June 07, 2016

By David Morse / New America Dimensions

Many have pointed to the millennial generation as the great hope for America in terms of making racial progress.  It’s an easy conclusion to draw, especially when looking at the country’s changing demographics.

Millennials are the most diverse adult generation in U.S. history. They are only 56 percent white compared to about three-quarters of Baby Boomers.  This truly substantial change is being driven by Hispanics, who comprise 11 percent of the Baby Boomer population, but nearly a quarter of Millennials.  

Additionally, there are indications that the younger generation is more racially tolerant than its elders.  According to a study by Pew in 2010, roughly nine in ten Millennials say they would be fine with a family member’s marriage to a person of another race, which is significantly higher than older generations, particularly those above age 50.  93 percent of Millennials agree with the statement “I think it is all right for blacks and whites to date each other”; by contrast, when the first Generation Xers began to be tracked in the late 1980s, only about two-thirds agreed.  56 percent of white Millennials indicated that they have friends of different races, a full 20 points higher than Baby Boomers.

Despite this optimistic picture, things may not be as rosy as the Pew research implies, and the study was called to task in a 2015 article by Sean McElwee in the New York Magazine; McElwee critiqued it for lumping together all millennials, rather than breaking out whites.  “The fact of the matter,” he writes, “is that millennials who are white … are, on key questions involving race, no more open-minded than their parents.”  

McElwee interviewed Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who found that 61 percent of whites under thirty rated whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African Americans – just three percentage points below their older cohort.  “White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,” Piston stated.  

McElwee also points to a 2007 study which looked at Implicit Attitude Tests, tests that measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.  He found that, with the exception of those 60 or older, there was very little difference across generations in terms of racial prejudice.  Younger respondents did show slightly lower levels of “explicit” or stated bias, compelling McElwee to conclude that Millennials “are simply more deluded about their own beliefs.”

A recent New York Times article by political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels argues that despite the support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders among young people, “the impression of ideological commitment is mostly illusory.”  They looked at data which found that while young Democrats under the age of 35 were more likely to call themselves liberals, their ideological self-designations were more lightly held, varying significantly when they were reinterviewed.  Additionally, while warm views of Sanders increased the liberalism of young Democrats by as much as 1.5 points on a seven-point ideological scale, Achen and Bartels conclude that “for many of them, liberal ideology seems to have been a short-term byproduct of enthusiasm for Mr. Sanders rather than a stable political conviction.”  

In April 2015, following the discovery of a noose hanging from a tree at Duke University, occurring less than a week after the United States Department of Justice indicted a Georgia man for putting a noose around a civil rights statue at the University of Mississippi, The Christian Science Monitor ran a story, asking “Do colleges have a growing racism problem?”  The piece quoted Ed Dorn, a civil rights history professor at the University of Texas in Austin:  "A lot of people, even of the millennial generation, grew up believing that this country would always look a certain way, and that the people who were in charge of major institutions would always be of a certain color.  But the color line is shifting, and in a few decades this will no longer be a white man's country. That makes them uncomfortable, angry, and anxious."

A 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 58 percent of white Millennials believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem against blacks and other minorities, compared to only 24 percent of black and 39 percent of Hispanic Millennials.

Such feelings of resentment may translate into the marketing realm as well.  In 2014, a study conducted by Florida State University, Research Now, and New American Dimensions found that among socially conservative white Millennials, only a third agreed with the statement “I react positively when I see an ad featuring various ethnicities.”  Additionally, only a quarter felt “there should be more minorities in advertising, and 9 percent stated they “react positively when companies use some Spanish.”

A Total Market strategy clearly makes sense, given the dramatic shift in demographics now occurring in the United States.  Still, as marketers, it behooves us to take a close look at the racial attitudes of white America, and that includes Millennials.  While change is in the air, a true revolution in thinking may be further away than we are often led to believe.

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