The numbers are enormous.
It is not only the 100,000 people who protested in Los Angeles last weekend, or the estimated 200,000 who gathered in the country’s capital, or the thousands of others who took to the streets small towns across the country to fight racism and police brutality in recent weeks.
It is also the change in public opinion: 76 percent of Americans Now say racial discrimination in the US is a major problem, starting from 51 percent in 2015. And public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased almost as much in the past two weeks as it has in the past two years, according to the New York Times.
Part of this change is happening among black Americans and other colored people – 84 percent of black Americans now say racism is a major problem, compared to 69 percent in 2015. But perhaps the biggest shift, such as polls and others, is white people.
In small towns and across America, “people of color already know there is a problem,” Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who studies racial prejudice, told Vox. “They have long been aware of racial prejudice.”
But for some whites, the weeks since the murder of George Floyd’s police – captured in a video seen by millions across the country – and the worldwide rebellions that followed resulted in a new way of opening the eye. “You don’t see inequality in schools because we go to different schools; you don’t see inequality in wealth,” Candis Watts Smith, a professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State University, told Vox. “But you can see a murder. “
Not only have white Americans seen this graphic murder, but at least they are now addressing America’s larger systemic problems of racism and police brutality.
But the question remains whether that attention will be maintained and whether the whites who have become aware of police brutality and discrimination in recent weeks will support the structural changes needed to remedy it. “Historically,” said Smith, “we’ve seen trends where white Americans say they support egalitarian principles, but they have not always followed egalitarian policies.”
There is a huge shift in public opinion about racism and the police, especially among whites
The uprisings of the past few weeks are part of a long history. Thousands protested across the country in 2013, when a Florida court acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old. In 2014, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the murder of Michael Black, a black man, by white police officer Darren Wilson, led to more national attention for the Black Lives Matter movement, such as P.R. Lockhart reported to Vox.
Those protests had a significant effect on the way people – including whites – talk about race and racism. “People have become more attuned to these issues” since Ferguson, Smith said. For example, in the 2020 primary debates, “Democratic candidates had to say” systemic racism, “and say what they thought of reparations,” she said. “They had to speak about issues of racial inequality in a way that they had in the past. were not forced. “
Still, as of 2016, only 34 percent of Americans said the police are more likely to use excessive force when a suspect is black, according to a Monmouth University poll. And from January 2020, 42 percent of Americans supported Black Lives Matter – a significant portion, certainly, but still a minority.
Then the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests became national news and public opinion changed dramatically and quickly. Now 57 percent say that the police are more likely to use excessive force against black people. And as of June 8, 53 percent of Americans say they support Black Lives Matter, according to one Civiqs poll. Tracking data also shows a rapid increase in police disapproval and the belief that black people face high levels of discrimination, according to the New York Times.
The change comes “at a rate that I don’t think we’ve seen in American politics before,” said Dorian Warren, president of Community Change, a nonprofit that works with grassroots groups in low-income communities in the province.
And much of the shift comes from whites. Looking at changes in polling data over time, “Most black respondents in 2014 and now had quite progressive views,” Duncan Gans, an analyst with the polling company PerryUndem, told Vox. “Most of the change was among white respondents.”
For example, in 2016, 77 percent of black Americans said the police would use violence against black people more often. That has increased to 87 percent this year. But among white Americans, the change was much bigger, from just 25 percent in 2016 to 49 percent in 2020.
It is not just a poll. White people are also engaged in protests and other activism in ways they haven’t always had in the past, many say. The organizers on the ground have been pleasantly surprised by the continued flow of support from people of all races, including those contacting first how they can help, Warren said. “In some ways, we see the vibrant renewal of civic engagement in our democracy.”
That includes many people who took to the streets in small towns across America, where protests initially received less attention than those in large cities, such as Anne Helen Petersen is listed on BuzzFeed. Some of those cities are in parts of America “where you can literally grow up all your life and not see a single person of color,” said Willis-Esqueda. “That lends itself to a particular ideology system that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.”
But now she said, “I think what’s happening in the United States is a lot like what happened with the Vietnam War,” when Americans’ attitudes changed by watching TV. “It is very powerful to see visual images of what is happening.”
George Floyd’s video may be one of the reasons. History is another.
Indeed, many link the rapid change in public opinion, including among white Americans, to the video footage of George Floyd with officer Derek Chauvin on his neck. The murder on May 25 came when black Americans in many communities were most severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic and became sicker and died faster than whites. But that inequality was not visually visible in the same way.
“We can hear that black people have a disproportionate number of Covid disease, but we have not seen those deaths,” said Smith. “But if you see a man slowly killing in broad daylight, that’s another.”
Police advocates have attempted to explain the past murders of black people, such as Michael Brown, by claiming to be their murderers or opposed arrest. But the video about Floyd’s death made it harder than ever, Warren said. “You can’t argue with the facts you see, wish them away, or come up with an alternative story, because it’s 8 minutes, 46 seconds.”
Additionally, the Floyd video came on the heels of years of organization by Black Lives Matter activists, as well as movements like the Women’s March and, further back, Occupy Wall Street, Warren said. It also came after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, young black Americans whose deaths also caused outrage. Activists have been drawing attention to issues such as police brutality and race, gender and class inequality for years, and those issues have only become more pressing in recent months.
“One way to think about this metaphorically is like an earthquake,” he explained. Organizing by Black Lives Matter and other groups move slowly, like tectonic plates: “Then suddenly they collide.”
The question is: what now?
Now that Black Lives Matter has caught the attention of white Americans, many are asking what follows. It is not clear whether people who say they support the movement in polls also support concrete policy changes to combat police brutality and racial inequality. For example, Smith asked, “Do more people support reparations or do more people support money transfers from the police to social services?”
Indeed, in one Yahoo / YouGov poll conducted when protests following Floyd’s death grew in late May, the majority of Americans said that the police do not treat white and black people equally and that the police are not held responsible for misconduct. But only 16 percent said they would back the cuts to the police. That number was even lower – 12 percent – among white Americans, while 33 percent of black respondents said they would support austerity.
Some, meanwhile, are concerned that those new to the realization of police brutality and systemic racism may be content with smaller, incremental changes that are not really the cause of the problem. For example, some have criticized 8 Can’t Wait, a set of requirements, including a ban on chokeholds aimed at reforming the police and reducing violence. While the plan may sound good, “some of the more racist and violent police forces have already implemented many of these reforms, with essentially no effect,” Edward Ongweso Jr. writes at Vice.
Those who support the wider goal of abolishing the police say: “We should not be content with reforms that were implemented years ago if their effectiveness is questionable at best, especially if those reforms do nothing to political economy of police or law enforcementOngweso writes.
In addition to policy changes surrounding police work, there is also the question of whether people will link what they saw in the video about Floyd’s death to inequalities in American society, not just in the criminal justice system.
“I wonder if people relate the problems they face to other areas of American life,” such as education or health, Smith said. After all, people protest with masks because they protest during a pandemic, one that has killed a disproportionately large number of black and Hispanic Americans. Smith wonders whether Americans are willing to delve into those issues, or whether they will be satisfied with a few police reforms, such as banning chokeholds or warrants that are off. “These changes are important, but will the enthusiasm for justice in the police transfer to other areas?”
Looking back at American history, “it is always my concern that people will lip service change and more tolerance,” said Willis-Esqueda. However, the present moment offers an opportunity.
“Psychologically people are upset; they are motivated to take action, “Willis-Esqueda said. “I hope we create some kind of meaningful change.”