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Young whites view race with rose-tinted glasses

Ahead of Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, research shows millennials are split by race on the practice

January 18, 2016 2:00AM ET

The United States Supreme Court’s decision to review the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative action program has brought renewed debate about the practice. While social science largely supports the proposition that affirmative action is beneficial to African-American and Latino applicants, many Americans feel that policies to remedy racial inequality  or to ensure diversity are unnecessary. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously put an expiration date on racism, expressing a hope that 25 years from then, affirmative action would no longer be necessary.

What do Americans think? Affirmative action sharply divides Americans, largely along racial lines, even among millennials, the most racially diverse generational cohort. Even among young Democrats, white and nonwhite people have very different attitudes about the fairness and appropriateness of affirmative action policies.

Using data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large-scale national survey, we are able to examine preferences about affirmative action among young people, who are most affected by affirmative action in education. The survey asked respondents, “Affirmative action programs give preference to racial minorities in employment and admissions in order to correct for past discrimination. Do you support or oppose affirmative action?” They were able to choose four options: strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, somewhat support and strongly support.

Across the full sample, affirmative action was quite unpopular, with 62 percent saying they either somewhat or strongly opposed it. Among young people (ages 17 to 34), opposition was somewhat less strong, with 54 percent opposed. Notably, while 17 percent of young people strongly support affirmative action (compared with 14 percent of the general population), 28 percent strongly oppose it (versus 37 percent of general population).

However, given the stakes in the UT-Austin case, the differences among age groups are less interesting than the deep racial divide among millennials. A full 66 percent of white millennials said they oppose affirmative action, including 36 percent who “strongly oppose,” and only 9 percent said they “strongly support” it. Among millennials of color, the reverse was true, with 67 percent supporting affirmative action, 32 percent strongly. Among black millennials, support for affirmative action was overwhelming: 75 percent said they favor affirmative action, with 41 percent saying their support is “strong.” Among Latino and Asian millennials, support was more muted, with 64 percent of Latinos and 56 percent of Asians in support.

Preferences on affirmative action among young Americans (ages 17–34) vary by race

Source: Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 2014

Party affiliation may be an important factor here as well, as millennials of color are more likely to support Democrats than are white millennials. However, even among young Democrats, there are wide racial divisions. While a bit more than half of young white Democrats (53 percent) said they support affirmative action, there was supermajority support among young Democrats of color, with 80 percent of young black Democrats, 70 percent of young Latino Democrats and 68 percent of young Asian Democrats supporting the policy.

One of the most persistent myths about race in America is that the color line will gradually fade out with the oldest generation. Unfortunately, the data suggest this is not true.

Overall, 76 percent of young Democrats of color said they support affirmative action, and a mere 9 percent said they strongly oppose it. In contrast, more young white Democrats said they strongly oppose affirmative action (19 percent) than strongly support it (16 percent). Strong support for affirmative action among young white Democrats was only slightly more than one-third of strong support among young black Democrats (45 percent) and less than half of strong support among young Democratic people of color (38 percent). This is consistent with other work suggesting young white people, even Democrats, aren’t particularly liberal on racial issues, especially regarding policies that are perceived as affecting white interests directly.

Even among young Democrats, there are wide racial divisions on affirmative action

Source: Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 2014

One of the most persistent myths about race in America is that the color line will gradually fade out with the oldest generation. Unfortunately, the data suggest this is not true. In fact, research suggests millennials, particularly white ones, tend to view racism with rose-tinted glasses.

To examine broader preferences about government action, we turn to 2012 American National Election Studies data, and similar results emerge. Researchers asked respondents to place themselves on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “Government should help blacks” and 7 being “Blacks should help themselves.” As the chart shows, there are only small differences across age groups but large differences among racial groups — belying the notion that young white people are more racially progressive than their parents. Young liberal white people are more conservative than black people, by a rather dramatic margin.

Preferences for providing government aid to blacks varies more by race than by age

7 = Blacks Should Help Themselves
1 = Government Should Help Blacks

Source: American National Election Studies, 2012

These data all suggest that, rather than seeing racism as a persistent problem still in need of remedy, many young white people — including those who identify as Democrats — are inclined to believe America is a colorblind society and that little remains to be done to remedy past racial injustices. As psychologists Sarah Gaither, Leigh S. Wilton and Danielle M. Young note in a recent study, “Both white and black voters perceived the election of [Barack] Obama in 2012 to be a sign of increased racial progress while simultaneously serving as a signal for a reduced need for programs designed to address racial inequalities.”

Given the deep conservatism of the Supreme Court and the reality, demonstrated by political science and journalistic observation, that court decisions are decided by ideology and modestly constrained by public opinion, affirmative action may be in trouble.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

Jesse Rhodes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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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