Obama because there’s nothing to talk about! He didn’t do anything bad. He didn’t start anything. So I mean, when he was president, I didn’t get into politics because I didn’t have to. Because he was a good president.”
Later in our interview, I ask Kenny, “What do you think is a big problem in America?”
“Racism is one of the main things that this country has always had problems with. And I’m scared Trump will make that worse,” he adds.
In Massachusetts, children of color express similar fears and anxieties about this moment of reemerging racial animosity. Mariana is 10 years old and identifies as “Mexican-American and white.” She and I sit together talking in a small classroom at her afterschool program.
“Do you think Trump is doing a good job or a bad job leading our country” I ask Mariana.
“I don’t like Donald Trump!” she shouts as she slaps her hand on the desk. “He is terrible! I want Obama to come back. Obama is a better president. In my head, I’m like, Trump is going to get us all bombed. Like, after he won the election, at school, everyone was like screaming, ‘Ahhhh!’ People were running around and then someone started crying and said, ‘I want Obama to come back!’” Mariana goes on to tell me how “Trump is racist” and a “bad president.”
I also talk with 11-year-old Dominick who identifies as “black and Cape Verdean.” “I have heard him say something bad about black people,” Dominick tells me. “Donald Trump shouldn’t build the wall. ... It’s just weird and just like, you’re making fun of a certain region because they like look different? Really?”
I ask him how he feels when the president says bad things about black people.
“I feel like if the president says something racist, I think that they shouldn’t be the president,” he replies.
I hear this opinion echoed in Massachusetts, over and over again. Suzannah tells me that she thinks Trump is “very racist” and that “we need someone [who is] both of our colors so they can be more fair ’cause he only likes really the whiter people.”
Devion, an 11-year-old black boy, responds so quickly I can barely finish asking the question. “He’s said stuff about Mexico, and he’s basically just racial-profiling people! ... And people have been joining him! I’ve heard some things on the news and what he says isn’t right!”
I ask him how he felt the day after the election.
“I felt just sad for America. ... I was very surprised.” He goes on to tell me about white kids chanting, “Build a wall,” and harassing Latinx kids at his school.
“I honestly think that it’s crazy that kids would say that. I’ve had, um, a kid in my class that I was just fully ashamed by that kid ’cause he was saying some racist stuff [after Trump won] and that was the kid that has [previously] said racist stuff to me.” Devion tells me that he absolutely thinks the election of Trump has emboldened the already-racist bullies at his school.
These conversations reveal that these particular children of color are deeply affected by the state of the country and the larger events and conversations happening around them. My findings are reinforced by a recent survey conducted with teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This survey, held in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, described what the Center referred to as the “Trump Effect. “The report found that more than two-thirds of teachers noted increased anxiety on the behalf of students of color, immigrant students, Muslim students, and LGBTQ students. The report also found that 90 percent of teachers surveyed indicated that their school climate had been negatively affected by the political campaign and election of Donald Trump. This was also reflected in the news: during the past two years, headlines from across the nation have described instances of white youth engaging in forms of racial violence and other forms of harassment — chanting “Build the wall!” in the faces of Latinx kids at athletic competitions or in the school cafeteria, bringing Confederate flags into classrooms to taunt their black peers, sexually assaulting and “grabbing” girls, inflicting physical violence such as pulling hijabs off Muslim students, and so on (SPLC Hatewatch, 2016).
White children are also thinking and engaging in the current political moment, of course, though our conversations are notably different. With white children, I notice a profound divide between how much some children seem to care about Trump’s racist words and actions and how much some don’t.
Paige, 12 years old, was one of the children I talk to in Mississippi. I sit down with her in her living room on a Saturday morning. “We had an assignment after the presidential election,” Paige tells me. “We had to draw a picture of what we think the future is going to look like under our new government...The teacher actually made half the class redo it because she was unhappy with the results because she got a lot of walls and cities in flames or like evil-looking politicians.”
“What did you draw?” I ask.
“I personally drew Trump behind a wall of fire,” she says, matter-of-factly.
I ask her why she drew that particular image.
“I just felt like we were making so much progress with Obama. Like on everything. Like women’s rights, gay rights, racism, like things like global warming. Then, like, now that we have the new president — it’s like a million steps backward.”
A bit later, I ask her if she thinks the election of Trump has had any immediate impact on kids.
She nods. “I think that him being elected has made some people think, ‘Oh, well, since our president has these beliefs, it’s okay.’...Like him being disrespectful to women, some people are like, ‘Oh [if ] the president did that in his past, it’s okay for me to do that,’ ... and that’s not okay.”
