Across the generational, racial, gender and economic spectrums, most Americans agree that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the most significant historic event in their lifetimes.
But after that, their perspectives diverge, according to a Pew Research Center report released Thursday that surveyed 2,025 people about what events they think have had the greatest effect on the country.
Some age-related bias was unavoidable: Younger people inevitably chose more recent events, such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and at a nightclub in Orlando in June, because they took place within their lifetimes. Older people included events such as World War II, the Vietnam War and the 1969 moon landing.
But contrasts among people of different races, genders, political inclinations and socioeconomic statuses cut across generations.
African Americans ranked the election of President Obama and the civil rights struggle significantly higher than other groups did. Sixty-two percent of blacks ranked Obama’s election as one of the top 10 historic events of their lifetimes, whereas only 36 percent of whites and 38 percent of Hispanics did. Among black respondents, the election shared the top spot with the Sept. 11 attacks, which 58 percent included on their top 10 list (the difference in the share naming the two events was not statistically significant). Eighty percent of whites and 73 percent of Hispanics listed 9/11 on theirs.
The civil rights movement ranked third for blacks, at 18 percent, and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came in fifth, at 14 percent. For whites and Hispanics, those events didn’t make the top 10.
Striking disparities lay in the degree of pride Obama’s election and presidency inspired. Forty-five percent of blacks said they were proudest of their country after the election, more than five times the portion of whites who said so (8 percent) and more than triple the portion of Hispanics (12 percent) who did. Overall, 14 percent of respondents said it was one of the nation’s finest moments, but almost as many, 11 percent, said it was their biggest disappointment.
Coming in close behind on the disappointment scale, at 10 percent, was the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republicans’ presidential candidate (the survey was taken over the summer).
For the most part, however, respondents were not able to weigh in on whether they thought events were good or bad — a limitation of the study, said Claudia Deane, vice president of research at Pew and the report’s lead author.
“We don’t know whether people think the tech revolution was a positive thing or a negative thing, or gay marriage. You could say it was of historical impact but you couldn’t say whether it was positive or negative.”
Both the tech revolution and the Vietnam War loomed larger for whites than for others. Twenty-eight percent of them listed the tech revolution, while just 12 percent of blacks and 8 percent of Hispanics did. And 26 percent of whites listed Vietnam, while only 11 percent of blacks and 8 percent of Hispanics did. Some of this could be because whites skew older, so more would have been alive during the Vietnam War, Deane said.
Age also influenced how African Americans viewed the civil rights movement; among blacks age 45 and older, 32 percent rated it as a seminal event.
Likewise, the fact that 19 percent of Hispanics included the 2015 Orlando nightclub shooting (compared with 9 percent of whites and 7 percent of blacks) can be explained partly because Hispanics are disproportionately young compared with the other groups. But the attack also occurred on a day the club was having a “Latin Night,” and the vast majority of the 49 people killed were Latino, the study noted.
Despite the built-in age bias, the generational differences should interest policymakers, Deane said. “When you think about what shapes people, you have to know what they lived through,” she said. “For these young people, it’s all these shootings. When you look at what their policy positions are going to be, just knowing what their context is is really important.”
Some striking differences also appeared in Republicans’ and Democrats’ lists, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War making the top 10 for Republicans and not Democrats, while the civil rights movement made the top 10 for Democrats and not Republicans.
And although Obama’s election made the list for both groups, 46 percent of Democrats added it while just 33 percent of Republicans did.
Men ranked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan higher than women did, and people who had attended college cited the tech revolution more often than those with a high school degree or less. The same pattern played out across income groups, the study said.