The Obama presidency has left an indelible mark on American society, particularly on the issues of race and racism. Deep and enduring fractures across racial lines have been thrust to the forefront of the national conversation. Even though Obama’s presidency is nearing its end, issues of race continue to dominate the political news cycle, from Donald Trump’s comments about Latinos and Muslims, to Black Lives Matter activists challenging the Democratic candidates on the issue of race. The future of race in America will be defined by today’s youth, and some commentators (including one of us), have expressed skepticism about whether young whites truly hold different views from older whites. However, new data from the 2016 American National Elections Study (ANES) pilot survey suggest that, at least on some dimensions, young whites are quite a bit more racially progressive than their parents.
The ANES, which is widely used by political scientists, conducts national surveys of the American electorate, and has done so in almost every election year since 1948. The 2016 ANES pilot survey is a 1,200 person opt-in online survey performed between January 22nd, 2016 and January 28th 2016. The accuracy of well-designed opt-in panels has been confirmed by leading political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Brian Schaffner (Ansolabehere and Schaffner’s study examines a survey completed by YouGov, the same firm used by the 2016 ANES pilot study). The questions on the 2016 pilot related to race were formulated by a group of scholars (including Jardina) whose expertise is racial attitudes.
Black and Latino issues and identities have been at the forefront of this election cycle. Candidates have discussed racial justice, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Democratic candidates attended a Black and Brown Forum dedicated specifically to discussing issues of import to communities of color. However, the election has also been defined by white identity politics, with GOP nominee Donald Trump appealing to a practically all-white base, including many self-declared white nationalists and even members of the Ku Klux Klan.
But are the prejudices and resentments Trump appeals to shared by whites of all ages? To explore the age gaps on these issues, the ANES asked a battery of questions relating to white identity and racial competition. First: “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” Endorsing this idea has previously been linked to support for Donald Trump. Not all whites are equally likely to adopt this sense of group solidarity, however. The ANES data suggest that older whites are statistically significantly more likely to agree that whites should work to change laws than the youngest whites. Less than a quarter of the youngest whites say it is “very” or “extremely” important to change the laws, compared to nearly half of the oldest whites.
Donald Trump staunchly opposes pro-immigration reform, telling his supporters immigrants are “taking your jobs.” This message seems to resonate more with older voters, who are more likely to agree that it is “very” or “extremely” likely that “many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead.” Twenty percent of young white people say it’s “very” or “extremely” likely, compared with 42 percent of those over 70. As with the question above, the biggest gaps are between the very youngest and oldest whites, suggesting that the Obama era could have led to less racial resentment among young whites, particularly liberals.
The Myth of Reverse Racism
Research by Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers finds that many whites now see “reverse discrimination” as equally important of a problem as actual racism. Research from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that young whites are far more likely to hold this view than young people of color. In 2012, 58 percent of young whites agreed that, “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities.” A YouGov survey shows that whites feel the government does more to help people of color than whites, even though the data suggest this is wholly false.
To explore feelings about who benefits from government services, the ANES survey asked, “In general, does the federal government treat whites better than blacks, treat blacks better than whites, or treat them both the same?” A solid 55 percent of whites over 70 believe that the U.S. federal government—the government that enforced segregation, redlining and mass incarceration during their lifetimes—treats blacks better. A mere 29 percent believe the federal government, which bulldozed black neighborhoods to create more car-friendly cities and originally excluded blacks from Social Security, treaties whites better. By contrast, nearly half of the youngest white believes that government favors whites, and a fifth agree that the government treats blacks better.
Privilege and Guilt
This survey is one of the few nationally-representative surveys that has asked questions about white privilege and guilt. When asked, “How much does being white grant you unearned privileges in today’s society?” more than half of white respondents denied that they had any privilege (and answered “not at all”). There were large age divides: 63 percent of whites 70 or older said “not at all,” compared to only a third of whites aged 18-29. It’s unsurprising then, that one of the starkest results in the battery was on the white guilt questions (after all, if whites have no privilege, why feel guilt?). Respondents were asked a series of questions about whether they feel guilt over their white privilege. One question asks, “When you learn about racism, how much guilt do you feel due to your association with the white race?” The survey also asked whites whether they feel guilt about the privileges and benefits they receive as a white person. A full 86 percent of whites 70 and older report little to no guilt (78 percent say no guilt). A majority (56 percent) of the youngest whites also describe little to no guilt, but only 38 percent say none, a 40 point difference between the youngest and oldest group.
The gaps between the youngest and oldest whites on the white guilt questions were highly significant. Young whites are more likely to feel guilt about white privilege. In response to the question, “how guilty do you feel about the privileges and benefits you receive as a white American?” 84 percent of whites 70 and over said “none,” compared with 45 percent of whites between 18 and 29.
The End of White Grievance Politics
Over the past two decades, our country’s discourse around race has changed dramatically. Conceptions of white identity and guilt have entered the political lexicon. More Americans agree that many social programs have disproportionately benefited whites over time, and government policy worked to create a middle class that excluded people of color. However, very few surveys ask about these questions. The most recent ANES pilot allows for a unique opportunity to examine these attitudes. On these issues, very broad differences emerge. Older whites are more likely to think the government is working against them, and that whites should work together to change these laws. Older whites also feel dispossessed and believe that they are victims of reverse discrimination; unsurprisingly, many of these same whites have been drawn to the white nationalism of Trump.
On questions of privilege and guilt, another pattern emerges. Younger whites are far more likely to agree they themselves have benefited from unjust racism. Young whites are also dramatically more likely to express guilt over racism. This aligns well with the first result: While older whites are aggrieved, younger whites are more attuned to the realities of structural racism. How this will affect society remains to be seen, but it appears that, Donald Trump notwithstanding, there is room for improved discourse on race in American society.
However, there is still much more progress to be made. The fact that young whites are less racially resentful does very little to alleviate the fact that the median net worth for a white family is $134,000 compared to $11,000 for a black family. It does nothing to change the reality that racial segregation in both neighborhoods and schools is still rife and pervasive. But it offers a glimmer of hope: The politics of white grievance that have been so powerfully exploited during the 2016 election may not work with the next generation.