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'Generation Y' united on affirmative action but doubts American Dream
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Despite the national debates along racial lines over affirmative action, today's teens - the so-called "Generation Y" - are united in their support of affirmative action, but doubtful that the American Dream exists. Many are fearful they will die young and violently. Those are among results of a recent study by Fayneese Miller, associate professor of education at Brown University. Miller also directs the University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.
Miller, assisted by six teen-age apprentices, surveyed 180 high school students, ages 14 through 18, last summer. Included in the survey group were 70 whites, 45 blacks, 44 Latinos and 21 Asians. Most of the students were from Rhode Island; some were out-of-state students attending Brown's Summer Initiative Program.
To the statement, "Economic class, not race or gender, should determine who should benefit from special programs," 68 percent disagreed. "They believe that race and gender should still be included as factors," said Miller. To the statement that "minorities are given opportunities based on their merit," only 31 percent agreed, while 22 percent disagreed and 46 percent were unsure. Fifty-one percent disagreed that minorities have the same number of opportunities as non-minorities.
"Our young people," Miller said, "are thinking about these issues. For them there seems to be less racial polarization than among the general public. When I look at black and white college students, I do get differences along racial lines." Miller said teenagers in her study were positive about affirmative action but had questions about it. "We can learn from them. They're saying that affirmative action is not a perfect system, but we shouldn't throw it away. Let's see how we can fix it."
Generation Y is skeptically optimistic about the American Dream, regardless of race. Although 75 percent of the students agreed that America is a land of opportunity, 62 percent believe the American Dream is a myth. "They think the American Dream is a myth, but they believe that affirmative action moves them closer to what they want," Miller said. However, she noted that the blacks and Latinos surveyed doubted that people in their racial groups could become wealthy.
One of the most disturbing findings came from a question about the students' future outlook. The students were asked how long they expected to live and whether they expected to die due to violence. Miller found that 60 percent of the students believed that their lives would end by violence within 15 years; 20 percent believed their lives would end violently in 10 years; 17 percent believed they would die violently in five years. "This is regardless of race and class," Miller said. "We had various class groups represented, from kids from housing projects to those from the suburbs. ... Kids are fearful that someone is going to harm them." She attributed this preoccupation with violence to the prevalence of violence in the media, in schools and in neighborhoods. "Many of these students know people who've been killed or injured due to violent crime."
Miller's previous research into this question showed that black girls are more likely than their male counterparts to say that their lives will end early and violently. "I think we need to focus more national attention on our black girls," she said. "We talk a lot about black males, but I think we're assuming that black girls are getting by OK - and they're not."
In her next study, Miller plans to ask additional questions to learn who these students believe will commit the violent act - a friend, family member, relative or stranger. "I want to know who they're afraid of, and explore whether this is a domestic violence issue or a general fear of violence in their communities."
Miller visited area high schools to recruit students to work as research assistants for the study. She trains them in developing questions for the survey, gathering data, handling confidentiality issues, and doing preliminary statistical analysis. This is the fourth summer in which she has used high school apprentices in her research. It is part of her Research Apprenticeship Program (RAP), which Miller said is mutually beneficial to her and the student surveyors. "Brown gives something to them through me and they give something to me through data collection, interviewing and coding. ... They also know which questions to ask, what's important to their peers and how best to get at the issues I'm exploring."
Miller hires about six students each summer. The program also features weekly readings related to the survey topic, research seminars, practice sessions, and workshops about college selection and financial aid. To date, all of her RAP students have gone on to college. Funding for this program has come from the Lilly Foundation, the Paul Newman Foundation, from Brown University, and from Miller's own pocket. "Whatever consulting money I receive, I put back into the program," she said, noting that the program costs $10,000 each year.
Miller joined the Brown faculty in 1985 and specializes in social psychology and education, with a focus on adolescents. Much of her research centers on the attitudes and values of adolescents - especially minority adolescents - toward schooling, politics and identity development. She has written or co-written more than 65 books, monographs and articles. Miller is currently organizing a national conference on affirmative action, scheduled for March 15-16, 1996, to be held at Brown.