Millennials see themselves as 'post-racial.' What does that mean?

An MTV survey finds that a majority of Millennials believe racism is fading, and that having a black president signals equal opportunity has arrived. MTV is ready to give them some perspective. 

Andrew Kelly/Reuters
People celebrate as they watch US President Barack Obama's acceptance speech broadcast live in Times Square following his re-election in New York in 2012.

A majority of young people believe racism is more a problem for previous generations than it is for their own. And most young people – 73 percent of whites, 66 percent of nonwhites – say they don’t see racial minorities any differently than they see white people, according to a survey conducted for the youth-oriented cable network MTV.

That suggests a generation that sees itself as “post-racial,” MTV reports.

Perhaps most strikingly, a majority of those surveyed, who range in age from 14 to 24, agree that “having a black president demonstrates that racial minorities have the same opportunities as white people.” Among young white people, the figure was 64 percent, and among young people of color, it was 58 percent.

“Millennials,” as today’s teens and young adults are known, are under the microscope on a range of matters, from their political views and financial prospects to media consumption habits. But on equality issues – not just on race, but also gender and sexual orientation – young people present a hopeful picture, though perhaps in need of context. 

“Millennials are the most diverse generation in history, and it’s inspiring to see how equality and fairness serve as their bedrock values,” says Stephen Friedman, president of MTV, in a statement. “However, that very faith in equality can also cloud their perception of historical and institutional inequities.”  

One example of this “cloudy perception” is the belief by half of white Millennials that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against people of color, the network notes.  

MTV conducted the survey in preparation for a multiyear campaign called “Look Different,” which aims to prepare young people to counter what the network calls “the hidden racial, gender, and anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) biases all around us.” The “Look Different” campaign includes on-air content, including a documentary-style program called “Untitled Whiteness Project,” and social-media outreach.

The survey results on race are especially timely, in light of recent events. Last week, a Nevada rancher famous for his refusal to pay federal grazing fees alienated many supporters by suggesting blacks were better off as slaves. On Tuesday, the owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling, was banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million after the league determined it was his voice on a recording in which ugly racial comments were made.

In the Supreme Court last week, emotions were high when a majority of justices upheld a ban on affirmative action in Michigan public universities. An impassioned Justice Sonia Sotomayor read portions of her 58-page dissent from the bench, decrying “this refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters.” She implicitly criticized Chief Justice John Roberts, who in 2007 said: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

MTV’s research included two surveys, one with 2,000 young people taken between Feb. 24 and March 2, and another taken April 4-9 with 1,000 young people. The surveys were conducted by David Binder Research of San Francisco.

The surveys found that while Millennials have a “universal belief in equality,” they experience the real world differently, depending on race.

On the statement, “My race is well-represented in the media,” 64 percent of white respondents agreed, versus only 33 percent of people of color. Some 63 percent of white Millennials agreed that “racial minorities use racism as an excuse more than they should,” while 52 percent of nonwhite Millennials agreed.

The survey did not ask specifically about affirmative action, but alluded to it in some questions.

Majorities of white and nonwhite respondents agreed that “it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.” Among white Millennials, 75 percent agreed, as did 65 percent of nonwhites.

Another statement presented the “racial preference” concept differently: “Because of historical inequalities, it is sometimes more fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another.” Among whites, 22 percent agreed; 30 percent of people of color agreed.

On the question of how Millennials view their generation versus past generations on racial matters, there was a slight difference of opinion between whites and nonwhites. Among white Millennials, 58 percent agreed that “racism is more of a problem for other generations than it is for my generation,” while 51 percent of nonwhites agreed with that statement.

On the leadership question, 61 percent of white Millennials said that as their generation moves into leadership roles, racism will become “less and less of an issue,” while 54 percent of nonwhite Millennials held that view.

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