Last week, I wrote here at TMC that the Floyd protests will probably change public attitudes about race and policing.
That piece detailed how racial attitudes shifted after the first wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The country’s racial attitudes moved closer toward BLM’s position between 2014 and 2016, especially in counties that protested.
Those results suggest previous Black Lives Matter protests helped change racial attitudes by shining a bright spotlight on widespread police brutality against blacks. If that’s true, then the Floyd protests should have an even greater impact. After all, those protests are now the broadest in U.S. history — spreading even to white, small-town America.
The protests aren’t just about George Floyd, either. The horrifying video of Floyd’s killing comes on the heels of highly publicized racial violence or threats against African Americans who were jogging, sleeping at home, and birdwatching. They also take place during a historic pandemic that is devastating communities of color at disproportionate rates.
Those, taken together, underscore the protesters’ rallying cry of “black lives matter.” They also make it increasingly difficult to ignore widespread racial discrimination and inequality in America.
As former president Barack Obama said the other day, “In some ways, as tragic as these past few weeks have been, as difficult and scary and uncertain as they’ve been, they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends.”
Public opinion data proves his point. The country is indeed awakening to long-standing societal discrimination against black people in the United States.
Public opinion trends about race and policing
Americans’ opinions about race have changed significantly in recent years. After decades of stagnation, white racial attitudes started to shift after the first wave of BLM protests in 2014. Several different surveys show racial attitudes liberalized from 2014 to 2018.
The Floyd protests have accelerated the trend.
As you can see, the figure above shows increasing agreement that anti-black discrimination is a widespread, serious problem, and that the U.S. has not made much real racial progress in the past 50 years. Moreover, Americans increasingly believe police treat whites better than African Americans and white people have better chances of getting ahead in today’s society than black people do.
The changes since 2013 are rather remarkable. On average, Americans shifted their responses to the six questions by 25 percentage points over time.
This past month’s immediate impact on public opinion
Those long-term trends make it difficult to pinpoint just how much attitudes about race and policing have changed during the past few weeks — especially since five of the six questions in the figure above were not even asked in 2018 and 2019.
Fortunately, two large U.S. tracking surveys solve that problem. Those opinion trackers clearly show the immediate impact of Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests.
Using data from the polling firm Civiqs, the black line in the figure above shows a surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. A majority of 52 percent of registered voters now say they support BLM, up from 42 percent a few weeks ago.
Weekly polling for the Democracy Fund’s UCLA/Nationscape survey similarly shows significant spikes in unfavorable views of the police and in beliefs that African Americans face a lot of discrimination. As first reported by USA Today, unfavorable opinions of the police in the UCLA/Nationscape increased by 13 percentage points in the first weekly survey conducted after the protests began.
These recent changes are much broader than the racial attitude shifts from 2013 to 2018, which were concentrated among Democrats and young people. Americans of all races, ages, and partisan affiliations increased their support for BLM and lowered their opinions of the police.
Implications going forward
Some opinions about race haven’t changed since the protests began, though. Interestingly, Americans have steadily failed to support reparations for descendants of slaves. Throughout 2020, only around one-quarter favored reparations to African Americans in the UCLA/Nationscape data.
This suggests the ongoing liberalization of racial attitudes may not necessarily translate into public policies remedying racial inequality. Indeed, rising public support for the principle of racial equality during the civil rights movement often failed to produce corresponding increases in white Americans’ support for the policy interventions needed to achieve that ideal.
But the current changes in public opinion are still important. Until recently, most whites thought African Americans no longer face much discrimination in the United States. This prevalent belief helped fuel a long “period of retrenchment” that rolled back many of the civil rights movement’s gains.
In fact, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. justified his 2013 decision to dismantle key sections of the Voting Right Act by writing, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Americans, however, no longer reflexively agree with the chief justice’s argument. At the time of his 2013 ruling, only 19 percent said there’s a lot of discrimination against African Americans; just 20 percent thought we haven’t made much real progress against racial discrimination since the 1960s. Those figures are now up to 50 percent and 41 percent respectively.
Of course, Americans may not “stay woke” to systematic racism after the protests recede from the headlines. But if they do, passing meaningful reforms against racial biases in the criminal justice system will surely be less difficult.