By Andrew Kelly
Special to the Herald
I’m proud to belong to Generation Z. We’re a generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11, the 2008 Recession, disease outbreak panics like Swine Flu and Ebola, and more recently, attacks on our nation by ISIS. And yet, we’ve still managed to retain the optimism and entrepreneurial approach toward life that has made this country what it is today. We mastered the World Wide Web, iPhones and Xbox Live. And, if our high school STEM courses across the country are anything to go by, we’ll grow up to be damn good inventors, too.
But as proud as I am of my generation, there is one thing I grow disappointed about. We seem to care little for the political sphere. We can memorize the names of the third-party candidates and remember each and every meme-worthy line from the debates and political rallies, but when it comes to actual activism, we seem to be complacent. Gone is the fiery anger our mothers and fathers had at Vietnam, the draft, and the social injustices of LBJ and Nixon’s administrations. Perhaps it is a sign that we are more fortunate, and that we might even be growing up in more peaceful times than that of our parents and grandparents. But it’s not something I’m comfortable with, especially considering that many of the hot-button issues being debated in our statehouses and courtrooms today all have a profound impact on the lives of us Gen Z’ers. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of the issues that hit Gen Z the most, and therefore, the ones we should care about the most.
#5: Legalization of Marijuana
When Gen Z starts to hit the age of 21, those of us reading the Herald now will be lucky enough to live in a state that has elected to make marijuana a regulated, legal substance equivalent to alcohol. However, we can’t forget that in the majority of states, and at the federal level, marijuana remains illegal. And even though we spend an estimated 3.6 billion a year fighting the sale and use of it, the war on drugs has failed to reduce the use of marijuana. As well as that, marijuana arrests are more likely to result in convictions for minorities than whites. According to a survey done by the ACLU, black and white Americans use Marijuana at about the same rates, and yet, according to the same survey, African Americans are anywhere from 1.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana related charges in Alaska, the state with the most equal spread of black and white marijuana arrests, to 8.34 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana related charges in Iowa, the state with the biggest gap in black and white marijuana arrests.
If these statistics didn’t speak for themselves, across all races, marijuana possession charges made up almost half of all prison arrests. The fact that these arrests are for owning a substance that has less negative effects than alcohol and actually has medicinal properties only adds insult to injury. However, now more than ever we have a great opportunity to affect change. A CBS poll showed that 61 percent of those surveyed thought that marijuana should be legalized nationwide. Generation Z should mass-mail their congressmen and women, reminding them that many of us will be eligible to vote in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and begging their hand in backing marijuana reform legislation in Congress.
#4: Health Care
According to the Elements Behavior Health Journal, up to 20 percent of teenagers today suffer from an anxiety disorder. And yet, under the Republican health care bill, mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, anxiety disorders and autism spectrum disorders are all considered pre-existing conditions, and people who suffer from any of these disorders could end up being charged as much as 200 times the normal rate or even denied coverage. While there are many millennials and boomers who also have these conditions, the rate of successful diagnosis is much higher among Gen Z, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that about 1 in 68 children born today will be diagnosed with autism, and about 5.7 percent of all teenagers suffer from some sort of depression. Even more, approximately 20 percent of teenagers reported suffering from a mental illness strong enough to affect their daily lives.
If the American Health Care Act passes with the pre-existing conditions clause in effect, up to 20 percent of Generation Z will be eligible to be denied coverage or charged more for insurance coverage. If we want a future where we are able to get health coverage without increased rates or, worse, being denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition, then we can’t continue to put our heads in the sand. We need to petition our congressmen to push for reform in the bill, and turn out to the polls in 2018 to make our opinion on the AHCA heard.
#3: Net Neutrality
Some of us in our generation see the internet as a place to find funny videos, order clothes and chat with our friends. However, the internet is so much more than that. The internet has provided a place for whistleblowers to uncover atrocities committed by governments worldwide, a place for points of view outside of those shown on TV and a place for oppressed communities to congregate and push each other forward. However, can you imagine a future of the internet where your ISP can charge you to visit a news site that uncovers bad business conducted by them? Or a whistleblowing site publishing information on the current administration being blocked by that same ISP? If the net neutrality doctrine is repealed, this dystopian nightmare might just become reality.
