Millennials and race: Newly published research examines differences between words and actions

A new journal article co-authored by Assistant Professor of Sociology Raj Ghoshal finds that younger Americans, believed to be more enlightened on racial issues, may still discriminate when it comes to roommate selection.

Research has found that American Millennials are less likely to hold racially prejudiced views than older generations. But do their actions support their words when it comes to racial discrimination in their own lives, such as selecting a roommate? Newly published research by Assistant Professor of Sociology Raj Ghoshal has found that perhaps they do not.

Raj Ghoshal, assistant professor of sociology

With research that relies on more than 4,000 emailed responses to “roommate wanted” advertisements, Ghoshal and Assistant Professor Michael Gaddis of UCLA have discovered a pattern of discrimination against Asian (Indian and Chinese), Hispanic and Black respondents. Ghoshal and Gaddis used names that indicated the racial background of the person seeking a room when responding to the “room wanted” ads, and found those with non-White-sounding names received fewer responses even though they sent identical-quality messages.

Additionally, emails using predominantly White first names with more traditional Asian or Hispanic last names were more likely to receive a response than those that also had a traditional first name.

Ghoshal said that looking at real-world decisions that Millennials — those between the ages of 24 and 39 — are making, such as who they choose to live with, can provide insight into how race matters among younger Americans. Additionally, identifying these patterns underscores the barriers that many people of color face in their day-to-day lives.

“The pattern that we uncovered in this study is problematic, and shows racial exclusion that hardens racial boundaries,” Ghoshal said.

The article “Searching for a Roommate: A Correspondence Audit Examining Racial/Ethnic and Immigrant Discrimination among Millennials” was published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World.

Ghoshal and Gaddis, who worked as equal co-authors on the study, used a correspondence audit approach in their research that involved responding to 1,500 Craigslist “roommate wanted” ads in three major metropolitan areas — Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, including their suburbs. Those metros were selected because taken together, they closely represent the racial demographics of the country as a whole.

The correspondence audit approach involved drafting three responses to a want ad that each expressed interest in the room, indicated the sender was college-educated and employed full-time, and was written clearly and politely.

The only variable in each response was the person’s name, with Ghoshal and Gaddis selecting names that signal race and ethnicity. Names were also selected for Asian and Hispanic identities that included a predominantly White first name and more traditional last name to indicate that the person could have a more recent immigrant generational status. The names were selected based on real birth records and earlier research about how people perceive a person’s race based on their name.

All of the profiles used were female, because while women frequently look only for other women as roommates, men often look for either gender in their search, the researchers explain in the article.

Ghoshal said this audit methodology allowed them to explore how people respond in more informal contexts, which could be different from how they respond if they are asked via a survey about their thoughts about race.

“It can get at some of the gaps between what people say — or what they think they are supposed to say — and what they actually do,” Ghoshal said.

What Ghoshal and Gaddis found was that inquiries with White-sounding names received the most responses while those emails with Black-sounding names received the least. The data showed that a Black room-seeker would need to send about 50 percent more inquiries to receive the same number of responses as a White room-seeker.

The data also showed that among Asians and Hispanics, those with fully ethnic or traditional names faced significant discrimination while those who had more White-sounding first names were treated much more closely to Whites.

“People seen as being in the first wave of immigrants face significant exclusion, but we see that decline with future generations,” Ghoshal said.

In prior published research, Ghoshal and Gaddis found that those with Arab-sounding names also face exclusion in roommate searches.

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Ghoshal noted that this type of discrimination is harmful even though it is subject to few regulations. “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,” Ghoshal said. “There is also a tremendous loss in opportunity for interracial contact and friendships,” he added.

Ghoshal suggested that people seeking roommates should avoid snap judgments based on names and racial cues, which provide no reliable information about personality or living habits, and embrace opportunities to connect across different backgrounds.