Research Findings

Despite positive racial attitudes, racial discrimination is prevalent among millennials

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March 4, 2021

Millennials are the most educated and the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in the U.S. This has led to ongoing hope and hype that Millennials are the turning-point generation in racial/ethnic relations. 

Many have long believed that Millennials will grow up, spread racial tolerance and pro-diversity views in workplaces, and begin work to fix a deeply broken system. Perhaps the post-racial revolution is upon us?

While some survey research on Millennials’ racial attitudes and beliefs supports this notion, our recently published research in Socius presents a less optimistic view.

The broader literature suggests that sensitive topics like racial attitudes and beliefs can be hard to gauge accurately with surveys. Respondents are likely to answer survey questions in a socially desirable manner, which means that they may lie to avoid looking racist or may express explicit views that can be affected by implicit bias when turned into actions.

Researchers began earnestly using correspondence audits during the past decade to prevent social desirability bias from distorting scientific knowledge on racial discrimination. 

Correspondence audits generally refer to a field experiment in which a researcher randomizes one or more characteristics of hypothetical individuals and sends some correspondence (e.g., job applications, emails) out into the real world to examine how individuals in positions of power (e.g., employers, real estate agents, bureaucrats) respond to these individuals. 

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a correspondence audit was conducted by economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan in the early 2000s. The researchers responded to job advertisements placed in Boston and Chicago newspapers using names to signal White or Black job applicants. They found that employers were significantly less likely to respond to Black job-seekers’ applications than White job-seekers.

In our research, we wanted to go beyond survey questions of racial attitudes and test whether Millennials engage in racial/ethnic discrimination in real-world contexts when they are unaware that they are research subjects. Millennials do not yet wield broad decision-making power in any standard contexts, such as hiring or renting apartments, normally used in research examining discrimination. Thus, we decided to examine the process of selecting a roommate. 

Over 15 million people currently live with unrelated/non-romantic partner roommates, and two-thirds of those people are Millennials. In major urban areas, the cost of living can be high enough that young people must live with roommates to afford rent. 

This decision-making process – choosing whom you might potentially live with – systematically gives Millennials power and provides a moment at which we can observe how Millennials treat others based on race and ethnicity.

To examine Millennials’ actions, we conducted our correspondence audit by sending over 4,000 emails responding to “roommate wanted” ads posted on Craigslist, using names that signaled an array of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. We found a tiered pattern of discrimination, amounting to what we refer to as the “rainbow of discrimination.”

Whites came out on top, Asians and Hispanics in various parts of the middle, with Black room-seekers at the bottom. Black room-seekers received responses at a rate of about 31.9% compared to 53.0% for White room-seekers. 

Moreover, Asian and Hispanic room-seekers were more likely to receive responses – often as many as their White counterparts – if they had White first names (e.g., Melissa Hernandez versus Alejandra Hernandez). In other research, we found that Arab American room-seekers were treated as poorly as Blacks.

More troubling, this version of racial discrimination does not just mean that Black room-seekers have to work harder than Whites and send more inquiries to find living space in big cities. 

In an extension of this work (with UCLA graduate student Nick DiRago), we find that Black room-seekers are likely to be segregated into worse neighborhoods with higher levels of property and violent crime and neighbors who have lower levels of education and income. 

Thus, Black room-seekers are doubly penalized because they receive fewer responses to their inquiries, and the responses they do receive are in worse neighborhoods.

Is the post-racial revolution upon us? Our research and recent research from political scientists Christopher D. DeSante and Candis Watts Smith suggest no. Thus, we should not assume that large-scale changes in racial inequality are on the horizon. Millennials’ words and actions are not in alignment, and their actions suggest continued anti-blackness in the U.S. 

Our ongoing work in this area suggests that Millennials’ racial discrimination is driven by implicit bias and pervasive negative stereotypes. It seems likely that macro- and meso-level social processes such as racialized organizations and pervasive racial sorting and segregation in multiple dimensions of American life work to perpetuate discrimination at the individual level, even in a generation sometimes hailed for its “post-racial” attitudes.

Can we work to reduce racial bias, prejudice, and discrimination? Organizations seeking to maximize the benefits of diversity – and avoid bad publicity and lawsuits – have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on efforts to address this issue. 

Unfortunately, very little of this effort has been guided by empirical research on effectiveness. Concerningly, as Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev point out, most implementations of antibias and diversity training do not produce lasting attitude change and probably fail to increase diversity. 

Other research suggests that increasing contact and empathy with others may reduce implicit bias. Unfortunately, our research shows that even highly educated young people may not accept opportunities to increase such contact.

Given the limitations of some intuitive and popular fixes, what can be done? While acknowledging the scale of this task, we suggest that both organizational and individual-level actions retain some promise. 

In the sharing economy, organizations could reduce the opportunities for users to engage in racial discrimination. For example, Airbnb adjusted their process by removing photos and names during initial interactions between users on the website. This change was the result of multiple racial discrimination lawsuits (disclaimer: Gaddis was a consultant for the plaintiffs on some of these lawsuits).

Additionally, organizations that set specific diversity goals, develop targeted recruitment and mentoring programs, and make clear commitments to diversity yet give employees some autonomy in how exactly they contribute seem to fare best in retaining and promoting more diverse workforces, which in turn tend to see less discrimination and greater equality.

There is room for action by individuals as well. In 2020, 15 million or more Americans of all races joined Black Lives Matter protests, suggesting some willingness by Whites and others to affect change. 

We encourage those moved by that cause to consider what anti-racist steps they could take in their personal lives. Taking an implicit association test, engaging with moviestelevision, or books that address these themes, or enrolling in a class on race may be valuable first steps.

None of this is to dismiss the importance of government action. For the vast majority of American history, our government aggressively promoted racial domination; its steps to remedy injustice have been tepid by comparison. 

It is only through a multi-pronged, sustained, and collective effort that discrimination and inequality will be significantly reduced. 

Read More

S. Michael Gaddis and Raj Ghoshal. “Searching for a Roommate: A Correspondence Audit Examining Racial/Ethnic and Immigrant Discrimination among Millennials.” in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 2020.

Image: StateFarm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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