Here’s why it’s so hard to figure out how Millennials feel about racism

race-todayMillennials have been widely heralded as this country’s most racially tolerant generation, but survey data and current events can sometimes present a conflicting portrait.

A video that showed college fraternity members chanting racist slurs recently sparked national outrage and contradicted that conventional wisdom about Millennial attitudes on racial acceptance.

So, where did that idea come from?

For years, survey data has said that Millennials, generally considered to be age 18 to 34, are the nation’s most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet. More than 40 percent of this generation identifies as non-white, roughly double the proportion that labeled themselves belonging as an ethnic or racial minority in 1980, according to Census data.

Bolstered by data, this flourishing diversity fed the idea that Millennials also are more progressive in terms of their attitudes about race. A pair of often-cited studies — one from the Pew Research Center and another from the Public Religion Research Institute — investigated that claim and walked away with distinctly different findings.

Subtle differences in how questions are framed, asked, and even if a phone is used versus an online survey, may influence the responses people give and how accurately a study can reflect reality, said Michael Link, the president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research and chief methodologist at Nielsen.

In 2010, the Pew Research Center supported the case that Millennials are more racially tolerant when it published a study that surveyed Millennials, Generation X-ers, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation on political and social issues, such as whether or not they approved of President Barack Obama’s job in office or if same-sex marriage should be legal.

The Pew survey also asked members of each generation if they thought that people from different races marrying each other was good for society, bad for society or made no difference.

One-third of Millennials said it was good for society, more than any other living generation. Four years later, that number rose to half of Millennials surveyed who said they thought interracial marriage is good for society, Pew reported.

By contrast, nearly one-fifth of surveyed members of the Silent Generation, who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II, said in 2014 that they felt they thought interracial marriage was good for society.

In a way, responses to this question and others included in the survey help to paint an optimistic picture of how Millennials view race, said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center.

“They seem to be more tolerant and accepting of change in society and not as thrown as older generations,” she said.

But, how does this particular question capture so much in attitudes about race? Why can’t survey researchers just ask people point-blank if they think one race is better than another?

“It’s more personal about the way that people are living their lives,” Parker said. “It gives you a good read on the changing racial and ethnic fabric of the country and how these different generations are reacting to it.”

Parker cautioned, however, that this question is “only really tapping at one dimension of racial attitudes.” For example, if researchers want to gain a better understanding of people’s attitudes about affirmative action, Parker said they would need to ask more targeted questions.

If researchers asked the question more bluntly or with less care on this sensitive issue, they may run the risk of tempting survey respondents to yield to what social scientists call “social desirability.” That is when a respondent offers an answer they think the researcher wants to hear, rather that what they actually think, thus contaminating the resulting study data with insincere responses.

A respondent’s race is another important factor to consider, Parker noted. In the 2010 Pew study, she noted that white Millennials responded to the interracial marriage question differently than non-white Millennials.

“Whites and non-whites view these issues separately, but even among Millennial whites, you see much more progressive attitudes than whites of other generations,” she said.

A similar parallel unfolded in a 2012 study that the Public Religion Research Institute published that also asked Millennials about their attitudes and values.

In it, researchers wanted to gauge people’s opinions about reverse discrimination, asking people to respond to the following statement: “Today, discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

One-fifth of college-age Millennials, ages 18 to 24, said they completely agreed with that statement and another 28 percent said they mostly agreed, PRRI reported.

White and non-white young Millennials responded quite differently to this question, said PRRI Chief Executive Robert P. Jones, but that’s not the only way to compare differences in opinion on a single question.

“It’s all about reverse discrimination, where white Americans feel that the tables have been turned on them,” he said.

For this question, Jones said, a Millennial’s age also mattered.

Interestingly, if you include all Millennial responses to this question through to age 34, the percent of Millennials who agree with the reverse discrimination statement goes down, Jones said.

“One of the things we see is a catalyst for more tolerant views is the experience of college,” he said. “We actually see more accepting, more tolerant views. One of the things that we’re picking up in that 18- to 24-year range is a higher number that haven’t completed a four-year college degree.”

Earning a four-year college degree is a “life experience” that tends to expose young people, regardless of their generation, to new perspectives and worldviews among their peers on a college campus, Jones explained.

However, that makes it “a bit ironic,” he said, given that the recent scandal involving the fraternity chant heavily laced with racial slurs occurred within a college setting.

Regardless, Jones reiterated that Millennials remain the “most diverse generation that the country has ever seen,” both racially and ethnically, and that their response to this question remain far more progressive than older generations.

For example, when presented with the same statement, Jones said that 60 percent of white seniors completely agreed that reverse discrimination was just as bad for whites as for non-whites.

“By whatever measure you want to pull out, Millennials really have rubbed shoulders with difference in a way that older Americans did not have an opportunity to, just sheerly by composition of their generational makeup,” he said.

Whereas the Pew question about interracial marriage was designed to target opinions about racial acceptance, Jones explained that the PRRI question was intended to capture people’s perceptions of discrimination.

Beyond what surveys already reveal about Millennials, opinion pollsters are waiting to see which Millennial ideas are fixed and which ones may evolve as this generation ages, said Link, AAPOR president and Nielsen chief methodologist.

“Do you think these things in your 20s, but then in your 30s, your life changes?” he said. “To me, that’s always a fascinating question, what are those attitudes that are going to persist?”

Ever-changing technology and ways to communicate through social media already have left their marks on this generation in ways no other generation has experienced, he said.

That atmosphere of ubiquitous technology and constant chatting created conditions for the video that captured the University of Oklahoma fraternity’s racist chant that was then shared with the world.

And that environment is what may help society further address racism through “technology-enabled transparency,” said Rob Santos, chief methodologist at the Urban Institute and vice president of the American Statistical Association. He said he thinks Millennials are part of a natural progression of Americans becoming more racially tolerant.

“We’re becoming a more transparent society, whether we like it or not,” Santos said. “To the extent that these things come out more, society will have to fix itself in the ways that individuals interact with each other. The more transparency manifests, the quicker we’re going to become an accepting society.”