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Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.

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Trayvon Martin and Racial Tensions Among College-Age Millennials

Posted: 04/24/2012 1:30 pm

Late last month, college students across the country held rallies and vigils to call attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American who was allegedly shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a white self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Although he was not initially arrested because of Florida's "stand your ground" law, Zimmerman now faces second-degree murder charges. The killing has raised a range of issues, not only about racial profiling and the widely expanded definition of "self-defense," but more generally about the persistence of racism and racial tensions between whites and blacks in the country.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that racial friction exists primarily among older Americans, a new survey shows that the Millennial generation is also marked by complex racial tensions, which may shift, rather than erase, the race-based conflicts that other generations have faced. The 2012 Millennial Values Survey -- conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs -- hones in on college-age Millennials (age 18-24) and paints a complex portrait of a generation that, despite its diversity, demonstrates surprising racial divides on crucial questions about discrimination.

College-age Millennials are considerably more racially and ethnically diverse than the general population: fewer than 6-in-10 (57 percent) of Millennials self-identify as white, compared to 72 percent of the general population. And overall, younger Millennials exhibit warm feelings toward minority groups. When asked to rate African-Americans and Hispanics on a 100-point scale, where ratings between 51 and 100 signaled positive feelings and ratings between 1 and 49 indicated negative feelings, Millennials, on average, gave African-Americans a "67." They reported only slightly cooler feelings toward Hispanics, with an average rating of "62."

But there are deep divides between white and non-white Millennials about the merits of government programs to address racial inequalities, and about whether whites themselves experience significant discrimination.

Overall, almost half of Millennials (46 percent) believe that over the past few decades, the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities, while only slightly more Millennials disagree (49 percent). A majority (56 percent) of white Millennials say that the government has paid too much attention to the problems of black and other minorities, compared to only 24 percent of black Millennials--a gap of more than 30 points.

Similarly, Millennials overall are narrowly divided (48 percent agree, 47 percent disagree) on whether discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, an issue sometimes referred to as "reverse discrimination." There is a nearly identical gap of over 30 points on this question, with 58 percent of white Millennials, compared to only 24 percent of black Millennials, saying that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

These divides run along, and are reinforced by, party lines. This is largely because of the racial disparities within Millennials' party identification. Fewer than half (44 percent) of Democratic Millennials identify as white, while 83 percent of Republican Millennials identify as white.

Nevertheless, while partisanship may bolster these racial divides, there is evidence that education subdues them. A solid majority (57 percent) of Millennials without a high school degree agree that discrimination against whites is an equally significant problem today as discrimination against minorities, compared to only 43 percent of Millennials who have at least a bachelor's degree. Given that only 11 percent of younger Millennials have completed a college degree, these mitigating effects are likely to become more pronounced as more members of this cohort complete their college education.

This snapshot of a generation in transition highlights the depth and persistence of racial tensions in contemporary America. Despite overall acceptance of racial and ethnic minorities, white and non-white Millennials have very different opinions about the magnitude of the problems that minorities continue to face. The debate over Trayvon Martin's killing has, in many ways, magnified the racial issues that have confronted other generations. The findings from the 2012 Millennial Values Survey confirm that despite progress on civil rights and racial equality, these tensions are not confined to older generations.

The 2012 Millennial Values Survey was conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs among a random sample of 2,013 adults age 18 to 24 who are part of the Knowledge Networks' KnowledgePanel, a panel built on a representative random sample of U.S. households. Interviews were conducted online in both English and Spanish between March 7 and March 20, 2012. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is +/- 3.3 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The survey was funded by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation.


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