Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien provoked a Stony Brook University crowd with what she described to be the “icky, uncomfortable questions that end up being very revelatory” about race. Alongside panelists Joan Morgan, Luis Paulino and Etan Thomas, O’Brien invited the audience to really think about what it means to be black in America today.
The audience was primarily made up of college students. The millennials, who will one day be the policy makers and the shapers of society.
Maurice Abernathy, a senior majoring in English said that the question is loaded. “Otherwise, I would just be an American and we wouldn’t have this conversation. The fact that forever I have to be conscious of my blackness is what it means to be black in America.”
The millennial audience was primarily made up of college students, who will one day be the policy makers and the shapers of society. They already have a lot of power and influence with the instantaneous nature of social media and mobile technology. They can tweet and upload photos about their experiences instantaneously, oftentimes breaking stories, like the Ferguson riots and the Eric Garner case. As technology changes and advances, how we face and combat racism will continue to change in a way that no one has seen before.
In 2012, Paulino, a young poet from New York was mobbed by 15 New York Police Department members for supposedly resisting arrest, even though he was only standing on a street corner. His brutal attack was captured on video by a cab driver, which O’Brien mentioned was the only way that this story could have come to light.
“Video tapes have given credibility to the stories that, frankly, young black men have been giving for generations,” O’Brien said, adding that it is difficult to doubt what you can see firsthand.
Though the technology is starting to change the race conversation, it’s difficult to escape the huge mistakes of the past, which continue to influence the present.
“These conversations are not new, because these confrontations are not new.” O’Brien said, showing two photographs of a civil rights march in the 1930s and an aerial shot of Ferguson, both which used tear gas. She also convinced the audience with statistics, like the fact that the wealth gap between blacks and whites has tripled since 1984 and that blacks currently have an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent, white Americans have a rate of 4.6 percent.
For some members of the audience, they didn’t have to scroll through a Twitter feed or watch a video to know what racial profiling and uncomfortable interactions with the police are like:
Millennials don’t necessarily have to have experienced racism or a tense encounter with the police to get on board with the movement. Steven Thomas, a senior sociology major commented on how a lot of the social media campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and the protests like Millions March NYC are started and fueled by bold young people hungry for change.
“Something like that has to be constructed on social media, he said. “A lot of these cases that have to do with civil rights have been captured through social media and that helps.”
Camille Moretia, Paulino’s fiancé, said that she hopes that this her generation will use social media to take the movement to great lengths in the next few years.
“I hope that it will eventually get to the point where we’re making changes in policy, she said. “Look at the hashtag, a constant reminder that’s telling you that something needs to change at a higher level.” Moretia was impressed by the fact that millions of people can join together and make a statement on the Internet by using the same hashtag. “We’re starting at the grassroots, but it has to build up,” she added.
The only way to keep history from repeating itself is to keep it fresh in everyone’s mind. Georgette Grier-Key, a resident of Suffolk County and non-profit management specialist would not consider herself to be part of the millennial generation but said that we need to engage everyone in the conversation, even those who feel far removed. She said that just like we remember the Holocaust and 9/11, we need to keep our nation’s history with race in mind to enact to change.
“My hope for the millennials is for them to really understand how much their individual vote counts,” Grier-Key said. “Our ancestors have died for it. It really makes a difference. They need to understand voting does matter and that’s how you begin to change the conversation. And that’s something within their power.”