Though many white youths were idealistic and committed to South Africa, they also harbour resentment which if left unchallenged could lead to racial attacks, said Professor Jonathan Jansen.
"They carry within them the seeds of bitter knowledge that, left unchallenged, can easily germinate into the most vile and vicious racial attacks on and outside the university campus," he said.
Delivering the fifth Hans Brenninkmeijer lecture in Johannesburg on Thursday, Jansen said though many white youth did not live through apartheid, this "bitter knowledge" was transmitted through social structures such as the family, church, school, cultural associations and peer groups.
These agencies perpetuated "three core messages" of racial exclusivity, racial supremacy and racial victimisation, said Jansen.
"What reinforces these messages in the hearts of young white people is the threat of social collapse around them through things such as rampant crime, electricity failures, corruption in government, and affirmative action. In the belief system of white youth, these social events are interpreted through a singular lens: black incompetence, black greed, black barbarism, and black retaliation."
This, however, did not mean that white youth were not capable of change.
"There has to be direct recognition of and compassionate engagement with the bitter knowledge of these learners - or we place at risk not only the black staff and students at former white universities.
"We threaten the very foundations of social cohesion in a still fragile democracy," he said.
Jansen warned that associating race with economics which often portrayed whites as "rich and privileged" and blacks as "poor and undeserved" hid the reality of "thousands of poor whites and the struggling classes among them who barely make it".