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Is The Millennial Generation's Racial Tolerance Overstated?


Let's focus on something we know for sure about Dylann Roof, the suspect in last week's Charleston mass shootings. It's his age. He's 21. That makes him a millennial, a member of a younger generation often celebrated for its racial diversity and tolerance. That same 21-year-old has been seen in photos with a Confederate flag and associated with an online manifesto that talks of white supremacy. In an essay for NPR News, Gene Demby of our Code Switch team argued that the Charleston suspect should complicate our ideas about millennials. Gene is in our studios. Hi, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I should mention, you're a millennial here, and we're talking about your generation, which was called in the Chicago Tribune the most tolerant generation ever. You seem to think that's missing some of the points here.

DEMBY: I am a millennial, and one of the things that people love to say about millennials is that we are especially diverse and especially tolerant on issues of race. And it's something that in polls that millennials say about themselves. There was this big MTV poll last year that found that an overwhelming majority of millennials said that they felt racism was a thing of the past and that having a black president confirmed that belief that race was no longer a barrier to accomplishment. And that was true across all races. But if you dig down in those numbers, you'll find that millennials aren't really that different from older generations in a lot of ways they answer these questions. In some important ways, there's more daylight between millennials of color and white millennials on some of these really big issues.

INSKEEP: Well, dig down in the data for us. What's there?

DEMBY: So, in that MTV survey, for example, 91 percent who were asked the questions about equality said that they believed in equality, that everyone should be treated equally. An overwhelming majority of those respondents said that they thought that never considering race would improve society and that focusing on race prevents society from becoming colorblind.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Being colorblind, or trying to be colorblind, sounds like a good thing.

DEMBY: It does sound like a good thing, but interestingly enough, most of those respondents said they also grew up in homes where they didn't talk about race at all. And that was true for people of color, but that was especially true for white respondents. So then those same young white respondents were nearly twice as likely to tell MTV that they thought the government paid too much attention to the problems of racial minorities than respondents were not white. And they were nearly twice as likely to say that discrimination against white people was now as big a problem as discrimination against people of color. They were also way less likely than people of color to say that white people had more opportunities than people of color. So if these kids are colorblind. Their colorblindness is pretty starkly demarcated by race.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying that white people still see the world very differently than black people or people of color, generally speaking.

DEMBY: Right.

INSKEEP: And the fact that young people think that they don't have to talk about these issues means that they don't really address the problems that remain. That raises a question for me. Do you think this country is actually more divided than it was?

DEMBY: In a lot of really important ways, it is. I mean, our public schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. The racial gap in household wealth has exploded in the years since the housing crisis in 2007. A big study from the Public Religion Research Institute from last year showed that three-quarters of white people had entirely white friend circles. So there are all these experiences in housing and in schooling and in policing that young people would just not share or cross racial lines.

INSKEEP: Oh, which explains why white people and people of color might see the world differently...

DEMBY: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Because they're not interacting nearly as much as we would like to think that people are these days.

DEMBY: Right. That's right. And you can see a kind of magical thinking around these issues, right, that if the younger generations are just more diverse, that a lot of these sort of older historical disparities would just disappear and that we would just sort of cross pollinate our way into a (laughter) of colorblind post-racial future. But it doesn't really explain how we get from just demographic trends to actual substantive change in some of these issues in which there are big divides.

INSKEEP: Gene, thanks.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Gene Demby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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