A few years ago, over what I expected to be a completely pleasant dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time, he asked what I thought of Black Lives Matter. Then he told me what he thought, in a torrent of anger and hostility.
It was unnerving. But it was his position, not mine, that was normative at the time.
I don’t know if he has changed his mind. But the nation has. In the two weeks following the May 25th death of George Floyd, support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) soared. The movement now has majority support. When the percentage who do not support it is subtracted from the percentage who do, the difference is 28%. Before May 25, it took nearly two years for support for BLM to improve as much as it has in just two weeks afterwards.
In Nearly Every Demographic Group, More Americans Approve than Disapprove of BLM
Drawing from the findings from Civiqs, an online survey research firm, Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy reported the net support (percentage approving minus percentage disapproving) for 14 subgroups: four race categories (White, Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Other), three political parties (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents), three educational categories (non-college grads, college grads, and postgraduates), and four age groups (18 to 34, 35 to 49, 50 to 64, and 65 and older).
At the end of the two-week period, net support for BLM was positive for 13 of the 14 groups. In the race category, the net approval was greatest for Blacks (+82), but it was positive even for the least enthusiastic group, the Whites (+15). In fact, support among Whites had increased as much in those two weeks as it had in the previous 10 months.
The youngest age groups were the most positive. But again, even the least approving group, those who were 65 and older, still included more people who approved than disapproved (+13).
The most highly educated were the most enthusiastic (+36). But even those without college degrees were solidly on the side of BLM (+28).
Democrats overwhelmingly support BLM (+84), and Independents are clearly positive, too (+30). Republicans were the only group out of the 14 more likely to disapprove than approve of BLM (-39).
Beliefs about Racial Discrimination, the Anger of Protesters, and the Actions of Police Have Changed, Too
In 2013, when the Black Lives Matter movement had just begun, the majority of Americans believed that racial discrimination was not a big problem. Most believed that the anger that led to protests was not justified. The majority also thought that the police were no more likely to use deadly force against Blacks than Whites.
Now, in June 2020, all that has changed dramatically. A Monmouth University poll found that about three out of every four Americans (76%) believe that racial discrimination is a big problem. Nearly four out of five (78%) think that the anger behind the protests is either fully justified or somewhat justified. Nearly three of five (57%) believe that the police are more likely to use excessive force against Blacks than Whites.
Why Is It Different Now?
Much of the credit for the shifts in American attitudes goes to the people in the BLM movement who persisted for years, even when public opinion was against them or not nearly as supportive as it is now. Other factors matter, too, such as drum beat of cases, one after another after another, in which Black lives were threatened or destroyed, culminating in those deadly 8 minutes and 46 seconds in which an officer continued kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, despite his cries of “I can’t breathe.”
Perhaps most importantly, the horrifying incidents were recorded and televised and shared widely on social media. The protests have been televised, too.
As the journalism scholar Danielle K. Kilgo has demonstrated in her research, the framing of protests by the media can shape the way they are viewed. The media can cover the protests in legitimizing ways, by describing the protesters’ goals, grievances, demands, and aspirations. Or they can instead emphasize rioting, confrontation, and spectacle.
One thing that is difficult (though not impossible) to distort is the mix of protesters out on the streets. President Barack Obama noted:
“You look at those protests, and that was a far more representative cross section of America out on the streets, peacefully protesting. That didn’t exist back in the 1960s, that kind of broad coalition.”
Some protest movements are marked by distinctive clothing, such as the pussy hats of the 2017 Women’s March. That has its advantages, but it also gives the media an easy way to focus on spectacle rather than substance.
The protesters who have been filling the streets of cities and towns all across the nation (and much of the world) make no one sartorial statement. They are a diverse, “come as you are” crowd. Robin Givhan of The Washington Post describes them this way:
“They have braids and dreadlocks. They are dressed in hijabs, muscle tanks and ripped jeans. They are adorned with elaborate tattoos and wear scholarly spectacles. They look like college students and soccer parents, the people next door and the neighbors from down the street.”
She also believes that dressing “as their unique selves” contributes to the power of the protesters:
“There’s no cohesion in the look of the marching multitudes, which is part of the deep resonance in those images. Humanity is arrayed in its countless forms.”
There is no guarantee that Americans will remain as supportive of the BLM movement as they are now. But what has been achieved at a moment of great national tumult is quite remarkable.