Researcher Finds that Race Is No Longer a Dominant Identity Marker for American Youth

Release Date: February 6, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a study of how American high school students describe their social identities, an education professor at the University at Buffalo has found that a sizeable number of young people downplay conventional racial and ethnic labels and are constructing social identities unlike those of previous generations.

Catherine Cornbleth, Ph.D., is a widely published researcher whose recent study, "Hearing America's Youth: Social Identities in Uncertain Times" (Peter Lang, 2003), reported these results among Americans under the age of 25.

Cornbleth, professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education, says the results show that it is important to hear them out -- to understand why and how their social identities differ -- because of the potential societal impact of their changing views.

"Young people's social identities," she says, "offer glimpses of a possible future, a look at where 'we' seem to be headed.

"I predict the waning of racism as race, per se, as it fades in importance to young people," she says, "but I expect they will continue to cite racism as a social problem rather than act as if it isn't there.

"My hunch is that although young people as they grow older still will identify themselves in racial and ethnic terms," Cornbleth says, "they are likely to increasingly insist that mixed ancestry and "none of the above" be recognized as authentic categories of ethnic or racial distinction."

Our tendency, says Cornbleth, is to not listen to what young people tell us about themselves. In fact, she says that when she began discussing what high school students were telling her about their social identities, most of her colleagues were skeptical.

"Now, it seems, marketing and media companies, among others, have caught on to what young people were saying -- if we'd only been listening," she says. "Just witness the popularity of mixed ancestry and racially or ethnically ambiguous celebrities."

The study was developed from interviews conducted by Cornbleth and her research team with high school juniors and seniors at six schools in metropolitan areas with diverse population in western New York state and central California.

"We wanted to learn how young people see and describe themselves, the identity markers they employ and the meanings they attach to them. And the students were responsive," she says, "some expressing surprise that anyone from the university cared about their ideas."

Approximately one-third of the young people interviewed rejected racial/ethnic identity markers and others downplayed them.

"Racism, however, was widely mentioned," Cornbleth says, "sometimes at length, even though we didn't ask directly about it. That's just the opposite behavior of that of most adults," she says.

Also significant, especially in today's world, says Cornbleth, is what the youth had to say about being American. While no single "meaning" or "theme" related to being American was voiced by a majority of the students, and some mentioned more than one, 43 percent of the students described being an American in terms of "freedom, rights and opportunity."

At least 20 percent of the students defined being an American in terms such as, "born here and/or live here;" "diversity, individualism and unity;" "privileged and/or proud;" and "supposed to be imperfect, but best." At least 10 percent of the students identified themselves as "not American" or not entirely American."

Cornbleth says, "It is interesting that only four of the students spontaneously mentioned being "American." Similarly, only five described themselves as "students," even though all the interviews were conducted in schools.

"At the time of our interviews, being American was background, not foreground, for these students. A handful mentioned that they might feel more American outside the United States than they do living here. Recent events such as the Iraq War and the continuing 'war on terrorism' might have altered young people's sense of being American, but that's an empirical question we haven't yet examined," Cornbleth observed.

Cornbleth is a former high school history teacher and a specialist in curriculum and instruction. Her work focuses on questions of individual and national identity vis á vis curriculum practices in secondary schools. She is widely published in national and international journals, and her prior books include "Curriculum in Context," "The Great Speckled Bird: Multicultural Politics and Education Policymaking" and "Curriculum Politics, Policy, Practice: Cases in Comparative Context."

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