Unpacking Millennials’ Racial Attitudes

By Nick Davis (@ntdPhD)

A few days back, DfP proclaimed that Millennials were helping to kill incorrect beliefs about the racism industry. Interpreting this statement is pretty straightforward. Looking at a measure of “racial resentment,” Millennials appear more sensitive to institutional discrimination than their older peers. Given what we know about the link between racial attitudes and voting – people who perceive institutional discrimination as a problem are more likely to vote for Democrats – that’s a serious assertion.

Political scientists, sociologists, and historians have been interested in the study of racial attitudes for the better part of seven or eight decades (see: here and, more recently, here and this forthcoming book). The long story short is this: most of the folks working in this space are sensitive to the problems that plague measurement approaches to racism. From social desirability tendencies to measurement invariance to shifting social mores to questions about overlap with traditional measures of ideology, trying to track (white) Americans’ attitudes about race is tricky – and it is even more difficult to chart changes in these attitudes over time. Almost all social scientists rely on omnibus surveys that have a history of asking the same (not-ideal) questions annually. This tendency is problematic in the sense that construct validity is essential to drawing valid conclusions, but the upshot is that such measures provide a sense of how attitudes shift over the years.

These issues are serious, and I’m not waving them away. In particular, apprehension about the relationship between conventional liberal-conservative ideological self-placement and racial resentment is real.

To me, however, the more interesting question remains this: Concerns about construct interpretation notwithstanding, do Millennials report different attitudes toward minorities and discrimination than persons from older generations?

In the case of perceptions of institutional discrimination, the answer is yes, across multiple measures.

Let’s begin with American National Election Studies data from the 2016 Time-Series study. We’ll be looking at a series of items that we can break into three separate indices.

Institutional discrimination

  • In general, do the police treat whites or blacks better?  

  • In general, does the federal government treat whites or blacks better?  

  • How much discrimination is there in the United States today against blacks?

  • Would you say that blacks have too much or too little influence in American politics?  

Racial resentment

  • Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

  • Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve.

  • It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites

  • Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

Racial stereotypes (sometimes labeled “old-fashioned racism”)

  • Rate the following groups on a seven-point scale: Are blacks lazy or hard-working?

  • Rate the following groups on a seven-point scale: Are blacks peaceful or violent?

Whether or not breaking these items apart is appropriate is a measurement question suitable for confirmatory factor analysis. In a separate working paper, my colleague Chris Weber and I explore the structure of these attitudes and their relationship to democratic preferences. We find that the three constructs I want to explore here are, indeed, separable. The results of that analysis are appended below, but I want to make two points of clarification before moving forward. First, it is worth noting that perceptions of institutional inequality / discrimination and racial resentment are very closely related. Second, if these items reflect “cognitive awareness” of institutional racism, then what’s missing from the picture is “empathy” toward the costs racism (see here for an explanation for why that is important). The ANES doesn’t include any such items, but the WTHH survey did. I’ll return to this at the end of the post.

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Building on these distinctions, I generate separate factors for each of the indices and rescale them to range from 0 to 1, where higher values are associated a willingness to place personal blame on black individuals for differences in racial outcomes or associate negative stereotypes with them  (I would call this “animus,” but it is not clear that this is exactly that). The following graph breaks these measures down by age cohort and plots mean scores across age groups (note: as is often customary, I restrict this initial analysis to white respondents only). Among perceptions of institutional discrimination and racial resentment, white Millennials score lower than their older peers. The implication? White Millennials are more cognizant of the historical legacies of institutionalized racism.

When it comes to racial stereotypes, white Millennials’ scores are indistinguishable from Gen Xers or Boomers, but the modal response is a modest rejection of gross stereotypes when you examine the untransformed, original survey question. Make what you will of the lowest scores belonging to those of the Silent Generation.


