The great African American scholar and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois remarked at the opening of this century that the problem of the 20th century was that of color. Since that time, much has changed in American race relations, but, today, as the United States stands ready to enter a new century, the issue of race still remains as one of the most important and perplexing facing our nation.

To better understand some of the issues and trends in American race relations that might confront us in the next century, this survey polled the racial attitudes of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. This the first generation to be born after the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s and as such they are the first to grow up in an American without formal barriers to racial equality. Moreover, they have lived in an America that is more diverse and multicultural than perhaps ever before. Finally, the attitudes and experiences that they have developed are likely to dominate American life in the first half of the next century.

To better understand the racial attitudes of this key demographic group, this survey was also developed, in part, by young Americans. As part of a class project on Race and American Democracy at Hamilton College, ten undergraduates from various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds read and discussed widely on the topic of American race relations. Furthermore, they also had the opportunity to discuss their ideas and questions with a variety of experts in the field. Such learning, along with their life experiences, helped them to develop this survey.

This project was made possible by the generous support of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and the Charles A. Frueauff Foundation. The polling firm of Zogby International of Utica, NY conducted the survey.

Survey Methodology

Between April 17 and May 1, 1999, Zogby International contacted 1001 randomly selected persons between the ages of 18 and 29. The survey instrument was composed primarily of original question, though some questions from other sources were used to provide baseline comparisons. For some questions, the sample was split in half to observe the responses to slightly differing questions. The margin of error for the full sample was +/- 3.2 percent and +/- 4.5 percent for the half sample. The margin of error for any smaller subset will vary by its size.

Major Findings

This national survey reveals reasons for both optimism and pessimism regarding the racial attitudes of young Americans. Most optimistically, this age cohort expresses strong levels of support on a variety of issues related to race relations. For example:

  • Respondents overwhelmingly supported the idea of multicultural education. When asked to place themselves on a scale between 1 and 7, with 1 being "it is very important for schools to teach about different races and cultures" and 7 that "teaching about racial differences only helps to further divide people along racial lines," the average of the responses was 2.4. This was by far the strongest response of all the survey questions structured in this way.
  • More than 56 percent said that the federal government should make sure that "black people get fair treatment in jobs."
  • More than 60 percent said that the federal government should make sure that "white and black children go to the same schools."
  • More than 57 percent agreed with the statement that "Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class."
  • Most of those surveyed believed that both they and their racial group have been unaffected by affirmative action programs. When asked to place themselves on a scale between 1 and 7, with 1 being that they have been "hurt a lot by affirmative action," 7 that they have been "helped a lot by affirmative action," and 4 that they "have not been affected by affirmative action programs one way or another," the average of the responses was 4.1.
  • Most of those surveyed saw a need to balance racial diversity with academic achievement in admitting students to college. When asked to place themselves on a scale between 1 and 7, with 1 being "it is more important to have a student body that is racially and ethnically diverse" and 7 that "it is more important to have students with the best grades and test scores," the average of the responses was 4.7.
  • Most of those surveyed stated that both whites and blacks were responsible for reducing racial equality and for whites and blacks not getting along. When asked to place themselves on a scale between 1 and 7, with 1 being "reducing racial inequality is mostly the responsibility of white people" and 7 that it is "mostly the responsibility of black people," the average of the responses was 3.9.

Furthermore, most respondents stated that they were comfortable in a variety of interracial circumstances. For example:

  • Over 70 percent said that they would attend a concert where they were likely to be the only person of their race there.
  • Most surveyed had a positive or a neutral response to a member of their family dating someone of a different race.
  • Most (72.4 percent) said that they would consider dating someone of a different race.

Despite such positive findings, several aspects of the survey suggest a more pessimistic assessment. For example:

  • A majority (50.3 percent) supported a philosophy of "separate but equal," by agreeing with the statement, "It's OK if the races are basically separate from one another as long as everyone has equal opportunities." Although this is a lower level of support than some previous surveys, it still remains disturbingly high.
  • A majority (54.5 percent) said that it was unlikely that the United States would elect a black president in the near future. In contrast, in the 1996 General Social Survey, 93.5 percent of those under the age of 30 said that they would vote for a black presidential candidate nominated by their party. This might suggest that while young Americans express rhetorical support for a black president, they know that their own attitudes and those of other Americans make such an eventuality unlikely.
  • Only 21.5 percent of respondents rated race relations in the U.S. today as good to excellent. 57.9 percent described them as fair and 19.4 percent as poor. Moreover, most saw (52.3 percent) saw race relations as staying the same or getting worse. 45.9 percent saw them getting better.
  • By small but consistent margins, respondents were less likely to describe blacks as equally intelligent, peaceful, and hardworking as whites.
  • Most respondents (59.1 percent) believed that in a situation where a black and a white applicant were equally qualified, the white person was most likely to get the job.
  • Although the subsample of African Americans (n=109) in the survey is too small to draw more solid conclusions, our survey found that on nearly every question there was a clear gap between the attitudes of whites and African Americans. This gap was particularly noticeable in the questions regarding affirmative action and the role of the federal government in assuring racial equality.
  • A sizeable and consistent gender gap exists in the racial attitudes of young Americans. Throughout the survey, women were more likely than men to take liberal stands on matters of racial equality. For example, 61.5 percent of men agreed with the statement, "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites." On the other hand, only 48.9 percent of the women expressed agreement with the statement. Similar differences appeared on most other questions.

Race also still matters in the social lives of young Americans. For example:

  • Only 47.7 percent of respondents stated that they had dated someone of a different race, but 75.3 percent said that they had dated someone of a different religion.
  • Only 47.2 percent said that they would consider marrying someone of a different race, but 64.4 percent said that they would consider marrying someone of a different religion.
  • Over 90 percent (91.1 percent) said that they heard racist jokes, comments, or language at least occasionally. Over a third (36.6 percent) said that they heard them often.
  • Less than half (48.2 percent) said that in adopting a child, the race of the child would not matter to them.

Policy Prescriptions

Two clear messages come out of these survey findings. First, while there are many optimistic findings in this survey, policymakers should not assume that the battle for racial equality has been won. The responses to several questions suggest that while young Americans give rhetorical support to notions of racial equality, their day to day experiences and behavior don't always back this up. For example, there is a noticeable gap between young people's toleration of interracial dating and marriage, and the actual frequency of such relationships. Additionally, the high incidence of hearing racial jokes, language, and statements suggests that such behavior is still all too common in young people's lives. Moreover, the gap in the racial attitudes of black and white young Americans is troubling. Finally, the support given for the idea of "separate but equal" indicates that may young Americans are comfortable with the notion of a segregated society.

The second message of this survey may in fact be an answer to the first. Young Americans strongly believe in the value of multicultural education and reject the notion that it will only lead to greater racial divisions. Given this, educators should consider expanding their efforts in this area. Young Americans seem eager to educate themselves about the new multicultural America and perhaps in this way they might overcome the differences that remain between the races.

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