Support for Black Lives Matter Surged Last Year. Did It Last?

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Source: The New York Times

The moment was called “a racial reckoning.” Multiracial crowds of protesters took to the streets to call for racial justice. Books about racism soared to the top of best-seller lists. And surveys suggested that white Americans, many of whom had long opposed efforts to advance the goals of racial equality, were having a change of heart.

This time felt different. If previous instances of violence against Black people were quickly forgotten, the sense among many Americans was that George Floyd’s death would usher in a durable shift in attitudes regarding race and justice.

A year later, we needn’t engage in mere speculation. Time and data allow us to examine the stability of Americans’ racial attitudes. One key question: Did George Floyd’s death catalyze support for Black Lives Matter? If so, for how long and for whom?

Though there is, in the data, reason for some optimism, the more general picture contradicts the idea that the country underwent a racial reckoning. Last summer, as Black Americans turned their sorrow into action, attitudes — especially white attitudes — shifted from tacit support to outright opposition, a pattern familiar in American history. Whereas support for Black Lives Matter remains relatively high among racial and ethnic minorities, support among white Americans has proved both fickle and volatile.

Let’s look first at the electorate as a whole. According to data from Civiqs, an online polling company, there has been a net increase in favorability toward Black Lives Matter since 2018. Notably, support for the movement peaked in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death and then swiftly declined.

The reason for the drop seems to be shifting attitudes among Republicans and white Americans, two large and often overlapping groups.

After Mr. Floyd’s death, Republicans reported much stronger support for Black Lives Matter than they had earlier in 2020. For a party often characterized by its racial insensitivity and antagonism toward racial minorities, this increase in support was striking. But perhaps even more striking is its rapid decline.

We observe a similar trend when we separate the data by racial group. Like other racial groups, white Americans were more supportive of B.L.M. following Mr. Floyd’s murder. This sentiment, however, did not last long and, as with Republicans, support eventually plunged. This movement among Republicans and white Americans helps us understand why aggregate support for Black Lives Matter has waned since last summer.

In both cases, the deterioration in support is noteworthy because we do not merely observe a return to pre-Floyd opinion levels. Rather, since last summer, Republicans and white people have actually become less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the death of George Floyd — a trend that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

What do we make of these patterns, starting with the apparent surge in support for Black Lives Matter observed in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death? First, it seems clear that at least some of this surge reflected shock and disapproval over this particular episode rather than a broad embrace of a political movement with a specific agenda. Keep in mind, even Donald Trump remarked, after seeing the video, “It doesn’t get any worse than that.”

George Floyd’s death was documented by a video that was both viscerally upsetting and morally unambiguous — a police officer kneeling on the neck of a restrained individual, in broad daylight, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. It left scant room for individuals to fill in the gaps with their own narratives, which so often happens in response to police killings of Black Americans, as was the case with Breonna Taylor. In this case, Americans saw a murder with their own eyes, and whatever they felt likely influenced their responses to questions about B.L.M.

This event also occurred during a global pandemic that provided an unusually attentive and emotional audience. With many distractions suspended, Americans were glued to their televisions and social media feeds: Was it so surprising that a broad cross section of Americans would be moved by the murder of a restrained and helpless man? This seems, even to the cynic, a shockingly low bar.

But both the grief of the pandemic and the shock of the video are temporary. And if high levels of support for B.L.M. following George Floyd’s death were surprising, the quick about-face was anything but. The precipitous decline in support, especially among Republicans and white Americans, mirrors the increased politicization of the issue by elites. In the days and weeks following Floyd’s death, Republican politicians quickly turned attention away from the actions of a murderous police officer to those individuals protesting the injustice. As just one salient example, three days after Floyd’s death, as protesters took to the streets in Minneapolis, Mr. Trump declared, in memorable rhyme, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Perhaps it is not coincidental then that this phrase finds its roots in the racial unrest of the 1960s, another period during which we observed volatility in white Americans’ attitudes toward racial justice. Though there were moments of sympathy, for example, following the brutal beatings of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, these were ultimately fleeting. When Black Americans took to the streets of American cities to demand a redress of grievances, white support for the civil rights movement declined.

So was this time different? In some ways, yes. Polling does reflect a change since 2018, but for white Americans, this change was temporary. On the other hand, nonwhite racial groups all display sustained higher net support for the movement. This pattern is also worth highlighting. If a broad “people of color” identity is becoming politically potent, we may see more instances of cross-racial coalition building, such as when Latinx activists participated in last summer’s protests, and more recently, when Black activists spoke out against anti-Asian hate crimes. This coalition-building may prove essential in counteracting the backlash toward B.L.M. observed among some whites and Republicans.

Democrats also exhibit higher, and relatively stable, support for B.L.M. Perhaps this helps us understand why every Democratic presidential candidate stressed the importance of racial justice while campaigning. And they did so not only to appeal to their diverse base, but also to white members of their party, many of whom have become engrossed in these issues. Insofar as white support for B.L.M. is distinctly low, it would be even lower were it not for white Democrats.

Another way to judge the significance of last summer is to consider the effects it had on policy. Political science research suggests that protests can pressure elites to pursue tangible legislative action. According to a New York Times analysis, more than 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws since the killing of George Floyd. However, and consistent with the backlash we observe among white voters, these reforms have been met with Republican opposition, or in some cases, legislative efforts to quell future protest.

On Capitol Hill, a Democratic police reform bill introduced last summer met predictable resistance from Republicans. Then a Republican senator, Tim Scott, of South Carolina, proposed his own reform measure in response, which maintained qualified immunity for police officers, among other policies. Democrats lined up in opposition to block debate on the bill leading to its collapse.

This leads us to an important concluding point. Black Lives Matter is a visible and influential social movement; by some accounts it is the largest movement in American history. So it is worthwhile to understand shifts in public opinion toward it. However, the significance of a “reckoning” depends on whether support for Black Lives Matter ultimately translates into policy.

Here and elsewhere scholars have considered the parallels between the summer of 2020 and the tumultuous summers of the 1960s. The 1960s represented a watershed moment for race, in part because of the important shifts in American public opinion. But the lasting legacy of the era is found in its landmark legislation — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 — rather than the changing of hearts and minds.

Some have wondered whether support for B.L.M., especially among white people, is genuine or merely virtue-signaling. As the volatility of the polling suggests, there is reason to be skeptical. This conversation, however, misrepresents racism as a social problem rooted in individual values rather than as a system forcefully sustained by our institutions. In our opinion, a more fruitful conversation would consider how to transform support for B.L.M., wherever and how tenuous it exists, into more enduring political change. Whether or not this effort will involve substantial numbers of white Americans remains to be seen.


Jennifer Chudy is an assistant professor of social sciences and political science at Wellesley College. She studies white racial guilt, sympathy and prejudice.

Hakeem Jefferson is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, where he studies race and identity.

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