Once again, black people are angry about racial injustice. When black Americans learned that a white supremacist had murdered nine black churchgoers during Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., many were enraged. When a neighborhood watchman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked home from the store in Sanford, Fla., a large number of blacks were steaming mad; when a jury found the shooter not guilty, they were boiling.
Many blacks get angry each time they see, read or learn about black men and women mistreated or killed through racial injustice. Do they channel this anger into political action, and if so, what kind? Here’s what we found in our research.
Do black people channel anger about race into political action?
Social scientists have found that anger can be a mobilizing emotion, pushing people to take political action that they believe will resolve the threat. We theorized that anger about race motivates many blacks to work for political solutions. Historically, these actions haven’t necessarily involved electoral politics or loyalty to a political party. As political scientist Shayla C. Nunnally has shown, some blacks harbor deep disillusionment and distrust about whether the U.S. political system can resolve their concerns. When angry about race, therefore, we expect that they’ll work to empower the racial group, such as getting active in black organizations or protesting.
Here’s how we did our research
We ran two experiments to see whether our expectations were valid.
The first experiment was run in the Government and Politics Experimental Lab at the University of Maryland at College Park in 2013 from April 13 to May 17. We recruited 364 black respondents by sending out an email to all of the black staff, faculty and students at the University of Maryland to take a two-wave survey experiment. In the first wave, we asked about attitudes and socio-demographic information.
In the second wave, we randomly assigned respondents to read one of two selections before answering some questions. The first group read a fictitious Washington Post news story “reporting” that Barack Obama had reacted angrily to how the 2008 economic recession particularly devastated black Americans. The second group read the same fictitious news story but without Obama expressing anger. Afterward, we asked whether they were likely to participate in any of a list of political behaviors, such as protesting, voting, donating to black organizations and donating to the Democratic Party.
Of those who read that Obama was angry, 27 percent said they would go out and protest; of those who read the other story, only 15 percent said they would. However, roughly the same proportion in each group — angry or neutral — said they were likely to vote, suggesting that they did not believe voting would solve black community problems. Nor was the angered group more likely to donate either to black organizations or the Democratic Party.
We followed up with a second two-wave experiment conducted by Qualtrics from Jan. 6-29, 2015, sampling 444 national adult blacks across the United States, once again asking for basic information in the first wave. In the second wave, we asked half our respondents to write about racial issues that made them angry, while asking the other half to write their thoughts about race, asking for no specific emotion.
After they’d written, we told respondents we would give them $10 to donate to one of six organizations: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), Nation of Islam (NOI) the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — or none at all. They could split the money between the organizations or give it all to one organization. At the end of the study, they were informed in the debriefing that this was a hypothetical scenario. To measure willingness to donate to black groups, we combined their donations to the CBCF, NAACP and NOI; similarly, to measure willingness to donate to “universal” liberal groups, we combined donations to DCCC, AFL-CIO and ACLU.
Those in the anger group were more likely to donate to black organizations than those in the control group — and were more likely to give to black than universal organizations, giving about $2 more to black groups.
So what do our results mean for the 2020 elections?
Historically large protests have filled U.S. streets since millions of people watched the video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died, after a series of similar killings, including that of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. That turnout is consistent with our findings. Hundreds of thousands of black people and allies can be seen on the streets, in social media posts and on TV news protesting across the country while chanting such slogans as “I can’t breathe” and “get your knee off my neck.” They’re angrily demanding that the nation take seriously the value of black lives.
Can Democrats politically benefit from this wave of activism?
That’s not clear. For that to happen, Democratic candidates would need to convince black voters that they can and succeed in pushing forward relevant changes, from redistributing funds currently dedicated to policing to passing national legislation. That hasn’t happened in the past, leading to disillusionment and distrust. As a result, blacks have relied on protesting as an important vehicle for policy change.
Antoine J. Banks (@antoinebanksumd) is a professor in the government and politics department at the University of Maryland at College Park, and author of “Anger and Racial Politics: The Emotional Foundation of Racial Attitudes in America” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Ismail K. White (@IsmailWhitePhD) is a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University where he is jointly appointed in the department of politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and is co-author of “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior” (Princeton University Press, 2020).
Brian D. McKenzie is author of more than a dozen scholarly articles and co-author of “Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994″ (Cambridge University Press, 2009).