Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. Caroline Cohen is David Gergen’s research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a recent honors graduate of Harvard College and won the Thomas T. Hoopes prize for her senior thesis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
As 17-year-old Simone Jacques welcomed some 10,000 protesters demanding racial justice in San Francisco, she told of how people kept asking whether she and her fellow organizers were part of an “org.” “We’re just youth who grew up in the city,” she said. “We’re just people who care and love each other and love each other enough to take care of each other.”
On the opposite coast, Kerrigan Williams and Jacqueline LaBayne, ages 22 and 23, organized a sit-in at the US Capitol by mobilizing the followers of Freedom Fighters DC – most of whom belong to their Generation Z age group. In Bend, Oregon, 21-year-old Adriana Aquarius organized a local protest in her hometown; in Olean, New York, it was 23-year-old Jamel Burney who took the lead; and in Nashville, Tennessee, six teenagers congregated over 20,000 people to call for an end to systemic racism. And it was a 17-year-old, Darnella Frazier, who filmed and published on social media a white Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes.
We will never know exactly how many have taken to the streets in the past few weeks, protesting the death of Floyd and other African Americans due to police brutality. But we do know this: these protests show that a new generation of young leaders is springing up across the land. A recent survey by University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher and a team of researchers in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and London found that half of protesters surveyed were under the age of 30. They are black, brown and white. They are rising up in communities everywhere. They are non-violent, yet passionate. And they offer a glimpse of a much brighter future.
Their promise is something of a surprise. As commentators like Charlotte Alter have recognized, Millennials and Gen Z have endured a series of punishing, almost knock-out blows growing up. They have survived 9/11 and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two sharp recessions have left them with the worst economic prospects in decades. Millions have shouldered the burden of ever-increasing college debt. Recently, the global pandemic has not only locked them down socially but left them with a prospect of returning to college life that will be unrecognizable. President John F. Kennedy long ago noted that “life is unfair,” but does that apply to entire generations?
To many, this succession of devastating events would prove discouraging and, indeed, these generations have struggled with mental health challenges at a distressing rate. But what we have been seeing is that many Millennials and Gen Zers are also resilient, persistent and fed up with the longstanding history of inequity in our society. They want to be part of a movement to make life fairer, starting with justice for black Americans.
Seven years ago, three young black women in their late 20s and early 30s – Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors – launched #BlackLivesMatter after the murder of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin. They organized more protests after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. While #BlackLivesMatter gained significant traction surrounding isolated protests, it had trouble breaking into the mainstream.
Commentators on the right relentlessly attacked its supporters. In 2016, only 27% of Americans viewed Black Lives Matter favorably. But events of recent months, stretching from Covid-19 to the devastation of the economy and the killing of George Floyd, brought emotions to the boiling point. And #BlackLivesMatter became a galvanizing force. A Pew poll shows that public approval of the movement has shot up to 67%.
Generational activism now transcends racial groupings. Lara Putnam, a historian who studies grassroots organizing at the University of Pittsburgh, told Time that, “communities of color are stepping forward in outrage and saying we can’t let this keep happening. But also, there’s a young generation of white people who see that vision and are being mobilized to no longer just treat this as somebody else’s problem.” Long-time observers can well remember how many white people were tentative about joining the civil rights protests of the 1960s. In recent days, however, Fisher’s team of researchers found that 61% of protesters surveyed in New York City and 65% in Washington, DC, were white.
In Minneapolis, 18-year-old Ranay Barton reflected the change in attitude when she went downtown to a memorial for Floyd. “The first thing that ran through my mind was to be mad at white people,” she told The New York Times. “When things like this happen, you tend to segregate yourself. But seeing all the support and solidarity calmed me down. All these people are different colors, from different places, coming together for a purpose. I feel like the world should be like that.”
The activism of these younger generations stems, in part, from being more distraught about by our systematic inequities than their older counterparts. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), almost two-thirds of young Americans say the police killings of African American men are part of a broader problem, compared with 43% of seniors. What is more, among white Americans alone, a Pew Research Center study found 51% of those between ages 18 and 29 believe we have not done enough to assure equal rights for black Americans; only 28% of whites ages between 50 and 64 would say the same.
While there is much that is encouraging, the path ahead for the young, emerging leaders of today is likely to be long and torturous. Resistance won’t disappear without a fight. As the civil rights leaders of the 1960s and ’70s discovered, the arc of history may bend toward justice – but it usually needs lots of help.
This article was updated to include the results of a Pew poll on public approval of the Black Lives Matter movement.