Millennials and the State of Race in America


Written by Noelia Mann

Interest, scholarship, and opinion pieces focused on the Millennial generation have increased in recent years, as Millennials have finally overtaken Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living population, according to Census Bureau population estimates.

Just last week, the New Yorker ran an article entitled “Where Millennials Come From And Why We Insist on Blaming Them For It” in which staff writer Jia Tolentino mocks the exaggerated generational analysis of recent headlines blaming 18-34 year olds for the death of everything from chain restaurants and hotel-loyalty programs to doorbells and the McDonald’s McWrap. She also quotes Jean M. Twenge ‘s 2014 book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before” which essentially concludes that Millennials “must lower their expectations and dim their glittering self-images in order to become functional adults.”

I am smack dab in the middle of the millennial cohort and share Tolentino’s eye rolling frustration with this over-simplified evaluation consisting almost entirely of the “groundbreaking” idea that young people are selfish, a tune which Tolentino notes generational analysts have been singing since the nineteen sixties.  Moreover, I share her impatience with the argument’s conservative appeal, given its focus on perceived individual failings rather than on the structures and the conditions shaping behavior and forcing adaption.  

However, recent scholarship from GenForward gives me pause. The October 2017 report “The “Woke” Generation? Millennial Attitudes on Race in the US” presents findings from a nationally representative survey of over 1,750 young adults ages 18-24 conducted bimonthly that pays special attention to attitudes about race and ethnicity. Surely, I thought to myself, surveying the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the nation’s history on attitudes about race would offer a glimmer of hope in a generally depressing national and global climate. To categorize the results as “gob smacking”, as Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post recently did, is an understatement.

The majority of white Millennials view Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives as “nothing but racists and totally invalid.” And the majority of white millennials, when faced with the same question regarding the alt-right movement responded, “I just don’t know enough.” The majority of white Millennials (51%) also responded that the Black Lives Matter Movement and white nationalist groups are not very different from one another. Even more shocking is that these findings were gathered after August’s events in Charlottesville where White Nationalists held a “Unite the Right” rally, chanted “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”, carried sub-military firearms, and used a car to murder one peaceful protestor and injure 19 others.

Furthermore, the majority of white Millennials agrees “Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” Furthermore, white Millennials are evenly split on the statement “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”

That African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, that average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families, and that People of Color made up more than half (55%) of the total 32.3 million nonelderly individuals without medical insurance in 2014 all seem to have somehow escaped their attention.

Here I think it is particularly important to note that “White Millennials… are evenly split between supporting government efforts aimed at Latinxs and saying Latinxs should help themselves. It is only when African Americans are the target for assistance form the government that white Millennials make “help themselves” the more cited response.” This statistic is so telling about the kind of racist resentment and anti-Black sentiment underlying our national consciousness. It is exactly this myth of the “underserving” Black American, this “welfare Queen” rhetoric, which has led to the dismantling of the public safety net over the last 40 years of American policy, after its introduction into the national rhetoric on poverty by Ronald Reagan in 1976. And one year ago, it’s what led to the election of Donald Trump.

I think it is also underlying motivation that led 48% of my fellow white Millennials to respond that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities. This is reinforcing by a 2017 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute revealing that nearly half (48%) of all Americans—and a majority (54%) of white Americans—believe that discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Another 2017 survey conducted between Jan. 26-April 9, 2017 by NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health of 902 white U.S. adults shows that 55% of whites say that discrimination against whites exists in America today,

However, the data gathered by the Building Movement Project in the Nonprofits, Leadership and Race survey tell a different story. Of our 4,000 survey respondents from all 50 states, 38% identified as Millennials. Of that 38%, 57% identified as white.  In our survey, we asked the question “Today discrimination against Whites has become as big a problem in the nonprofit sector as discrimination against Blacks and other racial / ethnic minorities.” 88.5% of white millennials strongly/somewhat disagreed. The primary difference between our data sample and GenForward’s, PPRI’s, and that of NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is that we only surveyed individuals currently working in the nonprofit sector.

This vast discrepancy raises many questions about the role of the sector in shaping the opinions of young people, or perhaps attracting the majority of the “woke” white people in my generation. Either way, it does speak to the power of the sector and its responsibility to continue to challenge the pervasive fear of our nation’s increasing diversity. The survey discrepancies also show white millennials in the sector as uniquely positioned to support and lift up the leadership of young people of color who are leading the way towards a more inclusive, hopeful, and equitable future. 

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