On a cold winter morning this year, I stepped on a downtown 6 train in New York City. I had just come from a grueling workout, and I was tired and hungry. Bundled up in my coat, with a pocketbook and bulky backpack, I took up more space in the aisle than usual, as if I were some exaggerated version of myself. A few seconds later, a blonde woman about my age huffily pushed by me, annoyed that she had to brush past my backpack. Apparently dismayed that her shove hadn’t gotten the message across, she loudly told me that my bag was in the way. Annoyed at her annoyance, I told her, “Figure it out.”
She proceeded to berate me for over ten minutes. Like the rest of the people on the train, I ignored her. A few stops later, as she got up to leave, our eyes locked and I flashed her a smile.
“Typical,” she said, glaring at me as she walked out.
“Typical for who?” I yelled back.
I was fine with being called out for bad behavior and a bad attitude. I probably could have been nicer. My backpack was clunky, and protocol required that I take it off my shoulders and put it on the floor. No, it wasn’t her complaints that bothered me—it was the way “typical” flew out of her mouth.
The only things she knew about me were my race, my approximate age, and my gender. The way she looked at me, the disgust with which she hurled that word, told me that this interaction wasn’t about another rude New Yorker on the subway. It was about what I stood for: some group of people she thought she understood, whose stories she thought she knew.
But she didn’t know my story, nor the stories of many others like me.
A few years ago, because of people like that blonde woman on the train, I set out to collect the voices of young black people across the country for a book. As I talked to these black millennials, it became clear that nearly all of them were frustrated by the gross popular perceptions about what it means to be young and black in America.
As a generation, millennials are used to being misunderstood. Perhaps no generation has been so gleefully maligned in the press, which has produced a zillion think pieces casting millennials as entitled, lazy, mayonnaise-hating, over-educated pampered whiners who, in their blinkered narcissism, are selling out the human race. That caricature has slowly given way to a more nuanced picture of a generation profoundly shaped by the events of its time—9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, climate change—and baleful socioeconomic trends: growing income inequality, staggering levels of student debt, stagnant wages. And yet, for all this new understanding, there remains a huge blind spot when it comes to black millennials in particular.
African-Americans make up 14 percent of the millennial population, born, roughly speaking, between 1981 and 1996. Black millennials came of age in the so-called post-race era, their worldview defined by Barack Obama’s historic rise to the presidency, Beyonce’s dominance of the entertainment industry, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s emergence as one of the premier public intellectuals in this country. But they also witnessed tragedies like the Rodney King beating, Hurricane Katrina, and the police shootings of Mike Brown and so many other young black men and women. They saw the horrific and racist treatment of our first black president and his wife. And then they saw the alleged “post-race” period give way to the election of the most openly racist president in modern American history.
The black millennial, then, is composed of contradictions and ambiguity; her journey of tentative steps forward and horrific setbacks. In this, young blacks are not so different from their ancestors, complicating the whole notion of generational change that we are used to ascribing to non-black people, in which a particular cohort is perceived as being fundamentally different from its predecessors. In many ways, the story of the black millennial is as much about consistency as it is about change—which is to say that the story of the black millennial is the story of what it means to be black, period.
Like all millennials, black millennials have to deal with a host of economic challenges. In addition to middling wages and the burden of student debt, they have to negotiate a thriving gig economy that provides little security and an urban housing market that has increasingly priced out the working and middle classes. They are uncertain about the future in a way that past generations weren’t, and grasping for an adulthood that feels forever delayed.
But though black millennials have much in common with their white peers, there are important distinctions. In almost all areas of life, the deck is stacked even higher against us, in part due to historical discrimination and in part because of inequities unique to the millennial era. By many measures, black millennials are behind. We lag in terms of employment, wages, and attaining “good jobs.” We have less wealth, live in poverty more. Even when we try to do something positive like go to college, we have to take on higher amounts of student debt. And then we still end up with fewer job prospects than our white counterparts.
