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The Floyd protests will likely change public attitudes about race and policing. Here’s why.

The last wave of Black Lives Matter protests did — especially among young people

People march over the Brooklyn Bridge with Terrence Floyd during a memorial for his brother George Floyd on Thursday. (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)
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The civil rights protests during the first half of the 1960s pushed both public opinion and public policies about race in a more progressive direction, a body of research finds. In fact, it has made a sustained difference on white racial attitudes: Even today, whites from counties that hosted civil rights protests in the early 1960s show less racial resentment and stronger support for affirmative action than their similarly situated counterparts in counties that had with no such protests.

But the violent urban unrest in the second half of the 1960s prompted white backlash. In fact, these violent uprisings loom large in researchers’ theories of modern prejudice and how it has influenced U.S. politics.

As political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders explained in their seminal book “Divided by Color,” “By interpreting inner-city violence and poverty as glaring manifestations of the failure of blacks to live up to American values [conservative politicians] helped create and legitimize a new form of prejudice.” That racial resentment fueled a long “period of retrenchment” that rolled back many of the civil rights movement’s gains.

Recent history, however, suggests that current protests are more likely to liberalize racial attitudes than prompt backlash. So far, Black Lives Matter protests have pushed whites’ racial attitudes in a progressive direction, especially among young people.

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How the first wave of Black Lives Matters protests affected whites’ racial attitudes

As you can see in the figure below, whites’ racial attitudes shifted noticeably after the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests that started after police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, and ticked up again after the responsible officers were not indicted in those deaths.

After that first wave of protests, you can see a jump in the percentage of Americans who think blacks face a lot of discrimination; that discrimination is a main impediment to black advancement; and that more changes are needed to give African Americans equal rights.

As Black Lives Matter continued to protest and organize in 2015 and 2016, attitudes continued to change. Several different surveys show that the country’s racial attitudes moved toward BLM’s position during this period.

Racial attitude shifted more in places where BLM protested

To be sure, correlation is not causation. Attitudes about race liberalized for a variety of reasons, including the videos that circulated of those deaths, literally making the problem visible.

Donald Trump’s political rise has also had a big impact on white racial attitudes. Ironically, Trump’s offensive statements about racial, ethnic and religious minorities have shifted Americans’ attitudes about race, religion, and immigration further from his positions. Democrats, in particular, have consolidated their views against racism in reaction to Trump.

But for two reasons, we can be fairly confident that Black Lives Matter at least influenced these attitude changes. First, the initial shift in racial attitudes shown above began in the short time period between the BLM protests in 2014 and Trump’s ascension in 2015.

Second, and perhaps more important, racial attitude shifts were larger in the places with BLM protests. Political scientist Shom Mazumder’s recent study, “Black Lives Matter for Whites’ Racial Prejudice,” shows that from 2014 to 2018, white racial resentment declined more in areas with BLM protests than in areas without them.

Young people’s racial attitudes changed the most

Not all Americans responded the same way, though. As you can see in the Pew Research Center figure below, during Trump’s rise and the Black Lives Matter protests, various generations’ racial attitudes diverged.

After decades of what Christopher DeSante and Candis Watts Smith have termed “racial stasis” in white youths’ racial attitudes, young adults appear once again to be leading changes in public opinion about race. The Pew data show that millennials’ racial attitudes have changed much more than older generations in recent years.

Mazumder’s study once again reveals how BLM protests were implicated in these attitude changes. His results show that racial resentment declined most heavily among young whites who lived in areas with BLM protests. Being near protests didn’t affect older whites’ racial attitudes as much.

Those findings are consistent with a long line of research, which shows that young people are more likely than older adults to change their political and racial attitudes in response to salient events. There’s even some evidence that the civil rights movement created a unique racial attitude cohort among white Americans who reached adulthood between 1954 and 1965.

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Implications for the 2020 protests

All told, then, public opinion data suggest that Black Lives Matter protests helped change racial attitudes by shining a bright spotlight on widespread police brutality toward and discrimination against blacks. The current protests, which are even more widespread, are likely to have the same impact.

Indeed, polling conducted this past week by Civiqs and Monmouth University finds increasing support for Black Lives Matter and increasing agreement that anti-black racial discrimination is a serious problem. We will see whether these last and extend into other surveys.

Stay tuned for more from me on that subject next week.

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