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Many whites are protesting with Black Lives Matter. How far will their support go?

My research finds white sympathy has its limits

- June 14, 2020

Last week, former president Barack Obama gave an online speech about the recent protests, observing there’s “a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets … that didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition.” He’s not the only one who has noticed the multiracial crowds; so have academics and journalists.

In some places, news photos showing the “cross-section of America” in the streets clearly over-represents white faces. Indeed, white Americans are protesting in droves in cities, suburbs and rural areas. Sometimes they take a visible role in protests, a gesture that is not universally appreciated.

How can we interpret the sizable number of white Americans in the George Floyd protests? Preliminary data suggest white protesters make up a majority of the crowds in some majority-minority cities, and a recent Monmouth University poll finds the majority of white Americans believe the protesters’ anger is “fully justified.” The social media accounts of many white people are awash with messages of solidarity for Black Lives Matter.

But will their sympathetic involvement extend beyond the moment to undoing deeper systems of racial injustice? My research takes up this question.

What is racial sympathy?

My research examines racially sympathetic white Americans, those who feel distress about black suffering. The most sympathetic feel severe distress about black suffering, which they perceive to be widespread; the least sympathetic are indifferent to black suffering, which they perceive to be negligible. Most white Americans lie between these two extremes.

Researchers in this field typically detect racial attitudes through survey questions, as I did as well. Specifically, I ask white respondents to read four short vignettes — essentially paragraph-long stories, each featuring a black character suffering discrimination. The vignettes vary the black character’s traits and the kind of discrimination, some overt and some more surreptitious. After each, the respondent is asked to indicate whether he or she feels any sympathy toward the black character, on a five-point scale: “a great deal,” “a lot,” “some” “a little” or “none.”

Using this “racial sympathy index,” I conducted a national survey in the summer of 2016 with 600 white Americans who mirrored the demographics of the 2016 U.S. electorate through YouGov. Researchers are often concerned about social desirability bias, or the idea people want to show themselves to be admirable in surveys, especially on sensitive topics such as race. Despite this tendency, I find only 20 percent of white Americans said they feel “a lot” or “a great deal” of sympathy in every one of the four vignettes. For the remaining 80 percent, sympathy varied depending on the circumstances.

In this and other studies, whites are least sympathetic when there’s no clearly identifiable villain. For instance, in one vignette, a city’s Transportation Department refuses to move a polluting bus terminal located in a black neighborhood with high rates of asthma. Less than 30 percent of white Americans said this situation made them feel “a lot” or “a great deal” of sympathy toward the neighborhood residents.

The white Americans who consistently expressed high levels of sympathy across several vignettes were also more likely to support pro-black policies, such as subsidies for black businesses or affirmative action, even after controlling for party, ideology and education. Elsewhere, a team of criminologists have used the racial sympathy index to understand white attitudes to capital punishment and other criminal justice policies.

In sum, white racial sympathy can have political consequences. But it matters most among whites who report high levels of distress about many iterations of black suffering, not just the most blatant.

Will the George Floyd protests increase the role of white racial sympathy in politics?

My survey was conducted in the summer of 2016. The recent wave of protests may well transform white attitudes and politics. But how deep and broad is this outpouring of racial sympathy?

There are a few reasons to doubt that racial sympathy will anchor most white Americans’ political views.

First, I found some white Americans who expressed sympathy toward the black people in the vignettes still harbored prejudice toward African Americans as a group. In my 2016 study, I included the racial resentment scale in addition to the racial sympathy index. I found 15 percent of white Americans who scored above the median point on the racial sympathy scale also scored on the “high” end of the racial resentment scale.

Social psychologists have demonstrated that individual members of a group are evaluated more favorably than the groups they represent, a phenomenon called “person positivity bias.” Even when white Americans are moved by stories about individual black victims and white police officers, they may overlook the broader forces harming black people as a group. If that’s true, the current wave of sympathy may not erode persistent group-based prejudice.

Racial sympathy matters nevertheless. In my surveys, I find the most racially sympathetic people strongly support a host of measures to rectify inequality in such policy areas as education, economic mobility and criminal justice. They recognize systemic racism and favor strong federal government intervention to address it. Through long-form interviews I conducted before the George Floyd protests with the assistance of my student Sasha Blachman, I find the most racially sympathetic show up at protests, anti-racist workshops, race-focused reading groups and through volunteer work in their communities even when race is not a front-page story.

But current white engagement on racial issues may not extend beyond police brutality, the kind that has no obvious or immediate villain: economic disadvantage, health care, employment, housing and even the environment. My work suggests that until more white Americans feel emotionally invested in less visibly outrageous forms of black disadvantage, their commitment may not extend far.

Jennifer Chudy (@pikachudy) is the Knafel assistant professor of social sciences and an assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College.