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Millennials and the great reckoning on race

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Some of the oldest Millennials, myself included, are now coming of age into real, honest-to-goodness adulthood. Along the way, Millennials have endured ridicule as the entitled, narcissistic, app-obsessed, participation-trophy generation. And now – look at us! – we’re finally adults, or whatever.

With age comes wisdom (sometimes) and power (rarely). For many of us, important milestones and even bigger life goals have been delayed, first due to the Great Recession and then due to our own version of the Great Pandemic. But we are still leaving our own impact on society even as we struggle through it. Millennials have been at the forefront of the most important issues of the 21st century, including climate consciousness and the fight against racial and economic inequality. Our elders tried to stick us with four more years of President Trump, and we emphatically said “no” (you’re welcome).

Demographically, Millennials are now the most educated and the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in the U.S. Many have suggested that these characteristics will lead to the most racially tolerant generation in history. Some call this post-racial. Survey research on the racial attitudes and beliefs of Millennials supports this notion, showing Millennials have lower levels of racial prejudice than any generation before them.

However, actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, the actions of Millennials in recent research I conducted, with Raj Ghoshal of Elon University, suggest that Millennials still engage in racial discrimination and hold deep-seated racial prejudices and stereotypes. Let’s hold off on passing out the participation trophies for a moment.

To examine the actions of Millennials, we conducted a field experiment similar to those used with regularity over the past few decades to detect discrimination among employers, real estate agents and bureaucrats. We responded to advertisements posted by Millennials looking for roommates in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. In major urban areas, the cost of living can be high enough that young people must live with roommates in order to afford rent. This decision-making process – choosing whom you might potentially live with – systematically gives Millennials power and provides a moment at which we can observe how Millennials treat others on the basis of race.

We sent emails to roommate seekers and pretended to be individuals from different racial/ethnic backgrounds by signing our emails with names such as Ebony Washington and Riya Patel. We then waited to see who responded to us.

The results were staggering, amounting to what I refer to as the “rainbow of discrimination.” Whites came out on top, Asians and Hispanics in various parts of the middle, with Black room-seekers at the bottom. For every 10 responses a white name received, a Black name received only six. Moreover, Asian and Hispanic room-seekers were more likely to receive responses – often as many as their white counterparts – if they had a white first name (think Melissa Hernandez versus Alejandra Hernandez).

More troubling, this version of racial discrimination does not just mean that Black room-seekers have to work harder than whites and send more inquiries to find living space in big cities. In an extension of this work, with UCLA graduate student Nick DiRago, we find that Black room-seekers are likely to be segregated into worse neighborhoods with higher levels of property and violent crime with neighbors who have lower levels of education and income. Thus, Black room-seekers are doubly penalized because they receive fewer responses to their inquiries and the responses they do receive are in worse neighborhoods.

Researchers, including myself, have documented the existence of racial discrimination among other generations for decades. Lincoln Quillian, a sociologist at Northwestern University, along with the late Devah Pager and other colleagues recently found that the level of racial discrimination in hiring against Black jobseekers has stayed relatively steady since at least the late 1980s. However, finding early evidence that Millennials engage in racial discrimination is still disappointing.

Still, it is unlikely that the vast majority of Millennials are consciously overtly racist. In a new book, political scientists Christopher D. Desante and Candis Watts Smith argue that white Millennials are less emotionally invested in taking an active role against racism because they have been exposed to less overt racism than previous generations. Moreover, while the researchers find that white Millennials do have more positive racial attitudes that should lead to broader societal change, their persistent belief that racism occurs mostly at an individual level puts society in a “racial stasis.”

In many ways, the belief in a “colorblind” society by white Millennials is only marginally different than and perhaps equally harmful as the denial of systemic racism of previous generations. Sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Victory Ray have made convincing arguments that one of the most insidious parts of race relations in the 21st century has been our refusal to acknowledge that racism is wielded and empowered by institutions and organizations. Highlighting this problem, in her work on discrimination and inequality in housing, sociologist Elizabeth Korver-Glenn finds that Black homebuyers and sellers are disadvantaged at nearly every stage of the process, from finding a real estate agent to closing a transaction, due to common organizational practices.

In a survey experiment that further extends our work, we examine why white Millennials engage in racial discrimination during the roommate selection process. We ask respondents to imagine themselves in a scenario where they are looking for a roommate to fill a vacant spot in their apartment. We then show them a potential email (one we actually sent in the field experiment) and ask them to rate the email sender on a series of characteristics, including financial stability, responsibility, courteousness and cultural compatibility. The results show that white Millennials believe college educated Black Millennials with full-time employment are less financially stable, responsible and courteous than white Millennials. These findings highlight the damage done through meso- and macro-level processes such as pervasive racial stereotypes, segregation within education through tracking and racialized organizational cultures.

Millennials must engage with the reality of race in our society. Denying the larger structural forces likely limits our ability to think critically about our own actions, which are shaped by implicit attitudes. We cannot possibly be racist if we voted for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. We cannot possibly be racist if we took to the streets in the summer of 2020 and post #blacklivesmatter all over social media. And yet, racism, discrimination and inequality persist all around us.

I believe the future of this generation – and our society – hangs in the balance. How we as a society address racial inequality and injustice depends on whether we believe it’s a systemic institutionalized problem or simply an individualized micro-level phenomenon. Belief in the former means addressing the root causes. Belief in the latter guarantees minimal support for broader policy to enact and support real change.

Acknowledging that one’s actions and beliefs are part of a broader problem is a hard truth. Fortunately, I believe that this is a challenge that Millennials are uniquely positioned to accept and conquer. It is hard to deny the challenges faced by this generation and the progress made so far. I hope I am right, but if I am wrong, I’m sure that someone will tell me they are proud of me and hand me a participation trophy.

S. Michael Gaddis, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA. His research focuses on racial discrimination, educational inequality and mental health. Follow him on Twitter @smgaddis.

Tags Barack Obama Demographics Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Institutional racism Joe Biden Millennials race and society Racism

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