For the second consecutive Sunday, several NFL players took a knee during the national anthem or raised their fist. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Last week, polling data suggested that most Americans think athletes shouldn’t protest during the national anthem. That average, of course, masks tremendous variation in attitudes. And our data, from the GenForward Survey, show that a far larger share of young people — 54 percent — support athletes protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem than the 38 percent of Americans in general who do.


Millennials are considered one of the most progressive generations in recent memory, expressing high levels of support for Bernie Sanders, same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization and even socialism.

But a number of observers have pointed out that millennials aren’t liberal because they’re young; rather, it’s because they are more diverse demographically than Americans as a whole.

To disentangle millennial attitudes along demographic lines, the GenForward survey oversamples respondents from underrepresented racial backgrounds. That makes our data particularly well suited for examining the ways in which race and ethnicity shape how respondents experience and think about the world.

And race matters a great deal in attitudes toward athletes protesting police brutality. White millennials are less likely than millennials of color to support athletes kneeling during the national anthem and are less likely to believe that police killings of African Americans are a serious problem. What’s more, white millennials’ attitudes are associated with racial resentment in ways that are consistent with white adults more generally.


Members of the Indianapolis Colts kneel during the national anthem before an NFL game in Indianapolis on Sept. 24. (AP)

How we did our research

The GenForward Survey is a bimonthly, nationally representative survey of young adults focusing particularly on how race and ethnicity influence political attitudes and behavior. Oversampling people of color provides us with a unique opportunity to assess opinion differences among America’s most diverse generation.

Our data on athletes’ protests come from a survey fielded last year from Oct. 1 to Oct. 14 that included 1,832 respondents between the ages of 18 and 30. The sample includes 520 African American, 508 white, 510 Latinx, and 257 Asian American respondents, which allows us to compare group attitudes with a higher degree of confidence than other surveys.

Here’s what we found

When disaggregated by race, young whites are the only racial group without a majority that approves of athletes kneeling to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

There’s a similar divide between white and nonwhite millennials when asked whether police killings of African Americans is a serious problem in the United States. Young whites are the only racial group without a majority who say the problem is “very” or “extremely” serious. Over 60 percent of Asian American and Latinx — and over 90 percent of African American — millennials perceive police killings of African Americans as “very” or “extremely” serious.


Is racism linked to negative reactions to athlete protests among young whites? The short answer: Yes. To assess whether racial attitudes are associated with reactions to athlete protests, we asked respondents a series of questions that make up the “racial resentment” scale, which has been validated as predicting a number of other attitudes. The scale measures the extent to which respondents harbor prejudice against black people and the belief that blacks violate American norms.

Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, and such factors as an authoritarian personality, how important someone considers racial identity, age, gender, education and region, we find that racial resentment is the strongest predictor of whether white millennials oppose athlete protests and disagree that police killings of African Americans are a serious problem.


Young whites with the highest level of racial resentment are 60 points less likely to approve of athlete protests and 64 points less likely to think police killings of African Americans are “very” or “extremely” serious compared to those with the lowest levels of racial resentment.

Our survey finds a similar divide based on party identification among young whites. Compared to strong Democrats, strong Republicans are 44 points less likely to approve of athlete protests and 50 points less likely to think police are “very” or “extremely” serious. Despite this, the San Francisco 49ers — the NFL team with the largest share of Democrats in its fan base — were planning on releasing Colin Kaepernick after his kneeling sparked a nationwide discussion on protesting racial injustice.

President Trump and others have asserted that their criticism of athlete protests “has nothing to do with race.” But past empirical work on adults of all age groups doesn’t support this claim. Our analysis of millennials is consistent with this work.

Matthew Fowler and Vladimir E. Medenica are postdoctoral scholars for the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago. They received their respective doctoral degrees in political science from Indiana University and Princeton University.