Racial slurs that have cropped up chants, e-mails and white boards on America's college campuses have some people worried about whether the nation's diverse and fawned-over millennial generation is not as racially tolerant as might be expected. The Christian Science Monitor went so far as to ask, "Are millennials racist?"
Surely not all millennials are racist, but data can address a key related question: Are white millennials less racially prejudiced than past generations?
We took a look at five measures of racial prejudice from the General Social Survey conducted by NORC's 2010, 2012 and 2014 waves. Among many other questions, the survey asked respondents to rate whites and blacks on a scale from being "hardworking" to "lazy." Using this data, we can categorize respondents into whether they rated whites or blacks as being lazier, more hardworking or the same.
When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). White millennials (using a definition of being born after 1980) express the least prejudice on 4 out of 5 measures in the survey, but only by a matter of 1 to 3 percentage points, not a meaningful difference. On work ethic, 31 percent of millennials rate blacks as lazier than whites, compared to 32 percent of Generation X whites and 35 percent of Baby Boomers. (Question wording and methodology at the end).
Baby Boomers stick out as the more revolutionary generation, at least compared to the Silent Generation that immediately preceded it (and was born before 1946). Boomers are between 8 and 17 points less apt than the Silent Generation to express openly prejudiced views toward blacks, amounting to the greatest shift from one generation to the next. Xers are less prejudiced than Boomers on just one of five measures, interracial marriage.
Beyond generational comparisons, the poll suggests substantial minorities of white millennials hold racial prejudices against blacks. Over 3 in 10 white millennials believe blacks to be lazier or less hardworking than whites, and a similar number say lack of motivation is a reason why they are less financially well off as a group. Just under a quarter believes blacks are less intelligent, while fewer express opposition to interracial marriage or living in a 50-percent black neighborhood. Holding these attitudes is not the same as making racist comments in public or even among close friends, but there's clearly an audience for race-based judgment among the Millennial generation.
Explicit attitudes are just one way to measure prejudice, and researchers have put a great deal of effort into measuring implicit biases that we may not admit to or even be actively aware of. The 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES) time series survey included a series of questions called the Affect-Misattribution Procedure, where respondents were asked to rate a Chinese character as pleasant or unpleasant immediately after seeing a photo of a black or white person flash across their screen. The survey included 24 white and 24 black photo reactions. The chart below shows the percentage of white respondents who tended to have more positive than negative responses after seeing white faces. If the proportions of positive and negative responses between white and black images were within 10 percent, they were classified as about equal.
Nearly half of whites overall (48 percent) had substantially more positive responses to white than black images. Slightly fewer white millennials, 38 percent, showed this implicit bias. By comparison, roughly half of generation Xers and Baby Boomers exhibited bias toward whites, as did 55 percent in the Silent generation. Millennial fans shouldn't get too excited about this finding, as the sample sizes are fairly small in this analysis, and other research has found little difference between the oldest and youngest age cohorts.
The fact that today's young whites are not much different from their elders on racial prejudice shouldn't be all that surprising, as it matches past research on policies designed to alleviate racial inequality. Comparing ANES surveys over two decades, University of Michigan political scientist Vincent Hutchings found "younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988" in a 2009 article.
Whatever expectation that millennials' diverse racial makeup would spawn especially tolerant views has not yet come true.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this post.
General Social Survey methodology and question wording:
The General Social Survey was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and conducted through in-person interviews with a random national sample of U.S. adults. Overall results among non-Hispanic whites for the combined 2010-2014 data on questions analyzed carry a margin of sampling error of 2.5 percentage points; for generational groups the error margin ranges between 4 and 6 percentage points. Data were analyzed by The Washington Post.
(On the average (Blacks/African-Americans) have worse jobs, income, and housing than White people.) Do you think these differences are ...Because most (Blacks/African-Americans) just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?
The second set of characteristics asks if people in the group tend to be hardworking or if they tend to be lazy. (A score of 1 means that you think almost all of the people in the group are 'hardworking.' A score of 7 means that you think almost everyone in the group is 'lazy.' A score of 4 means that you think that the group is not towards one end or the other, and of course you may choose any number in between that comes closest to where you think people in the group stand.) Where would you rate Whites in general on this scale? Blacks?
Do people in these groups tend to be unintelligent or tend to be intelligent? (A score of 1 means that you think almost all of the people in the group are 'unintelligent.' A score of 7 means that you think almost everyone in the group is 'intelligent.' A score of 4 means that you think that the group is not towards one end or the other, and of course you may choose any number in between that comes closest to where you think people in the group stand.) Where would you rate Whites in general on this scale? Blacks?
Now I'm going to ask you about different types of contact with various groups of people. In each situation would you please tell me whether you would be very much in favor of it happening, somewhat in favor, neither in favor nor opposed to it happening, somewhat opposed, or very much opposed to it happening? Living in a neighborhood where half of your neighbors were Whites/Blacks?
What about having a close relative marry a Black person (would you be very in favor, somewhat in favor, neither in favor nor opposed, somewhat opposed, or very opposed)?
Technical detail on GSS analysis: Non-Hispanic whites were defined as respondents identifying their race as white (RACE) and not identifying their ethnic origin (ETHNIC) as Mexican, Puerto Rican or "Other Spanish." This corresponds with Hispanic identity the vast majority of the time and allows comparison of data to most previous survey waves. Data are weighted to a composite weight which is the product of WTSSALL, FORMWT and OVERSAMP.
Additional reading on GSS racial attitudes: