skepticism about youth and diversity

Today’s young Americans–the Millennials–think of themselves as remarkably tolerant and appreciative of differences, including differences of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and country of origin. They are conscious that their generation is the most demographically diverse in history and that the public worlds of entertainment and politics have grown more diverse. Young people are extremely unlikely to oppose interracial marriage, to favor segregated neighborhoods, or to say that they wouldn’t vote for a Black presidential candidate. Those are traditional measures of racism–developed in the days of Jim Crow, when whites frequently gave what I would call the racist responses.

But young Americans do not hold particularly liberal views about race and policy, especially in contrast to their strongly liberal views on economic regulation, government support for education, and environmentalism. In last year’s National Election Study, when young white Americans (age 18-29) were asked their opinion about government assistance to Blacks, 59% were against (27% strongly so) and 18% in favor (2% strongly). A small majority (53%) thought the federal government should help Blacks get fair access to jobs.

Young Americans today are less likely to interact regularly with peers across the white/black or white/Hispanic line than they were when I was young. School-level racial segregation has increased. Monoracial religious congregations remain the norm as well. Thus most young white people have “mediated” rather than personal relationships with African Americans and Latinos–via news and entertainment.

I would propose the following rather pessimistic hypothesis. If you grow up in direct, daily contact with people of different races from your own, you may have various complex feelings that include negative prejudices, resentments, and memories of unpleasant experiences. But you may also have a realistic view of racial issues and some commitment to making things better. If, on the other hand, you grow up thinking that your world is highly diverse–but you have little actual contact with people of different races–you can convince yourself that you’re wonderfully tolerant and appreciative. Yet you can have no sense of the difficulty of actually working with people across racial lines.

Two pieces of evidence feed this suspicion. One is research about the negative correlation between perceived discussions of politics and racial diversity. For instance, in a CIRCLE working paper, David Campbell found that, “as the percentage of white students increases, black students are less likely to report that their teachers encourage political discussion in class, and as the percentage of black students increases, white students report less discussion in schools.” Campbell proposes that teachers shy away from controversial issues in diverse classrooms. But I and others have suggested an alternative theory. We think that when classrooms are homogeneous, students think that they have discussed difficult issues. When classrooms are diverse, students know that they have barely scratched the surface.

The second piece of evidence is autobiographical. I attended schools that were quite well integrated in the sense that the numbers of African American and white students were roughly equal. But those schools were internally segregated in terms of social networks, courses, activities, and trajectories after graduation. I think that experience–not uncommon in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was in school–left me with fairly complex but also realistic views about diversity, segregation, and the persistence of racism. I remain pretty self-critical and unsatisfied when it comes to racial issues. I am also quick to reject what I consider simplistic solutions. It worries me that Millennials may lack that sense of struggle.