Zena, another white 12-year-old girl growing up in Mississippi talks to me about some recent changes in how some of her friends are relating to their parents.
“Trump’s not the best person and I think we all know that,” she tells me. “I have friends with parents who are like, ‘We need to raise you like this, and you need to do this, and you need to be a big supporter of Jesus and Trump and racism, and [my friends] are like, you know, ‘I’m going to need you to take a few steps back.’...These kids are like, ‘I should do some of my own research before I jump headfirst into his big agenda.’”
Zena goes on to tell me about one friend who is outraged by Trump’s racism despite her parents’ full support of him. “She argues with her parents all the time,” Zena explains.
“What about you?” I ask. “Do you think we still have racism in America?”
“I think we are 100 percent not past racism,” she states definitively. “I think recently everyone has had this realization that we are not past this because there are people ... who sit in the big chairs and say, ‘No. I don’t want that law [that would help racial minorities] passed,’ and I feel like it’s a problem because the people who have power ... they like use it for the wrong reasons. I don’t think we are past [racism] because people in power like Trump aren’t allowing us to get past it. And that sucks.”
Trump’s election has made 12-year-old Charlie, who is also white, rethink aspects of President Obama’s time in office. “I knew President Obama was the first black president, but I didn’t understand the significance of it until Trump became president,” 12-year-old Charlie tells me one afternoon at a restaurant in Mississippi. Charlie attends a public school that is almost 70 percent black. Like many of the white kids I interviewed, Charlie tells me that lately he has been talking about racism with his parents, his friends, and his teachers “all the time.”
“Trump has definitely done something to make things worse,” he tells me.
I ask him what it was like at his school around the time of the election.
“I was surprised [when Trump won]. We did this vote at our school and it was 16 people who voted for Trump while the 360 other people voted for Clinton. But I heard that at this other school [nearby] ... the vote was so Trump.”
“How is it that these two schools that are located pretty close to each other have such different results?” I ask him.
“Well, I think our school is more racially diverse than that school,” he responds. Based on his experience growing up in Mississippi — like Crystal — Charlie could also see a connection between support for Trump and whiteness.
A number of white children, in both Massachusetts and Mississippi, tell me they are shocked and outraged by what they perceived to be racism radiating from the highest seats of power. For these kids, Trump’s presidency not only challenges their understanding of the country but also sheds new light on previously held notions about race in America. In addition to their outrage, these children also exhibit racial empathy for people of color, immigrants, women, and other groups that they perceive to be under attack by the Trump administration. In fact, part of what they dislike so much about Trump is how badly he treats the vulnerable and how he seems to bully the marginalized.
Other white children I speak with have a different reaction. They don’t all consider Trump’s racism to be a problem. Children, in both Massachusetts and Mississippi, tell me that even though they recognize Trump’s racism, they ultimately don’t care.
Twelve-year-old Erin lives in Mississippi and attends a former segregationist academy that is still almost entirely white. Erin knows she is white, she explains, because “I was born in America and my skin is white.” I ask her how she felt after Trump won the election. “I was happy he won because I think he knows how to handle, like, people who threaten us and stuff.” She describes kids at her school making jokes about building a wall at recess, but she says she did not tell the teacher because she “did not think it was a big deal.” Like many of the kids, Erin also shares her views on the differences she has observed since President Obama was in office: “When Barack was president, like, there was a lot of tension going on ’cause he was, like, the first black president ... the people didn’t think it was right that he should be president because he was black. Now we have a white president again.”
When Erin is asked if she recognizes the rise of racial tension in the United States right now, she acknowledges that Trump “has said racist things,” but she isn’t too bothered by it. “I honestly think it’s fine,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t really care.”
Erin’s attitude echoes what contemporary social scientists have found when studying the racial attitudes of white Americans. White people in the United States have found more subtle ways to express their prejudices toward people of color over time. These new forms of racism often help people maintain the external appearance of not being racist even as they continue to engage in practices and behaviors that reproduce racial inequality — a way of “saving face” so to speak. Drawing on findings from a large, national survey of racial attitudes spanning 40 years, sociologist Tyrone A. Forman finds evidence for an increasein what he defines as “racial apathy” in the United States. White racial apathy, he argues, “refers to lack of feeling or indifference toward societal racial and ethnic inequality and lack of engagement with race-related social issues.” In his research, Forman finds an increase in whites’ use of “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” when asked survey questions about racial integration.
When it comes to young people specifically, Forman and his colleague, sociologist Amanda E. Lewis, explore expressions of racial apathy in white high school students over time. They find that instead of new generations of white kids being less racist and more tolerant than generations before them, this population instead embraces more subtle forms of racism like being indifferent to racial inequality. Data from this important research suggests that racial apathy is actually on the rise.
