Rodney Gullatte Jr., 17, an African-American student in Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Ga., was still in middle school when he got his first lesson in racism. It was then that a group of white kids, whom he describes as part of a growing "skinhead" element in his school, began to harass him. "Hey, Rodney, how does it feel to be a nigger?" they would taunt. "How does it feel to know you'll always be a nigger? Is your mother a nigger too?" After a time Gullatte punched one of the white kids in the face. That earned Gullatte an in-school suspension. Worse, nobody believed him when he explained why he had lashed out. "They kept saying the kid would not say something like that, that stuff like that doesn't happen in the Cobb County public schools," says Gullatte. "But people don't know what really goes on."
What does go on? With the number of reported hate crimes on the rise nationwide, what do most of today's children really think about the racial chasm that has divided this country since its inception?
The days of Bull Connor, police dogs and fire hoses are long gone, and many would find it comforting to believe that skin color is no longer an issue for kids. Has the newest generation of Americans finally arrived at that melanin-friendly Promised Land? No. But a new TIME/CNN poll of 1,282 adults and 601 teens (ages 12 to 17) has found a startling number of youngsters, black and white, who seem to have moved beyond their parents' views of race. These kids say race is less important to them, both on a personal level and as a social divide, than it is for adults. It must be noted that more than half of both white kids and black still consider racism "a big problem" in America--however, more than a third classify it as "a small problem." Asked about the impact of racism in their own lives, a startling 89% of black teens call it "a small problem" or "not a problem at all." In fact, white adults and white teens are more convinced than black teens that racism in America remains a dominant issue.
Furthermore, black teens are more reluctant than others to blame racism for problems. Indeed, nearly twice as many black kids as white believe "failure to take advantage of available opportunities" is more of a problem for blacks than discrimination. That's especially extraordinary given the fact that 40% of the black teens surveyed believe SATs are loaded against them, and that blacks have to be better qualified than whites to get a job. These responses seem to indicate that black teens believe color barriers exist, but, despite that, they retain an admirably dogged belief in self-determination.
Is this surprising portrait a sign of hope? Or is it just an example of youthful naivete? Probably both. "One word explains it--experience," speculates sociologist Joe R. Feagin. "You have to be out looking for jobs and housing to know how much discrimination is out there. People doing that are usually over 19." Sure enough, only a quarter of black teens surveyed said they had been victims of discrimination, whereas half of black adults say they have. For all that, these kids remain astonishingly optimistic: 95% of the black youngsters think they're going on to college, as do 93% of the whites.