Millennials May Not Be as Racially Tolerant as They Seem

What behavioral studies reveal.

Posted Jan 13, 2021

Some researchers and popular media have touted Millennials as a colorblind, "post-racial" generation.1 As evidence, observers frequently point to the fact that they are more likely than older generations to report less prejudiced attitudes to hypothetical questions about race relations.2 Millennials, for example, report more favorable attitudes toward interracial unions and hold much more tolerant attitudes about ethno-racial groups other than their own.2 

Behavioral research, however, suggests that these expressed attitudes do not seem to translate to real-world behavior. Several studies of online dating show that Millennial daters engage in similar race-based exclusionary practices as their predecessors, including the disproportionate exclusion of Black female and Asian male daters.4-5 Research on friendship networks shows that friendship groups are comprised of individuals who belong to one's own racial groups.6

A new audit study, published in December 2020, on their roommate-seeking behavior provides further evidence about the chasm between the expressed attitudes and the real-world behaviors of Millennials. Gaddish and Ghoshal (2020) answered 4,000 "roommate wanted" advertisements posted on Craigslist in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.When they answered the ads, they used names that signaled the respondent's racial background (i.e., Black, Asian, Hispanic, White). They found that the responses sent using White-sounding names got the most responses. By contrast, those using Black-sounding names got the fewest responses. They also found that responses using an Asian or Hispanic last name with an American first name received more responses than those with Asian or Hispanic first and last names. Their findings suggest that most Millennials express racially tolerant views, but significant numbers engage in discriminatory behavior in day-to-day life.

What are the implications of these findings for racial inequality?

These studies suggest that while Millennials appear to be much more “woke” and racially tolerant than older generations, their actions may have much more common with the older generation.7-8 Such observations detract from the view that our society will automatically become post-racial once this generation comes to positions of power.9 It also suggests that the expressed racial tolerance of Millennials may understate the plight of young ethno-racial minorities who experience racial discrimination at the hands of other Millennials.8

They also suggest that social change can occur if all generations, including Millennials, take the time to understand their own racial biases and address them. Calling out racism is extremely important. However, as indicated by Barack Obama in his foundation’s summit, social change cannot occur if we are just calling out others.10 We need to understand that “the world is messy; there are ambiguities”.10 Because racism is systemic, to varying degrees, most people's behavior may partially reflect such ambiguities.11 Even when people aspire to be “woke” and racially egalitarian, their ideals may be at times compromised, especially when their decision has direct implications for their lives. Perhaps the pathway to a truly post-racial society starts when each individual behaves in ways more consistent with their tolerant expressed views.

References

1. Pew Research Report. (2010). "Millennials: Confident, Connected, and Open to Change". Retrieved from: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/02/24/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change/

2. Livingston, G., and A. Brown. (2017). Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving v. Virginia.  Retrieved from: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/05/18/intermarriage-in-the-u-s-50-years-after-loving-v-virginia/

3. Gaddis, S. M., and R. Ghosal. (2020). Searching for Roommate: A Correspondence Audit Examining Racial/Ethnic and Immigrant Discrimination among Millennials. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 6: 1-16.  Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2378023120972287

4. Feliciano, C., Robnett, B., and G. Komaie. (2009). Gendered racial exclusion among white internet daters. Social science research, Vol.38 (1): p.39-54

5.  Bany, J.A., B. Robnett, and C. Feliciano (2014). Gendered black exclusion: The persistence of racial stereotypes among daters. - Race and Social Problems

6. Currarini, S., M. O. Jackson, and P. Pin. (2010). Identifying the roles of race-based choice and chance in high school friendship network formation. PNAS 107 (11) : 4857-4861. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0911793107

7. McElwee, S. (2015). Millennials Are More Racist Than They Think: Just look at the numbers. Politico Magazine. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/03/millenials-race-115909

8. Johfre, S., and A. Saperstein. (2019). RACIAL AND GENDER IDENTITIES. State of the Union. Stanford Poverty Center. https://inequality.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Pathways_SOTU_2019.pdf

9. Cohen, C. (2011). Millennials & the Myth of the Post-Racial Society: Black Youth, Intra-generational Divisions & the Continuing Racial Divide in American Politics. Dædalus: 197-206. 

10. Rueb, E. , and D. B. Taylor. (October 31, 2019). Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism’. New York Times. 

11. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2018). Racism without Racists. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.