As an older millennial, I saw my black friends working harder than ever and going to graduate school—and still taking on multiple jobs. Meanwhile, my white peers regaled me with tales of miraculously landing great positions and getting into fantastic schools with mediocre test scores. They told me about promotions, about just being in the right place at the right time. They struggled less, made more money, and had all the luck. It made me angry.
And that’s just the economic situation. Black millennials are increasingly asked for their ID when voting. We are still disproportionately being sucked into the criminal justice system. We have less access to health care, and are likely to die at a younger age. We have to dress a certain way so we aren’t stopped by police at night. We are mocked for the way we look and disparaged for being angry and loud. Our sexuality, always expressed as something animalistic and promiscuous, is often still the subject of public indignation. Even the wealthiest, most successful black millennials can’t protest peacefully without being called ungrateful and unpatriotic.
The great irony of all this—and perhaps what truly makes black millennials distinct from their forebears—is that we’re supposed to believe that the playing field has finally evened out. Many people, including older blacks at times, just don’t understand why young black millennials are frustrated. They think because we aren’t being threatened by the Klan every day, that, if we point out racism, we are playing the “race card,” indulging in identity politics, playing the victim, and simply not working hard enough. Martin Luther King Jr., once dubbed the “most dangerous negro,” has a national holiday in his honor; explicit segregation and overt discrimination are universally condemned (but nevertheless ubiquitous); Black Panther destroyed the box office last year; and heck, we had a black president.
Obama looms large over this generation, a symbol less of progress than of the fundamental ambivalence of being a black millennial. “I specifically remember the day I watched Barack Obama get inaugurated into office,” Patrick, a 28-year-old graduate of Howard University, told me. “My mind was like, maybe we are in a post-racial society. People elected a black person.” But he slowly began to understand that in this country there is always a qualifier to progress. “We’re realizing more and more that whatever happens, whatever benefits that we get, there’s always a ‘but’ to it,” he said. “There’s always something that comes after that makes it almost not worth it. So, yes, we had a black president, but now we have a racist white president.”
“We’re not living in a post-racial society,” Patrick added. “We just elected a black president. That’s all we did.”
I spoke to dozens of black millennials who echoed Patrick’s experiences.
There was Jeremy, a coal miner from West Virginia, who had to overcome the perception that the industry was for whites only. “It was hard on me at first,” he said. “I was called the N-word when I started working underground, people not talking to you, just walking by you like you’re invisible. They put people in a category. If you’re black, there’s nothing good about you—especially if you’re black and taking a white person’s position, where another white person could be. They just don’t like it.”
Then there’s Trina, from Jackson, Mississippi, a mother of three who says black women are constantly held to different standards. “Society makes it harder on us for everything,” she said. “If we have six kids we look like we got no morals. We just have sex with anybody. If a white woman got six kids, ‘Oh she’s probably just doing the Lord’s will. He says be fruitful and multiply.’ Black women, we got colored hair, we ghetto. White women, they got colored hair they’re cultural. We get braids, oh we pro-black. White women braid their hair, ‘Oh they’re just diverse.’ There’s a double standard.”
Jalessa, who worked in communications for a major company in Los Angeles, said that the idea that blacks have to work twice as hard is very real. “Black people gotta prove so much before our opinion can be valued,” she said, “whereas a white man could walk into a room and he could just come out and say what he wants, negotiate with who he wants.” She added, “Let me come in and have a bad day. I’m supposed to suck it up, smile and not be the black girl with the attitude.”
To understand the black millennial, then, is to not only reverse the tired tropes about millennials that have proliferated in the media for the past ten or so years—it is also to rethink the role of race in twenty-first century America. Despite the increased acceptance of interracial relationships, a widespread love of black culture, and a more visible presence for blacks in historically white institutions, it’s still hard to overstate just how much the past remains present in this country. Research conducted by The Washington Post in 2015 about the supposedly “woke” millennial generation found that 31 percent of white millennials think blacks are lazier than whites, and that 23 percent say they’re not as intelligent. Shocking responses, and statistically not much different from those in previous generations.