In talking with some of the white children in my study, I find similar patterns. For instance, Blake, who is 10 years old and lives in Massachusetts, tries many different ways to avoid identifying his race. Eventually, though, he tells me he is white. After talking with him a bit about his hockey team and upcoming game, I ask him what he thought the day after Trump was elected.
“I didn’t care,” he tells me, shrugging.
When I ask him if he thinks Trump is racist, he responds, “I don’t know ’cause I’ve never heard him be racist. But he said um, that we’ll build a wall between Mexico. ... Mexico is like part of our world so you shouldn’t try to keep them out.” Blake tells me that there is racism still in America, but that he doesn’t really know much about it. “I’ve never heard anybody say [anything racist],” he tells me. He explains he does not talk about race or racism with his family members. Generally, he says, he does not think much about racism — but he knows that it exists.
“Yeah.” He tells me. “But I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”
Betsy, who is 12 years old, white, and lives in Massachusetts, is more engaged with politics than Blake. She tells me that she loves knowing what is going on in the world. In fact, she gets up early to drink a cup of tea and watch the news before school every morning.
“I feel like I’ve heard stuff on the news about [Trump] being racist, but like, the [news anchors] exaggerate stuff. But I don’t really think he’s racist. I think when he does one thing wrong, people turn it against him.” She can discuss many of the issues that have come up while Trump has been in office, like the wall and the Muslim ban. “Overall, I’m not saying he’s the best president, and he’s definitely not the worst. But he’s not racist. There might have been one or two incidents when he was racist, but he’s not racist.” Betsy tells me that even though she wishes we could have elected a woman for president, from her perspective, Trump is “fine” and even though he is racist sometimes, she does not think that it is a major problem.
Back in Mississippi, 12-year-old Ellie, who is white, tells me about voting in a mock election at her private school, complete with mock voter ID cards that students had to show before casting their mock ballot. “Everyone wanted Trump to win and they were like, ‘If you want Hillary to win, then you’re terrible.’” Ellie was not surprised when Trump won the actual election. “I knew he was probably gonna win,” she tells me. “I didn’t really think anything about it [when he did.]” Ellie talks about how she liked one of the other Republican candidates better than Trump but that ultimately, she was happy Trump won.
When Ellie is asked about her thoughts on racism in the United States today, particularly in light of Trump’s election, she says she has heard people say he is racist, but she “do[esn’t] really know.” She also explains that her family does not talk about racism. “There’s not really any [racism] going on in Mississippi but there might be in like, other states, I just haven’t noticed anything. ... I don’t really know. ... It’s not something I care about.”
Kids offer different versions of this opinion. James, a 12-year-old boy who identifies as “Caucasian” and who goes to the same school as Ellie, “felt good” after Trump was elected because he supports many of Trump’s positions, even the more controversial stance on the wall between the United States and Mexico. James understands that Trump’s policies may upset people, but he ultimately cares more about other things. For example, he spends a lot of time discussing the conflict between the United States and Muslim countries. “I think it’s silly that [conflict] is still going on,” he says. “They’ve been fighting since 1999 and nobody’s won. Why [hasn’t the United States] dropped an atomic bomb on them? It would just end them, so they wouldn’t like, come at us again.”
In terms of racial politics at the national level, James recognizes that racism exists but does not think that it is serious enough to merit a solution or any political action. Regarding football players kneeling at NFL games, he says, “Some people are doing it because they don’t like the president. They don’t like racism. They don’t like the way some people are getting treated. ... But if [they] want to live in America, why [are they] kneeling instead of like, loving our country that people fight for every day so we can be free? If they don’t like wanna stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem, why are they living here?” James makes it clear that he understands these protests to be about real racism in America, but he ultimately concludes that racism is not a legitimate reason to protest.
Ava, who is 12 years old and white, also likes Trump but finds him “embarrassing” at times. Sometimes, he “acts like a kid,” she says explaining that her family and friends share the hope that he “straightens out soon.” Despite how embarrassing he is, Ava goes on to say that she was happy Trump won. But, she still thinks “he seems kinda mean.” When I ask her what she means, she says: “Well, I don’t really want him to build a wall even though it keeps some mean people out,” she explains. “There’s usually nice people who want, like, a better life too.”
When Ava is asked if she thinks that the president is racist, Ava replies, “Mmm, maybe, sorta, kinda because he built the wall and because like, he wants to keep some religions out. And I think if it’s just because of like, the religions, we could try to teach them like, about God and like that Jesus Christ came for our sins.” For Ava, racism is, again, not an important issue. Even if Trump’s wall and Muslim ban are “maybe sorta kinda” racist, the real issue with these policies is that they might prevent people from converting to Christianity.
