It’s hard not to be pessimistic about the future of race in a country where a soon-to-be presidential nominee is appealing to white nationalists. But there’s increasing evidence that the youngest Americans are the least likely to buy into Donald Trump’s racism.
We looked at data from the American National Election Study 2016 pilot survey, which surveyed 1,200 respondents in January to explore attitudes about race across generations. We found that the youngest generation of Americans (those aged 18-29) is significantly more racially liberal on many key issues than the last generation.
The 2016 election has been defined almost entirely by a rise of virulent racist rhetoric by Trump. His campaign has appealed to many white people who worry about reverse discrimination, think political correctness has gone too far, and agree with his racially charged rhetoric.
But older people are more likely to buy it than young people. On a wide variety of issues, the youngest generation of voters is more likely to reject the racist style that increasingly defines American politics.
To take just one example: In 2011, Trump fueled rumors that President Obama was born in Kenya and is Muslim. Older voters are much more likely to believe this rumor: A stunning half (54%) of white survey respondents 70 and older said that Obama is a Muslim, compared with only 19% of young whites—still far too many, but significantly fewer.
Young people favor more inclusive language
Trump supporters lament what they see as America’s misguided preoccupation with “political correctness,” but it seems clear that more inclusive language is increasingly an accepted social value.
The public has little sympathy for celebrities like Paula Deen and Donald Sterling who spew overtly racist invective. But which Americans are driving the “politically correct” backlash, and which advocate for language that is sensitive to many groups in society?
One explanation for this divide is age. (Another is views on discrimination). The youngest Americans are more likely to agree with the idea that language should be more inclusive, while older Americans largely reject that idea, saying society is too “easily offended.” Among young whites, 46% believe language should change, compared with a quarter of whites over 50.
It may be politically beneficial to play on fears of an overly “politically correct” society, but these trends suggest that this strategy is less likely to work with young people.
Young white people are less likely to believe in ‘reverse discrimination’
Another way to measure racial attitudes is by asking white people how much discrimination they think certain racial or ethnic groups experience, including their own.
These questions can indicate how much white people believe they are experiencing “reverse discrimination.”
While 38% of white people between 18 and 29 say that white people face “no discrimination at all,” the number among white people 50 and above is less than half that. Only a third of young white people say there is a “moderate amount,” “a lot” or a “great deal” of discrimination against whites, compared with more than half of whites 70 or older.
But as the chart below shows, young white people are still more likely than young people of color to believe that white people face discrimination. These gaps are far larger among the oldest groups, in which white people perceive far more discrimination than people of color.
Young people are less likely to endorse anti-Latino attitudes
We also explored anti-Latino and anti-immigrant attitudes among young people because Trump has frequently used racist attacks on Latinos to build political support. Here, too, we found that young people were less likely to express bias.
The first question we examined asked, “Does the idea of a Latino person being president of the United States make you feel extremely pleased, very pleased, moderately pleased, a little pleased, or not pleased at all?”
Among white people 70 and older, a third reported that they would not be pleased at all, compared with 11% of white people between the ages of 18 and 29.
Another question asked: “When people from other countries legally move to the United States to live and work, is this generally good for the U.S., generally bad for the U.S., or neither good nor bad?”
Young white people were the most likely to say it was good, and among those who said it was bad, the youngest were the least likely to say it was “extremely bad.” These data suggest young people are more comfortable with immigration and increasing diversity.
Young people and Trump
We found that young people, white and overall, have dramatically colder feelings toward Trump, an avatar for the sort of white reactionary politics we argue that young people are less likely to support.
Among white people 70 and older, Trump is just above the halfway point on the feeling thermometer (which runs from 0 to 100), but among white people 18 to 29, the average rating is 31 “degrees.” These differences in support for Trump between white people 18 to 29 years old and older generations are statistically significant.
Our findings are supported by other data sources: a recent Pew Survey finds that young whites are more likely to acknowledge the existence of white privilege and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
While negative stereotypes about black people and other racial groups seem to persist across generations of white Americans, the trends described here suggest that the youngest generation of white people is much less conservative when it comes to many other dimensions of racial attitudes. While we can’t say for sure why young people are less likely to express racist attitudes, there are several possible explanations.
Not only has this group of white people come of age during the racial backlash to President Obama, but they are also one of the most educated cohorts, and able to benefit from the liberalizing effects of education on racial attitudes.
The increase in prominent black, Latino and Asian-American actors, activists, politicians, and celebrities openly discussing racial justice has also had an effect on young people.
And the Democratic Party has paid more attention to racial justice, which has helped pull progressives to concern themselves more deeply with the issues.
A recent piece in Mic showed that young, liberal white people have become far more likely to reject racial resentment.
It seems that the youngest white people of voting age are noticeably more sympathetic to the need for racial justice and more likely to accept structural narratives about race. Trump may win the GOP nomination, but his style of politics has probably lost the future.
Ashley Jardina is an assistant professor of political science at Duke University.
Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos Action.