The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama is right. The Floyd protests will change public policy.

Protests from the 1960s civil rights movement to the 1991 Los Angeles riots changed policies, my research finds

People hold placards in Los Angeles on Monday as they protest racial inequality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

After tumultuous protests rocked the United States for a week, prompted when a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed second-degree murder charges against three officers who stood by while Floyd died. But the protests persist.

Former president Barack Obama told young protesters they “should feel hopeful, even as they feel angry.” He is right. Racial protests often lead to greater racial progress and tangible national policies.

This is not whimsical optimism. That’s what I learned from my research on racial protests from the 1960s civil rights movement to the violent Los Angeles riots after a mostly white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King in 1991.

Here’s how I did my research tracing the impact of racial protests

My research finds politicians use racial protests to learn about U.S. race relations, helping them adapt to the latest iteration of minority appeals and giving them an opening for political innovation. As politicians evaluate these protests, they are forced to make racial and ethnic concerns a higher priority than other problems facing the city, state, region or nation.

I explored this by gathering newspaper reports of protests. I drew on protest events reported in the New York Times from 1960 through 1995 that are contained in the Dynamics of Collective Action (DCA) database. I used the Times coverage to increase the likelihood that federal politicians had been alerted to that protest, and looked at protests about racial and ethnic minority issues, which were largely dominated by black issues. I analyzed the reports to note date and location, and categorized each by various characteristics, including nonviolence, size, duration, organizational support, police presence, arrests, destruction, or injury or death. A single protest event was scored between 0-9 depending upon how many of these characteristics it possessed. I assemble a team of researchers to read through each newspaper report to classify the issues expressed and the protest’s characteristics.

I assessed the impact of protest on federal government actions that included congressional members votes on bills; presidential speeches and executive actions; and Supreme Court decisions. I used text analysis to classify bills, speeches, cases, and federal documents into minority-specific responses. I also used advanced time series techniques to analyze the relationship of protest in one time period to governmental response in the next. The time periods included congressional sessions for Congress; months for presidents; and years for the Supreme Court. When I traced these protests to the actions of each branch of the federal government, I consistently found they had led to results.

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How Congress responded to racial protests

Although many politicians, especially black politicians, already supported action on racial issues, protests emboldened them to introduce and pass bills related to race. Just 20 protests, all possessing at least one characteristic listed above, that occurred over a two-year congressional session in a House member’s district would lead a House Republican to become four percent more likely to vote in favor of bills to ameliorate race-related complaints — and would lead a House Democrat’s support to jump by eight percent. Politicians were most influenced by protests in their own congressional districts.

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How presidents responded to racial protests

While President Trump has responded to the Floyd protests with harsh rhetoric, his predecessors since 1960 responded more liberally to racial and ethnic minority protests. I combed through the Presidential Public Papers to examine every recorded presidential statement and action from 1960 through 1995. After protests, presidents spoke more about the need to address racial inequality, and they followed up with related executive orders.

The George Floyd protests are the broadest in U.S. history -- and are spreading to white, small-town America.

For instance, after the “Bloody Sunday” Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order that directed the attorney general to assist federal agencies in enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the Black College Day Marches in 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s Executive Order 12232 strengthened and expanded the capacity of historically black colleges. And following the anti-apartheid protests of 1985, President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12532 restricted various loans, exports to and trade with South Africa’s apartheid government.

How the Supreme Court responded to racial protests

After race-related protests supported by public opinion, the Supreme Court was more likely to take a case on racial issues. The number of race-specific cases on the docket jumped by four percent after 100 minority protests had been reported nationwide — and 10 percent if the public believed racial issues were important. In other words, Justice William Rehnquist was right when he said in 1986 that “if these tides of public opinion are sufficiently great and sufficiently sustained, they will very likely have an effect upon the decision of some of the cases decided within the courthouse.”

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What can we expect from the federal government after the George Floyd protests?

Already, the federal government is moving on policies responding to recent protests. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she wants to respond to this moment “in a very drastic way — not incrementally, but in an important way to redress those problems.” Majority whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) emphasized the judicial system must be restructured right away. And congressional Democrats recently introduced a bill that would dramatically reform policing.

While we don’t yet know which new policy proposals will come next, my research suggests this is only the beginning.

Daniel Q. Gillion (@DanielGillion) is the Julia Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Political Power of Protest” (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and “The Loud Minority” (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Read more:

The Floyd protests are the broadest in U.S. history — and are spreading to white, small-town America

Congress can’t easily pass police reforms. Here’s why.

The Floyd protests won’t help Trump win reelection