Researchers out of San Diego State University found that the United States is becoming more tolerant than ever of communists, atheists, LGBT people and more. The only groups for which Americans didn’t become more tolerant were of people who believed black people were “genetically inferior.”
Researchers concluded that, “Americans have become increasingly tolerant of controversial beliefs and lifestyles (i.e., marginalized outgroups). They are more likely to believe that homosexuals, Communists, militarists, and the anti-religious have the right to give speeches, teach at a college, and have a book in a local library. Smaller increases appeared in tolerance for a person who claims that Blacks are genetically inferior (commonly labeled a racist).”
The study, to be published this month in the journal Social Forces, found that American adults surveyed this decade were far more tolerant of minority groups or voices than adults surveyed in the 1970s. Researchers Jean M. Twenge, Nathan T. Carter, and W. Keith Campbell used the General Social Survey, which surveys a nationally representative sample of adults on a variety of attitudes and ideas, and defined tolerance as “agreeing that controversial outgroups should be allowed public expression.” This meant that Americans were more likely to believe that “Communists, homosexuals, the anti-religious, militarists, and those believing Blacks are genetically inferior should be allowed to give a public speech, teach at a college, or have a book in a local library.”
This study confirmed previous research that found young people tend to be the most tolerant of unconventional views. The first wave of the Baby Boomer generation seemed at first the most tolerant (especially in comparison to the previous generation), but when researchers controlled for “time period,” or overarching cultural changes that affect all adults, or generation, tolerance declined as the respondents got older and young people were the most tolerant. Tolerance also correlated highly with liberal political views and higher levels of educational attainment.
By far the biggest progression occurred in tolerance of LGBT people. The number of people who were tolerant of a gay man teaching at a college was around 52 percent in 1972–1974 compared with 85 percent in 2010–2012. Tolerance for racists, on the other hand, barely budged.
Researchers also found some interesting findings when it came to changes in groups over time. Women tended to increase tolerance slightly more than men, whites tended to increase more than black people, and non-college educated people tended to increase in tolerance more than the college educated. “Thus, the largest changes appeared among White men who did not attend college,” researchers wrote. However, college-educated individuals tended to be the most tolerant in any era, and perhaps the increase in the number of Americans who are college educated may have helped increase overall rate of tolerance in the general population. They also found that periods of unemployment had a small but significant correlation with increased tolerance.
This makes sense when you look at public opinion polling. Americans have dramatically changed their views on same-sex marriage and whether marijuana should be legal, with the majorities now supporting both policies.
Previous Pew Center research also found that young people tend to be more tolerant than older generations. But other analysis by Demos researcher Sean McElwee has pointed to the fact that while young people claim to be racially tolerant, they actually support policies that would work against people of color. This means that while young people may view themselves as non-racist, they actually ignore structural barriers to improving racial inequalities in America. And there are other signs that tolerance may not be a silver bullet; additional research found that political polarization is at its highest point in 25 years.
And as we’ve seen with critiques of the hiring practices in a number of industries, namely Silicon Valley, unconscious biases can play a huge role in making industries less diverse than the general population. So even though America is overall becoming more tolerant of other views, that doesn’t necessarily mean other kinds of inequality are disappearing.