Younger Generation More Likely to Blend Across Racial Lines

February 9, 2005 | By Rebecca Mahoney

Lakeland High School was still all white in 1964 when Richard Nail and a group of friends did something remarkable for their time: They befriended black football players from another school.

To Nail and his buddies, it was a friendship born from common interests: They were football players, and everyone shared the same taste in music.

The color of their new friends’ skin wasn’t an issue—to them, at least. But others were shocked that white kids were hanging out with black kids.

“It was very unusual,” said Nail, now a 58-year-old lawyer who lives in Lakeland. “Back then, societies kept to themselves. There was no co-mingling.”

My, how times have changed.

Take a walk through Lakeland High School today—or any other school in the United States—and you’ll likely find diverse groups of friends.

Now, when black kids hang with white kids, rich kids with poor kids, Christian kids with Jewish kids, gay kids with straight kids, people hardly look up.

For teens, diversity may be a more natural part of life.

“Today’s teens and collegians date more ethnically across lines and have groups of friends that are ethnically diverse, and they don’t think too much about it,” said William Strauss, who along with Neil Howe co-authored “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” (Vintage, 2000, $14.95).

Nearly 6-in-10 teens—Even more teens reported having friends from different economic and religious backgrounds, the study said.

“Teens today aren’t likely to make a big issue of differences in race, religion and sexual orientation,” said Michael Wood, the company’s vice president. “In fact, they’re much less inclined than their parents’ generation to even categorize such differences as issues at all.”

Polk County’s population is 75 percent white, 13.5 percent black, 9.5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, according to U.S. Census data.

Researchers who follow teen trends attribute the shift to a variety of factors. Some say films and television shows that feature diverse casts are setting examples for today’s teens. Others say the Internet is making it easier for teens to meet people from different backgrounds.

Strauss said he believes the reason is more basic: many of today’s teens are the offspring of a wave of immigrants who have flooded America since the 1960s, resulting in more diverse schools and neighborhoods. In other words, these teens simply grew up with diverse friends.

“It’s a very natural part of who they are,” said Strauss.

Diversity among teen groups couldn’t have been more apparent than during a recent evening at Palace Pizza in downtown Lakeland, where a group of friends met for dinner.

Energetic and rowdy, the group of eight teens was a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds. Among them were

three Hispanics, two bi-racial kids, two white kids and an Asian girl. Together, they covered a variety of religions and economic backgrounds.

They talked about studying music at Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, joked about cheerleaders and discussed meeting musician Josh Groban. They hardly seemed to notice their differences and looked nonplussed when a visitor brings it up.

“Most of us don’t think about it,” said Kaitlin Brown, 14. “It’s only the really immature or weird ones who are like, ‘oh, my gosh, that person’s black’ or whatever.”

Heather Hotchkiss, 15, agreed. “Some people joke about it, but they’re not serious,” she said.

Still, increased diversity among teens doesn’t mean society has completely crossed the racial divide, or that teenagers don’t struggle with that and differences like sexual orientation or political, economic and religious issues.

“I have a friend who doesn’t like black people. They say, ‘My family doesn’t like them, I don’t like them,’ “ said Carla Hernandez, 17.

Fifteen-year-old Annie Yano, who is Japanese-American, has been called “banana”—a racial slur used to describe someone who looks Asian on the outside but acts “white” on the inside.

Hernandez, who is Mexican and Puerto Rican, says she’s also been the victim of racial slurs.

And several teens interviewed say they sometimes hesitate to discuss religion with their classmates for fear of being belittled.

Teens will need to continue to address these issues, as well as issues of gender and economic equity, in the future, said Strauss.

But overall, he said he expects today’s teens—and the generations to follow them—to become increasingly tolerant.

“Their leading role models are (mixed race) people like Tiger Woods and Barak Obama. It’s the message, the accomplishment, the person—it’s not the race,” he said.

Laura Llompart, 14, said she sees it this way: Embracing differences makes you a better person.

“One of my favorite things is how ethnically different we all are,” she said. “It makes you learn a lot about how people are different. It makes you more open-minded.”