Millennials Are Less Racially Tolerant Than You Think

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However frustrating the current state of race relations in the U.S., there is, according to various pundits and prognosticators, hope for the future: Millennials, they say, are the most tolerant, race-blind generation in human history. And when they grow up and constitute the bulk of the adult U.S. population, many of the problems that have plagued U.S. race-relations for centuries will simply melt away, relics of a less-enlightened past.

It’s a claim that shows up again and again. A 2010 Pew Research report trumpeted that more than two decades of research confirm that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” In the Chicago Tribune, Ted Gregory seized on this to declare millennials “the most tolerant generation in history.” David Burstein, the millennial author of Fast Futuresaid millennials are “more tolerant … than any generation before them.” Hannah Seligson, also a millennial, sounded a similar note in the Daily Beast, writing that research “reveals that we’ve emerged as the most diverse, tolerant, pioneering, educated, and innovative generation in history.” And it’s not just the pundits: A poll from Reason-Rupe shows that in every age bracket, a majority of respondents say that “tolerant” describes millennials “very well.” 

Given that race-based gaps pertaining to employment opportunities, income, education, incarceration, and wealth are either persisting or growing, there’s a welcome sense that help is on the way in the form of a more racially enlightened populace.

The problem with these rosy sentiments is that they’re at least partly false. Those who claim that the rise of the millennials will usher in a new age of racial harmony are cherry-picking or misreading statistics. They’re doing so primarily in two ways: by lumping together all millennials when they report survey findings rather than breaking out white millennials views on racial issues, or by focusing narrowly on a small set of questions about explicit racial beliefs that don’t tell the full story. The fact of the matter is that millennials who are white — that is, members of the group that has always had the most regressive racial beliefs, and who will constitute a majority of U.S. voters for at least another couple of decades — are, on key questions involving race, no more open-minded than their parents. The only real difference, in fact, is that they think they are.

When it comes to certain surface-level statistics, it’s true that millennials as a group are more racially progressive than their parents. Pew data show they are more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and are more in favor of immigration. Nearly all agree that “everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their race.”

Dig just a few inches deeper, though, and there’s plenty of fodder for pessimism. Just ask Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University. He examined the 2012 American National Election Studies racial stereotype battery, in which survey respondents are asked to rate whites, African-American, Hispanics, and Asians according to how hard-working or intelligent they are, and found something startling: Younger (under-30) whites are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans (among the older cohort, 64 percent felt this way, and among the younger cohort the number was 61 percent — not a statistically significant difference). “White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,” Piston told Science of Us in an email, “at least using this dataset and this measure of prejudice.”

Asking people racially tinged questions directly can only get you so far, of course. Social scientists have known for a long time that there frequently exists a gap between how people respond to questions and how they really feel — people are swayed by the expectation of how they should answer. A favorite way around this is to measure implicit bias — that is, forms of bias that the holder might not even be aware of and that can manifest themselves in split-second decision-making. In the most common examples of so-called implicit association tests, words or images are briefly flashed, “priming” subjects to respond to subsequent stimuli — if you’re quicker to pair a black face with the word criminal, to take a hypothetical example, you’re exhibiting more implicit bias, and researchers think these effects extend out of the lab into everyday interactions.

If white millennials were, in fact, significantly more racially tolerant than previous generations, it would show up in implicit association tests. And yet they do no better than many of their older counterparts. For example, a study of 2.5 million voluntary IAT tests from between July 2000 and May 2006 shows very little difference across age groups, with the exception of those 60 or older. Other age cutoffs show a similar result: With the exception of the elderly, who do exhibit significantly more racial animosity, there is little generational difference in implicit bias. What does divide old and young is differences in the accuracy of their self-evaluation of racial bias. While older people underestimate their bias by an average of .38 points on a four-point scale, the youngest two brackets under-report their bias by an average of .52 points on average. Younger people, in other words, are simply more deluded about their own beliefs.

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None of this has stopped white millennials from congratulating themselves for being so racially progressive, nor has it staunched their racial optimism. Tellingly, nonwhite millennials aren’t quite so optimistic. According to Pew data, when millennials are asked how well they think whites and African-American get along, just 13 percent of whites answer “Not too well/not at all well,” compared to 30 percent of nonwhite millennials. So there are some obvious disconnects here — both between what white millennials see when they look in the mirror and their real-life beliefs, and between how white and nonwhite millennials view the current pace of progress.

It’s true that America is becoming a more racially diverse place — as is frequently pointed out, it is likely that by sometime around 2050, whites will be in the minority. Hopefully, this diversity will bring with it more understanding. But many observers, appealing to stereotypes about millennials that have dubious empirical grounding, are creating a veneer of false progress. Millennials may eventually usher in a more racially enlightened age, but such a shift will require a deeper understanding of race and racism than many white millennials exhibit, rather than the self-congratulatory rhetoric of a postracial society.