Don’t Call Them “Post-Racial”: The Millennial Generation Speaks Out About Race

Editor’s note: This is the executive summary for a new study from the Applied Research Center. Also included are quotes from participants in the study. You can download the full report here.

The “Millennial Generation” (born post-1980, ages 18-30) is the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation of individuals the United States has ever known. Unsurprisingly, public opinion surveys provide evidence that young people are more open-minded than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations about inter-racial friendships and relationships.

However, too many journalists, political commentators and even researchers read too much into this inter-racial open-mindedness and label young people today as “post-racial,” either explicitly or implicitly.

Combined with Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, recognition of the national demographic changes we are currently experiencing through millennials has fed into a common narrative in mainstream media that race and racism are no longer significant barriers to success in our nation.

The purpose of this study is to better understand the racial attitudes of millennials, and the study’s results challenge the labeling of young people as post-racial. The Applied Research Center (ARC) conducted 16 focus group discussions in Los Angeles on the intersections of race and racism with key systems of society: criminal justice, housing, public schools, employment, healthcare and immigration. The participants were 18-25 years old, and each discussion session was divided into four groups: African Americans, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, Latinos and whites.

The evidence from these focus group discussions strongly suggests that most young people today believe that race still matters.

Key Findings

  • A large majority of millennials assert that race continues to matter. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of millennials initially say that they don’t believe race still matters — and some young people clearly believe that money or class matter more than race. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within various systems, a large majority assert that race continues to matter. Our focus group sessions concentrated on the criminal justice system, public school system, employment, healthcare system, housing and the immigration system.
  • Millennials are not monolithic. There are differences in how young people of different races and ethnicities view the extent and continued significance of racism in various systems of society. The fact that most millennials believe race still matters should not mask the very real differences of opinion both across and within racial groups about the extent to which they believe race and racism impact outcomes, and in which of society’s major systems. Our study reveals that issues like employment and criminal justice typically garner cross-racial agreement that racism continues to play a significant role, whereas on the topics of education, housing, health and immigration, different races and/or ethnicities emerge as majorities in the “race still matters” camp. Our study also finds that young people of color are more likely to bring up issues of race, access and resources when discussing these systems, while young white millennials are less likely to make connections across systems.
  • Like most Americans, the majority of young people have difficulty defining present-day racism when initially asked and typically fall back upon generic terms of interpersonal racism. After an initial stumped silence or stumbling for words that greets a simple question of how to define present-day racism, the most common responses, both oral and written, are generic terms like “discrimination based upon race or color,” “stereotypes,” etc. Most white young people think about racism as something intentional and typically as something that occurs between individuals. On the other hand, while many young people of color similarly fall back on generic definitions of interpersonal racism when initially asked, most have little problem labeling an entire system as racist, given their personal and community experiences and the racial patterns of resources they see across systems. Moreover, young people with social or racial justice organizing experience and those who have taken courses in race and ethnicity tend to describe racism in institutional or systemic terms.

Millennials in Their Own Words:

…On Housing Discrimination

I’m taking a class…in a very poor, Black neighborhood. It’s been a great learning experience for me. A classmate of mine worked for a mortgage company and said they are less likely to give someone a loan if they had a last name that was different. Or if they did have an American last name, then they felt more comfortable maybe letting them slide if they didn’t fit one of the other requirements. There are certain ways they can manipulate rules to treat people differently I guess.

–Ed, 24, Filipino-American, part-time student, part-time product developer

…On Race and Class

There’s no way to say, “A + B = C”… It’s, like, super-nasty complicated. And that’s why we keep coming back to this “Is it race, is it class? What is it?” It’s both.

–Pilar, 23, Latina graduate student

…On Criminal Justice

I work in the Marina del Rey, and, yes, they [whites] get pulled over too, but they don’t get approached the same. Not at all. I hear more people cussing out cops than anything that a cop has to say about the individual. “What the f*ck did you pull me over for!?!” And they know…they just did something stupid [with their car]!

–Donnell, 24, African-American, part-time sales rep

Criminal justice [is] definitely [racist]. I mean, just in Arizona they passed that law [SB1070]. How’re they gonna do that? They’re gonna stop you because you look like you don’t belong? 

–Sofia, 21, Costa Rican American college student

…On Exceptionalism of President Obama

Well, I think this could be just an edge-case situation where…one time somebody from a minority group is elected. But if you look at Congress, it’s still like 99-percent old white men. I think that once we see more… minorities in all types of government, we can say that race doesn’t have that big of an effect anymore. Because right now we elected one half-black guy. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the long scheme of things. 

–Courtney, 19, white college student

…On Education

I think students don’t have the same opportunity. If you look at segregated high schools — those schools are predominantly Black. There’s, like, probably, like, 1 percent white. And these are not equal opportunities. These schools do not have the same resources, same neighborhood support, and stuff.

–Duc, 19, Vietnamese-American college student

This report was originally published by the Applied Research Center.

A great video summary:

Related Stories:

“Beat the Jew” Game Prompts Tolerance Curriculum

Do Young People See Debt as Empowering?

Racism Goes Mainstream On Campus


Photo taken by Tina Atamian
Written by Dominique Apollon for the Applied Research Center


Curtis Monroe G.
Curtis Griffin6 years ago

Von, "It is still a big deal because people won't let it die. Every time something happens or doesn't happen the way a certain group wants, they play the race card."

