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Are millennials tolerant racists?

America’s newest generation think they are postracial, but data suggest otherwise

January 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

Millennials are considered the most diverse, tolerant and racially progressive generation in U.S. history. “The younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders,” the Pew Research Center declared in a 2010 report based on analysis of more than two decades of data. Commenting on the report, The Chicago Tribune’s Ted Gregory went one step further, arguing millennials are “the most tolerant generation in history.”

America’s newest generation is more racially progressive than its predecessors’. For example, the Pew study shows that millennials are more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and are generally more accepting of immigrants. They see themselves as racially progressive as well. According to a 2014 survey (PDF) of millennials conducted by MTV and David Binder Research, nearly all respondents said they believe “everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race,” 72 percent said “their generation believes in equality more than older people,” and 58 percent believed “racism will become less and less of an issue” as they take on leadership roles. More than half believe that racial bias is “small but real” and “subtler” than it was in the past.

However, such pervasive sentiments do not reflect reality. In fact, beneath the facade of a colorblind generation remains a deep underclass. And millennials are not as racially progressive as the narrative suggests. Studies show that white millennials have opinions similar to older generations’ on issues such as race. A closer look at the Pew Center’s data and other relevant research shows a less-reported but revealing fact: Much of the purported tolerance of the millennial generation is due to the inclusion of more people of color in the pool.

White millennials

Spencer Piston, a professor at the Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, examined the 2012 American National Election Studies racial stereotype battery. Respondents were asked to rate whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians according to how hard working or intelligent they are. “White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population, at least using this data set and this measure of prejudice,” Piston said during a recent New York magazine interview. A 2012 Public Religion Institute poll found that 58 percent of white millennials say discrimination affects whites as much as it affects people of color. Only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of black millennials agree. Similarly, the MTV poll found that only 39 percent of white millennials believe “white people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups.” By contrast, 65 percent of people of color felt that whites have differential access to jobs and other opportunities. Still, 70 percent of millennials said, “it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.”

White millennials are more optimistic about the state of race relations. For example, a 2014 Pew survey found that 42 percent of white millennials said “a lot” needs to be done to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equity, compared with 54 percent of millennials of color. One-fifth of white millennials said “a little/none at all” needs to be done. There is a significant racial gap in terms of attitudes about how well blacks and whites get along. About 30 percent of nonwhite millennials said whites and blacks don’t get along “too well/not at all well,” compared with 13 percent of white millennials. These gaps remain unchanged across generations. All in all, when the Pew data are disaggregated, they shows large and persistent racial gaps that are obscured when the generations are considered as a whole.

The millennial generation is still deeply segregated. Racial gaps in employment opportunity, income, education, incarceration and wealth are either stagnant or growing.

Millennials don’t fare better than their parents on implicit racial bias either. The nonprofit Project Implicit conducts an association test to measure automatic and unconscious preference for European or African faces. A study of 2.5 million voluntary tests taken from 2000 to 2006 found very little variation on implicit bias across age groups, with the exception of those 60 or older. The chart below shows the results of the implicit-association test (IAT) and individuals’ self-reported bias, with a score of 2 indicating a strong bias toward whites and –2 indicating a strong bias toward blacks. The old and young showed differences in their self-evaluation of racial bias, with older people off by 0.38 points and those in the youngest two brackets underreporting their bias by 0.52 on average. 

Implicit and explicit attitudes, stereotypes by age

Source: Noeck et al, 2007.

The fact that millennials perceive themselves as uniquely tolerant may make them more likely to practice or accept discriminatory behavior. “A representative panel of Americans interviewed immediately before and after the election [of Barack Obama] reveals a roughly 10 percent decline in perceptions of racial discrimination,” Nicholas A. Valentino and Ted Brader, wrote in a 2011 study in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.

But the dramatic change in perceptions was clearly symbolic. Valentino and Brader found that “declines in perceived discrimination were associated with increases in negative opinions of blacks and heightened opposition to both affirmative action and immigration.” A large body of research supports this finding. For instance, a 2009 study by Vincent Hutchings found (PDF) “scant evidence of a decline in the racial divide” from 1988 to 2008 on policies that would alleviate racial inequality. Even more startling, Hutchings noted, “younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.” 

Support for liberal racial policies

Support among white respondents, 18–29 years old

Source: Vincent Hutchings, 2009.

Millennials are more likely to view Obama’s electoral victory as proof that racial discrimination has been alleviated. Research shows that his election led to what is called symbolic racism, the belief that discrimination no longer exists and that persisting inequalities are due to blacks’ weakness. When whites were reminded of Obama’s victory (regardless of whether they supported him) they were more likely to say that racism is behind us and that blacks receive undeserved advantages. They were more likely to say that a continued push for racial equity is unjustified and that any failure of blacks to succeed is their own responsibility.

A 2009 survey of 74 undergraduates at the University of Washington found that Obama’s election led to a decline in the number of respondents who said there was a need for racial policies such as affirmative action, workplace diversity policies and measures that boost equitable access to health care. Similarly, while liberal undergraduate students at Stanford University were primed to recall their support for Obama over a white candidate, they were more likely to support a white job applicant over an equally qualified black applicant.

A flicker of hope

But there are signs of hope for racial progress. In a 2013 study, Tatishe Nteta and Jill Greenlee examined what they call the “Obama generation” — those born from 1982 to 1992. “It appears that the youngest generation of white Americans is leading the way toward a more liberal racial future, [but] the structure of these attitudes compels us to stop short of predicting a more racially liberal America,” they wrote in the journal Political Psychology. French essayist Albert Memmi’s observation on racism explains the authors’ hesitation. He wrote, “There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious.” That is, while young white Americans are clearly aware of interpersonal racism, they seem unwilling to address structural or implicit biases. It may be that racial progress will occur simply because there are fewer young whites relative to people of color.

Another hopeful development is that Americans, across all ages, are less racially biased than before. Studies show that the last four decades saw a general decline (PDF) of racial prejudice across all generations rather merely the young becoming more racially tolerant. However, both whites and blacks are less likely to attribute racial gaps to discrimination. Instead a growing number choose no explanation at all, suggesting what sociologist Tyler Forman calls “racial apathy.” Yet racial inequities still exist. And the millennial generation is still deeply segregated. Racial gaps in employment opportunity, income, education, incarceration and wealth are either stagnant or growing. If millennials remain utterly unaware of racial reality in America, the gaps will only grow deeper. 

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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