News about race in America these days is almost universally negative. Longstanding wealth, income and employment gaps between whites and people of color are increasing, and tensions between police and minority communities around the country are on the rise. But many claim there’s a glimmer of hope: The next generation of Americans, they say, is “post-racial”—more tolerant, and therefore more capable of easing these race-based inequities. Unfortunately, closer examination of the data suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it.
In 2010, a Pew Research report trumpeted that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” In the Chicago Tribune, Ted Gregory seized on this to declare millennials “the most tolerant generation in history.” These types of arguments typically cling to the fact that young people are more likely than their elders to favor interracial marriage. But while millennials are indeed less likely than baby boomers to say that more people of different races marrying each other is a change for the worse (6 percent compared to 14 percent), their opinions on that score are basically no different than those of the generation immediately before them, the Gen Xers, who come in at 5 percent. On interracial dating, the trend is similar, with 92 percent of Gen Xers saying it’s “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” compared to 93 percent of millennials.
Furthermore, these questions don’t really say anything about racial justice: After all, interracial dating and marriage are unlikely to solve deep disparities in criminal justice, wealth, upward mobility, poverty and education—at least not in this century. (Black-white marriages currently make up just 2.2 percent of all marriages.) And when it comes to opinions on more structural issues, such as the role of government in solving social and economic inequality and the need for continued progress, millennials start to split along racial lines. When people are asked, for example, “How much needs to be done in order to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality?” the gap between white millennials and millennials of color (all those who don’t identify as white) are wide. And once again, millennials are shown to be no more progressive than older generations: Among millennials, 42 percent of whites answer that “a lot” must be done to achieve racial equality, compared to 41 percent of white Gen Xers and 44 percent of white boomers.
The most significant change has been among nonwhite millennials, who are more racially optimistic than their parents. (Fifty-four percent of nonwhite millennials say “a lot” must be done, compared with 60 percent of nonwhite Gen Xers.) And this racial optimism isn’t exactly warranted. The racial wealth gap has increased since the 2007 financial crisis, and blacks who graduate from college have less wealth than whites who haven’t completed high school. A new paper by poverty experts Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank estimates that whites are 6.74 times more likely to enter the top 1 percent of the income distribution ladder than nonwhites. And Bhashkar Mazumder finds that 60 percent of blacks whose parents were in the top half of income distribution end up in the bottom, compared with 36 percent of whites.
As to how well whites and nonwhites get along, only 13 percent of white millennials say “not well at all,” compared with 31 percent of nonwhite millennials. (Thirteen percent of white Gen Xers and 32 percent of nonwhite Gen Xers agree.)
In a 2009 study using American National Election Studies—a survey of Americans before and after each presidential election—Vincent Hutchings finds, “younger cohorts of Whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.” My own analysis of the most recent data reveals a similar pattern: Gaps between young whites and old whites on support for programs that aim to further racial equality are very small compared to the gaps between young whites and young blacks.
And even though the gaps within the millennial generation are wide, as with the Pew data, there is also evidence that young blacks are more racially conservative than their parents, as they are less likely to support government aid to blacks.
Spencer Piston, professor at the Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, used ANES data and found a similar pattern on issues relating to economic inequality. He examined a tax on millionaires, affirmative action, a limit to campaign contributions and a battery of questions that measure egalitarianism. He says, “the racial divide (in particular the black/white divide) dwarfs other divides in policy opinion. Age differences in public opinion are small in comparison to racial differences.” This finding is, he adds, “consistent with a long-standing finding in political science.” Piston finds that young whites have the same level of racial stereotypes as their parents.
There is reason for an even deeper worry: The possibility that the veneer of post-racial America will lead to more segregation. The post-racial narrative, when combined with deep structural racism, leads to what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists,” a system where racial gaps persist less because of explicit discrimination and more because of structural factors—things like the passage of wealth from generation to generation or neighborhoods that remain segregated because of past injustices.
We can see numerous examples of how the post-racial rhetoric is hampering a racial justice agenda. In Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District, a 2007 case in which two school boards were sued for using racial quotas to ensure that schools were diverse, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This reasoning is pervasive in his decisions. When the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Roberts wrote that the country “has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” The results were immediate: Across the country, states began putting up barriers to voting, which the finds disproportionately affect black voters. Political scientists Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have concluded that the laws are indeed motivated by a desire to reduce black turnout—all proving that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right when she noted in her dissent that the logic of the decision was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
It’s possible that the court will use the same “post-racial” logic someday for affirmative action, too. Or to strike down the Federal Housing Administration’s ban on housing actions that have a “disparate impact” on African-Americans, such as exclusionary zoning or lending practices that disproportionately penalize people of color. This is particularly important since the most important impediment to black upward mobility is neighborhood poverty.
The conservative stance on racism is to deny structural racism exists and therefore deny that the solution to racism lies in structural changes. Instead, conservatives view the way to end racial disparities as simply ignoring the issue and treating everyone equally. While this sentiment sounds nice, it means that children who are born into poverty and face structurally racist housing, criminal justice and education systems will never have equal opportunity. The conservative view was once lambasted by 19th-century economist Henry George as “insist[ing] that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.”
Yet many millennials subscribe to this view, with an MTV/David Binder poll finding only 39 percent of white millennials believe “white people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups.” By contrast, 65 percent of people of color feel that whites have differential access to jobs and other opportunities. Further, 70 percent of all millennials say “it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.”
And the irony is that having a black president has made this failure to acknowledge structural barriers to opportunity worse. Numerous studies find that the election of President Barack Obama has made whites, particularly young whites, sanguine about racial disparities in America. One study surveyed 509 people of all races before and after the 2008 election about their perceptions of discrimination against blacks. The youngest third in the sample were 11.7 percent less likely to perceive discrimination in the wake of Obama’s election than they were before, while the oldest third was 8.5 percent less likely. A study of college students at the University of Washington, also based on surveys before and after the 2008 election, finds that those polled were less likely to see the need for continued racial progress after Obama’s election. In the recent MTV study cited above, 62 percent of millennials (58 percent of people of color, 64 percent of whites) agreed that “having a Black President demonstrates that racial minority groups have the same opportunities as white people.”
A 2012 Public Religion Institute poll found that 58 percent of white millennials say discrimination affects whites as much as it affects people of color. Only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of African-American millennials agree.
This is disturbing for the future of race in America. The Roberts vision of radical colorblindness has irreparably harmed racial progress. If young Americans buy into his vision of a colorblind society—and a large literature suggests they do—white America and black America will diverge further, creating a permanent underclass in which people of color are denied equitable access to the American dream.