Decades of political science research show that political attitudes can be strongly affected by the events we experience in adolescence and young adulthood, or what are sometimes referred to as the “impressionable years.” New research shows how this applies to the racial attitudes of young people who came of age politically in the Obama years — people who were born between 1982-92 and thus reached their impressionable years in the 2000s as Obama became a more salient political figure.
University of Massachusetts political scientist Tatishe Nteta and Brandeis political scientist Jill Greenlee compared the racial attitudes of what they call the the “Obama generation” to the attitudes of six previous generations. Naturally, later generations tend to express more positive views of blacks than earlier generations. But Nteta and Greenlee did not find that each generation has become inexorably more favorable toward blacks. After accounting for other factors, they found that the Obama generation was more favorable to blacks than every previous generation — even the generation that came of age in the 1990s immediately prior to the Obama generation.
The distinctiveness of the Obama generation was most evident when asked questions designed to get at subtler forms of prejudice — such as how much individuals think racial inequality is due to the failings of African Americans. Thus the Obama generation was less likely than other generations to agree with statements like “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” When asked questions designed to measure overt prejudice — such as approval of interracial marriage — the Obama generation was certainly unlikely to express such attitudes, but not necessarily more so than at least some earlier generations.
To be sure, it is difficult to prove that Obama’s ascendance caused these generational differences in racial attitudes. But Nteta and Greenlee’s findings dovetail with other research that documented a decline in racial prejudice during the 2008 presidential campaign — suggesting that Obama’s rise may really affect how people perceive African Americans. It is too soon to know whether any generational changes will stick, or what will be true for future generations. But at this moment, the available evidence suggests, as Nteta and Greenlee put it, “a change is gonna come.”