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Where Is This Post-Racial America?: Study Shows Millennials Exhibit Racial, Ethnic Biases When Selecting Roommates with ‘Black Sounding Names’

Pew Research and other surveys have painted millennials as a more inclusive demographic than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, suggesting a post-racial America is on the horizon.

But actions speak louder than words. A new housing study by a white UCLA sociology professor S. Michael Gaddis suggests that notion may be a misconception.

Gaddis used a research method known as a “correspondence audit” to examine millennials’ decision-making in a deeply personal real-world scenario: picking a new roommate.

Gaddis and his co-author Raj Ghosal, a sociology professor at Elon University in North Carolina, sent over 4,000 emails replying to Craigslist “roommate wanted” ads posted by millennials in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

They created fake names stereotypical of different ethnic groups and discovered a tiered pattern of discrimination. The study showed that roommate seekers between the ages of 24 and 39 were only 66 percent as likely to give an initial response to emails with “Black-sounding” names when compared against inquiries with predominantly white names.

Stock photo – A Black and white woman face each other. (Pexels.com)

“Our findings shed light on the future of our racial system, expand our knowledge of discrimination beyond the traditional Black/white binary and illustrates the persistence of anti-Blackness,” an abstract of the study states.

Gaddis and Ghosal released their findings in the Dec. 14 edition of Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the American Sociological Association.

Gaddis said they sought to create a situation where millennials were presented with the option to live with someone from a different racial or ethnic background. But the results were discouraging, he told Atlanta Black Star.

“Millennials are the most educated, most racially diverse adult generation in our history,” Gaddis said during a recent interview. “When you ask them survey questions about their feelings towards people of different racial backgrounds, or how they feel towards policies to help alleviate racial inequality, it seems like they’re different than previous generations. But when they’re sort of faced with this action where they could essentially share a space and become friends with a person that’s different than them — that’s really what this is sort of about — that doesn’t hold up. At pretty significant rates, they’re not as willing to even respond.”

As their guide stick, Gaddis and Ghosal culled the top 1,000 names from U.S. Census and New York State birth certificate records. They singled out first and last names common to different ethnic groups and intentionally sought out combinations like “Ebony Washington” and “Riya Patel,” which gave strong indications of a person’s racial and ethnic identity. They also selected names like “Heidi Olson” more commonly used by whites. Then they put out feelers with the Black, white, Asian, Indian and Hispanic monikers.

The emails were sent between June 2013 and August 2014. In each of them, the researchers presented themselves as women in their mid-20s who recently graduated college, had new full-time jobs they were moving to the respective cities to start. The lone difference was the names they attached to the messages.

The study showed disparities across the board. For every 10 ad responses presumed white hopefuls got, applicants with Hispanic- and Asian-sounding names evoked about seven responses while inquiries from Indian names garnered more than eight.

Black names got the least attention, receiving little over six responses for every 10 that white names elicited.

“The pattern that we uncovered in this study is problematic, and shows racial exclusion that hardens racial boundaries,” Ghosal said in a statement on his university’s website. “Added up millions of times across our country, the consequences could be that people of color have to spend more time or energy looking for housing, or may not be able to find housing in more desirable neighborhoods.”

The researchers combined some Hispanic, Indian and Asian surnames like “Hernandez,” “Singh” and “Chang” with ethnically neutral first names like “Mindy” and “Wendy.” Those “Anglicized” names suggested second-generation assimilation, according to the study. And they fared as much as 18% better than inquiries with “racialized” first and last names.

Gaddis and Ghosal concluded that indicators of “immigrant generational status” will likely help shape discrimination in the future.

“The people that made these decisions, they’re going to be making other decisions later that are of even more importance,” Gaddis explained. “Whether it’s to hire somebody, to promote somebody, to give somebody a loan, or to give somebody some sort of other opportunity. And that’s not going to be any different. There’s nothing to suggest that they necessarily are going to be more open to making other decisions.”

There’s a plentiful supply of studies touting the millennial generation as more accepting. A Pew Research survey released in 2010 said millennials are less religious and more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. Texas A&M research scientist Nick Davis found signs that millennials are more sensitive to the impacts of institutional racism in a January 2019 research paper.

But while those studies give an optimistic outlook of a younger generation, more in-depth research puts their beliefs more in line with those of their predecessors.

A correspondence audit is a field experiment method of research popular with sociologists, economists and political scientists who study discrimination. It’s often done covertly, with participants unaware they’re being surveyed. Gaddis acknowledged it’s an ethical gray area, and it sometimes can be harder to convince university review boards to OK the studies.

“They’re always a little wary of these kinds of studies, to be honest with you, because it’s actually violating some ethical principles that we try not to violate,” he said. “But, essentially, the argument here is that we cannot understand this process, we cannot study this process, if we don’t do this the way that we do it.”

Penn State political scientist Candis Watts Smith co-wrote “Racial Stasis,” a 2020 book that found that while overt racist attitudes have dwindled, anti-Black animus and racial stereotypes persist in young white America.

Candis Watts Smith (Penn State University)

“This idea that we think that the new generation is going to usher us into a post-racial society is asinine,” she told Atlanta Black Star. “We have little data for that. And what my work shows is that white millennials aren’t as racially progressive as we like to believe.”

Despite claims of post-racial harmony, Watts Smith contends America’s racial progress remains stagnant. She noted that her university’s Black Caucus student organization was “Zoom-bombed” by more than 50 white supremacists during a Jan. 27 virtual meeting.

“I think that our hunch is that we are always going to be walking toward racial progress. But racial progress is not inevitable if we don’t give people the tools to do the things that we want them to do,” Watts Smith said. “So it’s not a surprise what Michael and Raj found. That the hierarchy that we see in all other domains of life — in health, in wealth and income, in return on your investment for higher education, in access to high quality public schooling, in environmental issues — that they find the same pattern in roommate selection.”

Gaddis and Ghosal chalked the inconsistencies up to “social desirability bias,” a tendency for millennials to be less than truthful when asked about their racial attitudes in the post-civil rights era. Gaddis cautioned against relying solely on that research method to guard against respondents give canned answers to save face.

“It’s disheartening to do this kind of research, to be honest, because I don’t want to find these findings, obviously,” Gaddis said. “But at the same time, people like me and other people that do this kind of research, this is consistently what we find.

“There’s a lot of questions that come up about the ethics of it. But in the end, I think they’re still very justified,” he added. “Because it’s not like we’re doing tons of these studies and wasting people’s time and finding that there’s no racial differences. We do the studies, and we find that there are racial differences. I wish there weren’t; I really do. But there are.”

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