Misperceived Progress in the Millennial Generation

When you hear the term “millennials” in reference to a group of people, you tend to think of progressive and well-educated 20-somethings, breaking the social bounds that the previous generations have instilled. With each new generation comes change and progression. However, recent studies have found that millennials may be just as implicitly racist as their older counterparts.

Based on a 2010 Pew Research report, a study found that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” While this statistic may sound optimistic, it’s actually hiding a lot of the truth that lies behind it.

The truth is, white millennials--the group that has been the most regressive in its racial beliefs--are no more or less open-minded about race than their parents. The difference is that millennials think that they are more open-minded than the previous generation.

When looking at the surface statistics, millennials seem far more progressive than their parents in their views on race. Pew data shows that millennials are more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and they are more in favor of immigration. And on top of that, almost all millennials agree, “Everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their race.”

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

This all sounds great, but also repetitive. Digging deeper, the statistics are surprising: Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, examined the 2012 American National Election Studies racial stereotype battery. The survey respondents were asked to rate whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians according to how hard-working or intelligent they were, and found something startling: younger (under-30) whites were just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and hard-working than African-Americans.

Statistically speaking, 64% of the older respondents felt this way while 61% of the younger group felt the same way--not a statistically significant difference. It appears that the white millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population, at least according to this dataset and this measure of prejudice, which can be a difficult thing to quantify.

While this data may be significant, asking people racially tinged questions directly does not really you get very far. Social scientists know that there is usually a gap between how people respond to questions and how they really feel—people tend to be swayed by the expectation of how they should answer. One way to combat this is to measure implicit bias, a form of bias that the person may not be even aware of, and can be manifested in split-second decision-making. This is often tested by quick association tests, where words or images are briefly flashed, which forces subjects to respond quickly to stimuli. Researchers believe the effects seen on quick-decision lab tests extend out of the lab into everyday interactions.

If white millennials were significantly more racially tolerant than previous generations, it would show up on the implicit association tests. Yet, the younger generations do no do any better than many of their older counterparts. With the exception of the elderly, who do not exhibit significantly more racial animosity, there is little generational difference in implicit bias.

Courtesy of Flickr / Glenda Sims

Courtesy of Flickr / Glenda Sims

What does divide the younger and older generations is the accuracy of their self-evaluation of racial bias. The younger generations tend to underestimate their bias, on average, by a more statistically significant amount than the older generations.

There is an obvious disconnect between what white millennials see when they look at themselves, versus their real-life attitudes and behaviors, and between how white and non-white millennials view the current pace of progress in the twenty-first century.

America is becoming a more racially diverse place, with some estimates citing that by sometime around 2050 whites will be in the minority. With this increased diversity, it will hopefully also bring more understanding. There are many observers who are concerned that millennials are creating a façade of false progress. While we may be ushering in a more racially enlightened age, we must also focus on a deeper understanding of race and racism that many white millennials appear to be oblivious to, instead of believing that we have already done away with racial prejudices altogether.

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Claire Jasper