This figure, however, only explores white respondents’ attitudes across the constructs. First, we ought to ask how these measures look across racial groups (even granting that these questions are potentially not answered in similar ways by non-white persons). Second, we ought to pull this apart by education, which research implies could lead to more open or closed attitudes. This latter point is important because one (uncharitable) criticism lobbied at the general pattern of findings here is that white, educated Millennials delude themselves into thinking they are “woke” when they are not.

Beginning with scores on these scales across a blunt racial dichotomy (white, non-white respondents), we observe that there are clear differences in the trajectory of responses. On the institutional discrimination index, there are no apparent generational differences for non-white respondents. This makes some sense: one would assume that all racial minorities in America are well-aware of the institutionalized challenges they face. Among whites, however, Millennials are more likely than Boomers, for example, to perceive that government is responsible for racial inequalities. The pattern is similar with respect to racial resentment, and, again, racial stereotypes are the category with least stratification among age cohorts.


The next figure, however, introduces considerably more nuance to this story. To be sure, non-white persons are more sensitive to institutional discrimination than white ones. However, college-educated whites are less than half of a standard deviation in mean IDI scores from college-educated, non-white respondents. In the case of racial resentment, college-educated whites and non-college-educated, non-whites are indistinguishable across the cohorts. While differences between college-educated white and non-white Millennials exist with respect to IDI scores, these differences are more modest in the context of racial resentment. Here, college-education white and non-white Millennials are closer than non-college and college-educated whites. However, on the gross racial stereotypes scale we see few compelling differences that would challenge conclusions about racial affect and age.


To this point, we’ve primarily looked at “awareness” or “recognition” with respect to institutional discrimination or inequalities. Some of the research cited above, however, argues that empathy about the costs of or anger towards racism is a missing piece of the puzzle with respect to studying racial attitudes and the implications thereof.

The WTHH survey included one such measure, and I again break responses out by both race and education. Unlike the earlier items, we see few differences across the variable -- whether by racial, educational, or age group (the wide 95% confidence interval bands overlap prominently). However, consider that the modal response across groups implies that all persons answering the instrument conveyed that they were angry racism exists. In this sense, Millennials are no more or less different than older persons.


Stepping back from this conversation about the measurement of racial attitudes in a vacuum, I’d like to consider why these differences might matter in a more concrete or applied manner. Here, I’ll conclude with a final example from the WTHH survey about the policy implications that generational differences on racial matters may have. This polling suggests that millennials are much more likely to support ending cash bail -- a policy that has clear racial implications -- than Boomers. As the figure below illustrates, racial and educational differences on attitudes toward cash bail are modest, at best. Instead, there are clear generational differences among respondents, with Millennials most open to removing a policy that jails more persons without a conviction than other countries’ entire incarcerated populations. While this is but one policy, it is not something to gloss over. (For what it is worth: additional analysis of the closest instrument to approximate affirmative action in the WTHH survey -- FAVORS -- also suggests that Millennials are not hostile toward institutional assistance to remedy past prejudices.)


The point of this exercise isn’t to pat (white) Millennials on the back for being “woke.” Millennials don’t need a participation trophy here. Nevertheless, I believe that there are some important implications we can draw from this exercise. First, (white) Millennials are uniformly more open to the realities of institutional discrimination than their older peers. Second, more broadly, their attitudes are always on the “more generous to institutional explanations of harm” side of the response spectrum. Third, by extension, this has serious implications for thinking about the political consequences of these attitudes. Political preferences are correlated with these racial attitudes, and such opinions could portend a nontrivial pivot among Millennials leftward on matters related to justice (for a deep-dive on Millennials see this new book). This is especially interesting given that 2020 Democratic nominees are reportedly getting serious about talking about racial inequalities. While older persons are still more likely to vote than younger ones, these trends have interesting implications that are worth taking seriously.

Nick Davis (@ntdPhD) is an Assistant Research Scientist at the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. You can find some of his other professional work at nicholastdavis.com.

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