Jason, who is 11 years old and identifies as white, views Trump in a similar “kinda racist” way as Ava. His reaction to Trump winning the election was, “I didn’t care.” When asked if he thinks Trump is racist, Jason replies, “Trump is kind-of racist, kind-of not. He kind-of is building a wall so other people won’t come in.” I ask him what he would say to Trump if he had the opportunity.
“I would make a joke like, ‘Hurry up and build that wall!’” Jason goes on to say that during recess, kids made other “jokes” about immigrants. To Jason, even if Trump’s wall is “kind-of racist,” he does not see a problem with making jokes about it, or replicating the racism in his own conversations or playful interactions with his peers.
The views of children like Ellie, James, Ava, Jason, and others are in direct opposition to those of children who are fearful of or outraged by the Trump administration. Even when this group of kids identifies racism in the words and actions of the president and his administration — even when they agree that Trump is doing something racist — they do not really seem to care. Although they are aware of racism, they would prefer to not think about it.
Indeed, racial apathy is not new, and I found signs of it among the many children I spoke with during the Obama era. But, in my previous work, kids who expressed this apathy embraced a “colorblind” racial logic — they believed that because a black man was president, American society didn’t have to worry about racism anymore. This is different from the apathy I observed in many of these white children today. Based on this new research, it seems that some kids are learning not to care about racism or racial inequality in any way, even when it is explicitly present. The narrative seems to be shifting: “I don’t see racism, so I don’t care” is becoming, “I see racism, and I still don’t care.”
Social science research makes it abundantly clear that, across the board, children today are growing up in a country with increasing economic inequality and “deep differences of opportunity” (Kids Count, 2017). Race and wealth disparities between children are well documented in a wide variety of realms like education, health, the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, the labor market, housing, wealth holdings, and so on. American children are growing up in this context, among tremendous race and class inequality and deep powerful political divides. Based on my new research, however, it seems that there is another type of division separating today’s younger generations: how they respond to explicit forms of racism.
Why is this division important? As psychologist Derald Wing Sue puts it, rather than expressing a “conscious desire to hurt,” racial apathy conveys a “failure to help.” That failure is twofold: it is not just a failure of action, it’s a failure of empathy — it’s the failure to even care about the persistence and consequences of racism in the United States. This “failure to help” — this failure to concern oneself with the suffering and humanity of others — is a powerful tool, used to reproduce and perpetuate existing racial oppression. As Forman and Lewis ask:
If, in the face of entrenched, systemic, and institutionalized racial inequality, most whites say that they have no negative feelings toward racial minorities but feel no responsibility to do anything about enduring racial and ethnic inequalities and in fact object to any programmatic solutions to addressing those inequalities, is that progress, or is it rather a new form of prejudice in its passive support for an unequal racial status quo?
White peoples’ disinterest in racism — or the more active refusal of interest in human suffering — dramatically increases the stakes for racially marginalized people. Every child of color I interviewed not only articulated disgust and outrage with the president’s racist language and actions but also described feeling scared, angry, anxious, upset, and worried because of Trump’s presidency and specifically what his racist actions might mean for themselves or the people they love. They told me about their nightmares and about drawing violent images. They talked to me about feeling fearful and not being able to relax when out in public or around authority figures. As one 11-year-old told me, “When Trump got elected, I was actually kind of nervous. My dad isn’t a citizen. If [Trump] sends him back, he’s not going to be able to come back and I won’t be able to see him. ... Like, like [one time recently] we were just driving and the police were behind us and I got scared because if he were to get pulled over, they would arrest him and they’ll send him back. I am scared.” She was on the verge of tears.
Empathy alone will not solve racism and racial injustice in America. But, in the Trump era, when children are confronted with the stark reality of the legacy and persistence of racism in the United States, it appears that they respond in different ways. For black, brown, and other marginalized children, this reality seems to be connected to feelings of stress, fear, anger, and anxiety. For some of the white children I spoke with, this reality seems to be connected to empathy, anger, and a sense of concern for their peers. But, for other white children, this reality simply does not matter, even though they know and can acknowledge that it exists. If children cannot develop empathetic perspectives, if they cannot learn to care about the suffering or humanity of their peers, what does that suggest for our future? Collectively, we must identify, acknowledge, and resist the power of racial apathy — and recognize the destruction it brings to our democratic society, to our political efforts, and to the children growing up in this world.
Margaret A. Hagerman is an assistant professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. She is the author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America (NYU Press.)