The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new survey shows white millennials think a lot more like whites than millennials

Students cheer during a speech by then-candidate Bernie Sanders at George Mason University in Fairfax in 2015. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Ah, millennials. That hyper-aware generation that is reportedly so much more advanced and unbothered by nettlesome issues that have vexed their elders. Same-sex marriage? What’s the big deal? But when it comes to race, the seeming enlightenment flickers out. As a new GenForward Survey of 18-to-34-year-olds reveals, white millennials are “quickly becoming the outlier group in this generation.”

More than 1,750 millennials responded to the poll conducted between Aug. 31 and Sept. 16. That means it was started two weeks after white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other assorted bigots unleashed terror on Charlottesville. And during that time, President Trump inflamed racial tensions and squandered the moral authority of his office by repeatedly declaring a moral equivalence between bigots and those protesting them. What he did was such a shocking affront to our national ideals.

A candidacy that allowed hate to feel safe quarter. A presidency that lets it grow by pretending it’s not there.

Surely, the forward-thinking millennial generation will deliver us from the sins of their elders. But the survey results — with the apt title “The ‘woke’ generation?: Millennial attitudes on race in the US”  — dashed my hopes of that.

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Data from a question about the Trump presidency in Table 2 holds the first warning sign.  “When you think about his presidency,” the survey asks, “what emotion best represents the strongest emotion you continue to feel since the election?” The No. 1 response from African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and whites is “disgusted.” They are also “embarrassed.” But they diverge on the third emotion. White millennials are the only group to not list “fearful” as one of their three emotions. For them, it was “hopeful.”

The next warning sign comes in Figure 4 with a straightforward question. “Do you believe Donald Trump is a racist or is not a racist?” No surprise that overwhelming majorities of African Americans (82 percent), Asian Americans (74 percent) and Latinos (78 percent) say, “Yes.” White millennials, however, were almost split. A saving grace is that 51 percent said, “Yes.” But 48 percent saying no, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is beyond worrisome.

As you read deeper into the report, the warning signs give way to red alerts. Views on Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the so-called alt-right left me gobsmacked. Not surprisingly, African American millennials (56 percent) thought BLM has “a lot of good ideas and should be a major part of the political discussion.” What did surprise me was that a plurality of white millennials (23 percent) responded that BLM is “nothing but racists and are totally invalid.” Only 19 percent shared the view of BLM of their black counterparts, the least of all the groups. But that’s not the gobsmacking part. That came in Figure 8.

No, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not ‘inherently racist.’

“When asked to compare white nationalist groups with groups that comprise the BLM movement, as in Figure 8,” the survey notes, “white millennials again stand out as the only group where a majority, albeit a slim majority (51 percent), agrees that the two entities are not very different from one another.”

So, “a slim majority”of white millennials believes blacks protesting police-involved shootings of unarmed African Americans are not very different from white supremacists marching through a town chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the repugnant Nazi-era “blood and soil” while protesting the removal of a Confederate general’s statue. And knowing this makes two other questions particularly noteworthy, if not troubling.

The Confederate flag is no better than a swastika.

A majority of black millennials (83 percent), Asian Americans (71 percent) and Latinos (65 percent) “personally see the Confederate flag more as a symbol” of racism than Southern pride. A majority of white millennials (55 percent) believe that flag to be “a symbol of Southern pride.” That demographic split is repeated on the question of whether Confederate statues and symbols should be removed. White millennials oppose removal by 62 percent. African American millennials favor removal by 73 percent.

I could go on with the other red alerts in the report, but there is an agree-disagree statement that is so old-school that I have to include it. “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up,” the statement goes. “Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

White millennials and African American millennials have mirror opposite responses. The former agrees by 59 percent. The latter disagrees by 59 percent. Interestingly, a majority of Latinos (51 percent) agrees with the statement.

“White millennials vote a lot more like whites than like millennials” was the headline on a September 2016 piece by The Post’s Philip Bump. And this GenForward Survey shows that despite the millennial reputation, white millennials think a lot more like whites than millennials, who are increasingly people of color.

“Millennials are ushering in a new era of American society,” the GenForward Survey notes, “one that is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history as well as defined by youth-led social movements aimed at raising awareness and rectifying issues of injustice.” But the results I’ve shared with you and the others within the 44-page report show that millennials are as divided as the generations that came before them.

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