On April 13, 2023, 16-year-old Black teen Ralph Yarl knocked on the wrong door in Kansas City, Missouri. Andrew Lester, a white man, got out of bed, grabbed a revolver, and shot Yarl in the head through a glass door. He shot Yarl once more on the ground. Yarl ran to three houses in the majority-white neighborhood before he received assistance (U.S. Census, NBC News). Yarl is now recovering at home, though his mother says “he is just replaying the situation over and over again.” Lester, 84, faces up to life in prison, though he may be protected by Missouri’s “stand your ground” laws (Fox 4, CBS News).
This is an emerging story, and it’s impossible to know Andrew Lester’s state of mind at the time of the shooting. However, the context of this case has led many around the country to concur with the family’s attorney that there may be a “racial component” at play: that the reason Ralph was shot may have been because he was a Black teenager encountering a potentially racist elder in a white neighborhood (CBS News).
• Discuss prejudicial beliefs, attitudes, or practices with older family members, friends, or community members.
• Consider: does the age of the person you’re speaking with influence your perception of their opinion on social or political issues? Is that justified?
Easy access to lethal weapons and ugly prejudices almost took the life of another Black child in the United States. Since access to firearms is unlikely to be meaningfully restricted in the foreseeable future (The Hill), we must take this shooting as a reminder of the urgency of combating bigotry. After all, each person living in the United States who acts on a prejudiced belief could almost instantly summon lethal violence, either by their own hand as a gun owner or by alerting systematically racist, unreformed, and unaccountable police. There’s no age limit on our responsibility to one another. This means a bigot doesn’t get a pass just because they’re an elder.
The problematic racist grandparent has become something of a trope for younger white people. Many excuse them as “a product of their time.” This phrase doesn’t actually mean anything. For one thing, women, people of color, queer and trans people, and immigrants aren’t 21st-century inventions. Marginalized communities have always been around, which means other people have always had the choice of how they relate to members of those communities or not. It’s not like resistance is new, either. Andrew Lester was college-aged during the height of the Black Power and antiwar movements. He spent his formative years amidst the creation of second-wave feminism, the emergence of the gay liberation movement, and the entire arc of the postwar civil rights struggle. His peers include the greatest activists and freedom fighters of the 20th century. Many continued struggling for liberation throughout their lives, including many readers of The ARD. Other people in the same age range fought against these movements, spitting on Black children trying to go to school or persecuting community leaders. We are all equally a product of our time.
It isn’t that people of a certain generation are more racist but that racist beliefs and actions actually increase as we age. In fact, “older adults have a tendency to be more prejudiced than their younger counterparts, even when they appear unprejudiced throughout their earlier lives.” It’s theorized that cognitive changes associated with aging reduce inhibitions so that people express discriminatory thoughts that they may otherwise have kept to themselves. In Western societies, elders are also deprived of rights and respect once they no longer contribute to the workforce (Human Rights Watch). Social conservatism can also be a reaction to insecurities around loss of status and mortality (Business Insider).
This doesn’t mean that young people should shout down their grandparents. Aggression and confrontation are almost always ineffective in convincing someone to earnestly reconsider their views (NPR). But when we excuse a racist elder exclusively because of their age, we’re infantilizing them—acting as if an adult doesn’t have the mental and moral capacities of everyone else and are trapped in whatever worldview they held when they left middle age. Some people are intractably bigoted, but they aren’t limited to folks born before a certain year. Younger people should demand the autonomy and dignity of elders. This means respecting them enough to have hard conversations.
• A Black teenager was shot twice by an 84-year-old man after knocking on the wrong door.
• Elders aren’t prejudiced because they’re a “product of their time.”
• There’s no age group of people who are inevitably racist.