People won't let the ism's "die," because they haven't died in real life.

1) Incarceration and capital punishment rates of minorities are way out of proportion.
2) Women earn less money than men for the same work. 3) Joblessness and income rates among minorities are at 1970 levels (just post civil rights). I could go on and on about the inequalitys and accepted practices of bias.

Our economic and social systems are not run by a switch that can turn on and off. The rhetoric of hate and denial has become a standard by all sides of this debate. Though it would help if some sucked it up and work harder than others with significant advantages and priveledge, letting it die will not solve all our problems, PERIOD!

Jose Ramon Fisher Rodrigu

Important issues like this need to be explored honestly.

Catt R.
Catt R6 years ago

she followed me to the door and then asked if I had paid for everything. I responded that I had not touched anything in the store. She then said "just checking, have a good day" as she nearly shoved me out..... Later, after getting over the shock about being treated in such a way I began to notice 'other people' were treated much the same way in the stores I am comfortable shopping in. Ah yes, we do have privilege, we are just so used to it that we do not see. Today I speak out when I see such things..... sadly, I do not always have the presence of mind to LOOK, but I am growing and hope that really looking will one day be natural to me.

Catt R.
Catt R6 years ago

Suze..... " They are the epitomy of "young and dumb"! inexperienced, irresponsible, without wisdom, etc, "

what, because they do not think the color of a persons skin should be more important than the choices they make in life ? They don't feel someone is "better" simply by virtue of where they were born, being a good and decent person has no REAL merit, unless you are a (male)White Anglo Saxon Protestant? Then it is a bonus, because being a WASP has it's own merit, it's own 'privilege'. If you are a WASP you have privilege, the extent depends on your level of attractiveness and size of your bank account, but you do have privilege., but you may not even see it. I am WASP (female) and I did not see the privilege I lived under until I stepped into a world where I 'did not belong'..... the more affluent shops.... not the really rich ones where they bring and present each item to you..... just the ones out of my price range. I was really enjoying myself at first, they had such lovely things I felt like I was in a museum. Well, I figured if I felt like I was in a museum it was hands off, I did not touch a thing, kept my hands behind my back and just looked. After a few minutes I noticed I was being followed sort of, there was an employee of the store always just a few steps away from me.... staring at me. I asked one if there was a problem and she asked what I was shopping for. when I said I was just looking she snapped 'me to', crossed her arms and continued to follow me

Michael H.
Michael H.6 years ago

"The participants were 18-25 years old, and each discussion session was divided into four groups: African Americans, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, Latinos and whites."

Is there a reason that african americans, asian americans and latinos are capitalized and White's, is not capitalized?

Myriam G.
Myriam G6 years ago

Until the colour of a man's skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes...

joseph b.
joseph batchelor6 years ago

lyn L, You left out the teabaggers who are so concerned about 'their' country and want to t 'take it back' from guess whom?Amazing how fast they were able to rally themselves the day after the election of President Obama but wearing teabags instead of sheets and hoods this time.How high-tech of them.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

The human race is one species. When people get that...... racism will stop.

Check out the DNA..........we are all brothers and sisters. :)

Larry H.
Larry H.6 years ago

The initial attempts to bridge the racial gaps actually began with the post WW II generation. We saw a lot of this in the 60's when the races started to socialize more together and started to form friendships and relationships. As could be expected at that time there was a lot of resistance from the previous generation who wanted to maintain the pecking order of keeping the "white" race on top and the "black" race subservient. What we wanted at that time was to see each other as individuals and deal with each other on individual merits rather than lump everybody into groups and taking away their individuality. This started to go well as long as it was limited to black, white relationships, then more ethnic groups got thrown into the mix and people started to deal with others again based on preconceived notions based on ignorance and fear of those that they are unfamiliar with. Unfortunately this has allowed for the rise of old biases and prejudices and some feel it has given them the right to openly pronounce and display these. This in turn has lead to a backlash from those that feel they are being attacked and prejudiced against. We need to get back to learning about each other and treating each other as individuals, instead of pigeonholing and attempting to place each other in groups.

Rie Rie T.
Ria T6 years ago

My Japanese-American husband was imprisoned and his family's property taken because of the perception of race (and because the frequently hard-working immigrants and their kids were competing with the established "white" farmers and businesspeople). He was a kid, a little boy.

I see how racism is built into every system in our country from the workplace, to the government, to the police, to the criminal "justice" system. People are identified, tried, convicted, and put to death for crimes they never committed. Racism is life-threatening in a number of ways.

My closest friend once told me that I colluded with my husband's delusion of racial discrimination. Jah, we hallucinated insults, being ignored at businesses, being 'picked on' by police, being attacked out of nowhere. I don't think so.

A truly good man taught a grad school course about most of the isms, but especially racism (as a black man). At the end he said, "I need you to speak for me when I can't speak for myself." He died shortly after that in his 40s with his wife expecting their first child. The constant having to fight racism shortens the lives of people of color, not to mention the violence perpetrated on them.

My heart aches for what Muslim and Sikh people experience when it has been made politically popular to attack them and to make them the center of all evil, the cause of all suffering.

We need each other. Post-racial is a dream, not a reality. May it happen soon.