Generational Membership and White Racial Attitudes

Assistant Professor Jill S. Greenlee and Professor Tatishe M. Nteta (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) have coauthored "A Change is Gonna Come: Generational Membership and White Racial Attitudes in the 21st Century" in the December 2013 issue of the journal Political Psychology.

The election of President Barack Obama offers a unique opportunity to test the impressionable-years hypothesis—the theory of political socialization that predicts that widely experienced political events can have a lasting impact on the political attitudes of individuals who experience that event in their youth, thereby creating a generational distinction. Using data from an original survey embedded in the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we examine the racial attitudes of White youth who came of age during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and election to see if those individuals are significantly more liberal on racial attitudes than older generations of Whites. In other words, we look for early evidence that an “Obama generation” has emerged. We find there are indeed early signs of a generational distinction. Members of the “Obama generation” are more strongly opposed to racial resentment, but they exhibit similar levels of opposition to old-fashioned racism as older cohorts. Additionally, we uncover that the factors that traditionally structure racial attitudes among Whites, most notably contact, education, and residential proximity, work quite differently for members of this generation. We take these findings as initial evidence that Barack Obama’s presidency will have a lasting impact on the racial views of a generation of Americans.