Racism is increasingly unacceptable to most Americans. It’s increasingly unacceptable to conservatives as well as liberals, and among those with and without a college education. But what’s behind the United States becoming a place where racist expression is more and more unpopular are the beliefs and behaviors of the generation born between 1982 and 2003, the millennials.
USC political scientists Morris Levy and Dennis Chong examined 40 years of data gathered by NORC at the University of Chicago in its rigorous and respected General Social Survey to arrive at that conclusion. The survey traces support for the public expression of controversial opinions on topics such as race, sexual orientation, religion and extreme political views. The USC researchers found that starting with the birth of baby boomers, in the mid-1940s, each annual cohort, as those within it became adults, expressed less tolerance toward racist speech than those born just before them. From 1976 to 2016, tolerance for positive expressions about homosexuality, atheism, more militaristic government and communism have all risen among Americans, and tolerance for negative commentary about race has fallen dramatically.
These trends have been produced, in large part, by the increasing numbers of millennials among America’s adult population — and the surveys’ samples — during the last four decades. They reflect a conviction on the part of younger Americans, as Levy and Chong document, that “racist speech is not just an issue of freedom but an affront to the value of equality.”
In other words, Chong and Levy’s findings contradict the usual portrayal of millennials as uncomfortable hearing ideas that differ from their own. Their careful research suggests that the generation’s outsized impact on the U.S. becoming simultaneously more accepting of what older groups considered extreme views (support for homosexuals, for instance) and much less accepting of racist commentary reflects a deep-seated belief in tolerance and inclusivity. As the nation’s most diverse adult generation (2 out of 5 millennials are nonwhite), it is not hard to understand why this cohort would be hostile to negative comments about people like themselves or their family and friends.
These findings have crucial implications for the 2020 presidential election. President Trump has chosen to campaign by making it clear that he sympathizes with those who yearn for a whiter America. Republicans ran a test of this strategy by stoking racial and ethnic fears during the 2018 midterm campaigns, using daily images of immigrant “caravans” threatening to “invade” America’s borders. The result was the loss of 40 GOP seats in the House of Representatives, as college-educated women, minorities and millennials turned out in droves to register their dissatisfaction with the president’s rhetoric as well as his performance in office.
There is nothing in the long-term trends in American public opinion identified by Levy and Chong suggesting that hostility to expressions of racism will lessen any time soon. As recently as July, just 3% of voters in a Quinnipiac survey who thought Trump was a racist were willing to find other reasons to support him. Overall, 51%, a majority, of registered voters surveyed by Quinnipiac assigned him to the racist category, meaning it would be almost impossible for the president to gain their 2020 vote.
Of course, it is too early to predict the outcome of the November 2020 election. Much will depend on who is on the Democratic ticket and what the state of the country is 15 months from now. But as long as Trump continues to use racist rhetoric, betraying his own lack of tolerance for people and ideas he deems “other,” he will be campaigning against a wave of disapproval of hateful speech that threatens to drown him and his presidency.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of three books on the millennial generation and its impact on American politics. They wrote this essay in association with Community Advocates Inc. in Los Angeles.