Net neutrality is an Obama-era doctrine that ensures that ISPs treat all websites and online services equally. If this was repealed, it would have wide-reaching consequences for the future of the internet. For example, Google could pay Comcast to slow down customers’ internet speeds when connecting to a competitor to YouTube, or Amazon have Verizon slow down customers’ connection to Ebay. The possibilities for abuse if net neutrality is repealed are wide reaching and scary. So if we want to be able to go to a website without tampering on behalf of our ISP, or speak our opinions online without fear of rebuttal, we as a generation should fully commit ourselves to making sure net neutrality is upheld.
#2: LGBTQ equality
According to a poll done by the J. Walter Thompson Innovation group, only 48 percent of Gen Z surveyed say they are completely straight. And though this may be the case, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, Arkansas and Texas have seen fit to introduce laws that allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ members in job hiring, housing, and the marketplace. And the assault on the rights of the LGBT community doesn’t stop at the state level: Last month, the U.S Census scrapped plans to include sexual orientation in its list of categories for citizens, effectively insinuating that LGBTQ members do not exist. And, worst of all for LGBTQ Gen Z’ers, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos effectively confirmed that schools who have clauses against being LGBTQ in their disciplinary code would still be allowed to receive state funding.
The reason this affects all members of Gen Z is because, whether we know it or not, we have come across someone who is LGBTQ, be it at our school, our sports teams or our clubs, and when they hurt themselves or, even worse, decide to take their lives due to bigotry and hate, it affects us all, whether we like it or not. And even for those who are not LGBTQ, if we work to dismantle the negative stigmas surrounding being gay or lesbian, it will end in a future without name calling and slurs like “f*g” or “d*ke” even for the feminine straight man in rural Kentucky or the butch straight girl in suburban Georgia.
#1: Ending zero-tolerance in schools.
For those unaware, zero-tolerance policies started out in the ’80s and ’90s by expelling children for doing things such as bring weapons or alcohol to school or getting in fights. It doesn’t sound too excessive, does it? However, the problem with this is that it does not bend based on intent. The teenager who accidentally bought his Swiss Army Knife back from a camping trip in his backpack is given the same punishment as someone who concealed a Glock in their bag. A kindergartener who makes a gun sign while playing “Cops and Robbers” at snack is given the same punishment as a middle schooler who threatens to commit a school shooting. And, in perhaps the most famous case of zero-tolerance related stupidity, a Middle Eastern teenager at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas was suspended for a week after making a homemade clock to show a teacher after it beeped in class. School officials suspended him for making a “hoax bomb,” but the problems don’t end there. Honor roll students have been suspended for possessing “drugs” as commonplace as cough drops or mouthwash. Bullied students have been suspended for defending themselves from an unprovoked attack by a bully. And, when students are expelled due to these policies, whether wrongly or justly, it makes life exponentially harder for them. The ones who are expelled are being sent back to their troublesome neighborhoods where they will meet again with the same bad influences. And dropping out of school or being expelled greatly increases one’s chance for entry into the criminal justice system: in 1997, 68 percent of all those incarcerated had dropped out in high school.
But not all suspensions and expulsions stemming from zero-tolerance are due to drugs or weapons. In our own state, 48 percent of all school suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year were for “willful defiance,” or for simple issues of disobedience such as refusing to take a hat off or put a phone away. And in North Carolina schools in 2008, black students were suspended as much as 10 times higher than white students for various instances of minor disruption such as displaying affection, texting in class, or not taking off a hat. It’s obvious that these zero tolerance policies have only created more trouble than they have gotten rid of, and it is time for Generation Z to stand together and demand that these zero-tolerance policies are replaced with much more sensible legislation that differentiates based on intent instead of blindly tagging all offenders as guilty of wrongdoing.
Every generation faces a new set of issues unique to it. Millennials faced the 2008 financial crisis, crippling their ability to attend college. Our mothers and fathers faced rising gas prices and oil crises, affecting the ability of their parents to put food on the table. And our grandfathers and grandmothers faced the draft in Vietnam, not to mention the looming threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But if we want to solve the pressing issues unique to our generation, we can’t rely on our school faculty, who recently tried to introduce a credits system that would decimate school electives that have allowed so many students to finally find a career path for them. We also can’t rely on our parents, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, a man who has promised to undo progress towards ending all of the problems on this list. No, if Gen Z hopes to solve the pressing issues regarding our livelihoods, we need to do political activism of our own. With many of us passing the age-18 mark in or before 2018, we are now poised to make our voices heard in congressional and presidential elections. But we can only effect the change we want if we take action. We’re a creative, ingenious, inventive generation, and once we put our voice behind these issues, I think we’ll see the tides turn quite quickly.
Andrew Kelly is an incoming senior at Benicia High School and staff member of the student newspaper The Paw.