America is browning. Imminently, the country—colonized and then controlled by European white dudes—will be majority people of color. Millennials, who represent a third of the country’s adult population, are already the most diverse adult generation ever.
But perceptions of America’s race problem aren’t changing as dramatically as its skintone. According to a new poll from Fusion, today’s young adults hold a pessimistic view of race relations, with only 27% believing that the country’s racial climate has improved during the tenure of President Obama. A majority of respondents also feel that Obama has been treated more harshly because of his race. And half think the government still owes black people an official apology for slavery.
The poll’s findings suggest that even though America is getting browner, the institutions that make white supremacy possible still exert a powerful influence.
In 2008, when Obama was elected, voters believed we were on the precipice of a more racially harmonious period. The spirit of his campaign—hope and change—captured the nation. Days after the election, a Gallup poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans believed that race relations in the country would improve.
Eight years later, Fusion’s poll suggests, the optimism of Obama’s campaign has completely faded. First, there was the rise of the Tea Party, a radical-right political movement that emerged in opposition to the president’s core values and identity as soon as he was elected. The evolution of the Tea Party and the Republican takeover of Congress inspired a new, emboldened GOP that sought only to stain the president’s legacy with intransigence. Not to mention those pesky rumors that Obama is a Muslim (apparently a sinful faith to belong to), which continue to prevail in right-wing circles.
Fusion asked respondents whether or not they think people go harder at President Obama because of his race, and 55% of those polled agreed that the president has been judged more harshly because he is black. That number breaks down on racial lines, with 82% of black respondents agreeing, but 53% of whites and 47% of Hispanics.
Young people tend to be more liberal than older adults, so in some ways Fusion’s poll expresses only one side of the country’s racial anxiety. The ascendance of Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle is explicit proof of white anger at America’s changing demographics among older voters, and fear of a total collapse of white power. Trump’s promise of returning to a different time when the country’s white power structures were more defined is a not a muted provocation—it’s an explicit one. The examples pile up: the violence directed at people of color at Donald Trump rallies, the unabashed delight of his supporters when he rants about building walls to keep out Central Americans, the calls to ban Muslims.
America’s faces are changing dramatically, and there are loud dissenters of change. But perhaps most startling about Fusion’s polling on race relations is that even as young people acknowledge race relations are not good, they do not seem to want to make concrete steps forward to change the status quo.
Overall, 50% of respondents favored an official apology from the government for slavery. But support dropped dramatically when white participants answered the question: Only 41% of whites support an official apology and a measly 21% support reparations, cash given by the federal government to black people to compensate for slavery and its legacy. This compared to 68% of blacks surveyed who supported a federal apology for slavery and 62% who supported reparations.
Movements like Black Lives Matter or the images seen and the vitriol spewed at Trump rallies could have impacted young Americans to take a firm stance on reparations and a federal apology for slavery. But they did not.
America is going to look different whether we like it or not, but if this poll has revealed anything it’s that the ruling class—white men—might very well keep their places. So all these Trump supporters carrying on, yearning for a return to an even more racist America, can breathe a deep sigh of relief: the browning of America does not beget radical change in a country with iron-clad power structures. Jamie Dimon can relax, he’s not going to lose his top banking job. Warren Buffett can cool out too; his fortune isn’t in danger of collapsing. Or the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Sheldon Adelson. Mark Zuckerberg is probably going to be alright too. Probably. Because whiteness as power, after all, is endemic.