If it is the case that black millennials are stuck in a cyclical experience that transcends history, then some will ask why the experience of the missing black millennial, in particular, matters. They will say this is essentially the same story that black people have suffered for decades, and to some degree they will be right. Promise and decline, hope and suffering—it is a pattern that weaves together Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama. Throughout it all, the black community has waited for America to finally make good on its promise. Yet that day hasn’t come.
To comprehend the black millennial experience in America is to comprehend what it means to hope. Not in a feel-good way, not in a naive way, but in a desperate way, as a way of life, because the alternative is unacceptable. This is the story of black America, a story of strength and overcoming. But I sometimes wonder: When do we give up? When will hope fade? I am reminded constantly that, despite the hope of a black president, it was under his watch that the movement for black lives started. And it’s in his shadow that a racist president exists.
In a 1965 piece for The New York Times, James Baldwin talked about the painful generational trap that blacks face, a trap that black millennials are starting to confront as the older among us approach our forties:
You realize that you are 30 and you are having a terrible time. You have been through a certain kind of mill and the most serious effect is again not the catalogue of disaster—the policeman, the taxi driver, the waiters, the landlady, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details 24 hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that. By that time you have begun to see it happening in your daughter, your son or your niece or your nephew. You are 30 by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. But what is worse is that nothing you have done, and as far as you can tell nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from having the same disaster and from coming to the same end.
Yet we continue to hope, we continue to struggle. Study after study shows that, despite being left behind, black millennials are still optimistic. But the nature of that struggle has changed, especially when it comes to the kind of freedom black millennials desire. A new crop of African American politicians, for example, have refused to whitewash their political personas, demanding that voters accept the ways in which they are different. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. of Little Rock, Arkansas, has said he is “unapologetically black.” Park Cannon, who was elected to the Georgia House in 2016, is one of that legislature’s three queer representatives and openly supports Black Lives Matter. Similarly audacious themes have cropped up in the 2018 campaigns of Gen Xers like Stacey Abrams, Ayanna Pressley, and Andrew Gillum.
Black millennials, like others in their generation, are frustrated with the current system. Participation among black millennials in presidential elections dropped between 2012 and 2016, according to Pew, with turnout at 55 percent and 51 percent, respectively. That could partly be attributed to Obama no longer leading the Democratic ticket. But black millennials also supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, while their parents went for Hillary Clinton, an indication that young blacks are disillusioned with the establishment and hungry for the kind of economic freedom promised in Sanders’s more far-reaching platform.
Perhaps young blacks are guilty of being that most unforgivable of millennial sins: entitled. But our sense of entitlement does not revolve around avocado toast and CBD lattes. Our sense of entitlement, or at least mine specifically, comes from the notion that the richest nation on earth can provide all of its citizens with basic necessities. I thought that, if we worked hard, we could have an affordable home, decent health care, and a modest feeling of security. I thought that we were supposed to be able to have families without paying out the nose for daycare or worrying about student loans. And I thought that, after 400 years in this country, black people wouldn’t have to remind the world that our lives matter. But I was wrong.
Black America is not a monolith. We don’t all agree on what blackness or Americanness means, or whether we should even reconcile those two things. But we all have our own stories, and those stories are crucial to understanding the experience of black millennials and what that experience says about our country.
BuzzFeed, for example, recently published a story that addressed black millennial burnout. However, the piece was a response to another article about millennial burnout that went viral and that was very rooted in white experience. Though the response was a beautifully crafted evocation of black trauma and suffering, it reminded me that all too often our pain is seen as a side issue—an addendum to, instead of a legitimate part of, mainstream experience. And only one author ended up on the Today Show talking about millennials. Guess which?
If we were to put those stories front and center, we would find a version of young black America that is no less profound for being different—for being far from “typical.” My conversation with a young artist Shamir comes to mind. He had a breakout album in 2015, but years later found that he was being pushed in a direction he didn’t like. So he gave up the fancy producers and set out to define his career in a way that departed from what was expected of a black musician, recording a lo-fi album alone in his Philadelphia bedroom. He found the experience to be liberating. “I’ve already reached my American Dream,” he told me. “I have this career that feels boundless now.... It can only go up from there. I know there’s still a lot of other things that I want to do, but they don’t feel out of reach.”