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The Hidden Racism of Young White Americans

Sean McElwee
PBS Newshour

Recently, chilling videos surfaced online of young University of Oklahoma students, members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, reciting a racially-charged chant. The story appeared surprising for numerous reasons. Among them, education is supposed to reduce racial resentment (or at least temper outward expressions of it), and young people, known as Millennials, are supposed to be uniquely tolerant. The incident offers an opportunity to reevaluate how we think about racism in America, and how we can fight it.

Age Doesn’t Matter

The pervasive narrative about racial change is that it occurs through generations — old racists die out, and new, young, progressive people take their place. This narrative is dubious. Age tells us far less about an individual’s likelihood of expressing racist sentiments than factors like education, geography and race. The data below visualize the percentage of whites in each age group espousing the explicitly racist idea that blacks are not hardworking or intelligent, as well as the percentage who say that blacks face little or no discrimination. Finally, I include the percentage of whites in each age group who say they have “never” felt admiration for blacks. The youngest whites (17-34) are only modestly less likely than the oldest (65+) to say that blacks are lazy (3.6 point difference) or unintelligent (1.5 point difference), but they are also less likely to perceive discrimination against blacks (6.3 point difference) and far less likely to say that have felt admiration for blacks. Compared to the generation immediately before them (white aged 35-49) the youngest whites are slightly more likely to say blacks are lazy (2.4 points) and unintelligent (4.3). In sum, it’s clear that age has little effect on the likelihood that whites hold racially-biased feelings about blacks.