There are several possible reasons this might be the case. Political scientist Jamila Michener argued here at TMC that accumulated racial disadvantages in almost every aspect of society have “made the protests explode.” Even the current public health crisis has hit Black Americans at disproportionate rates. Media attention may also help fuel the protests, which have garnered more coverage than any other protests in the previous 50 years, as political scientist Michael T. Heaney explained here as well.
My work finds that the pandemic’s negative financial consequences have also been helping fuel the protests. That is, individuals whose finances have been hurt by the public health crisis are substantially more likely to report that they have attended a protest and have posted positively about the movement on social media.
How I did my research
I surveyed two national samples of 1,028 and 999 Americans recruited through Lucid Fulcrum Exchange. The first sample was interviewed from June 25 to June 28 and the second from July 18 to July 23. Both samples were census-matched for age, gender, race, education level, political party and geographic region.
I asked respondents whether the novel coronavirus affected them financially in any of seven different ways, including whether they had been furloughed; lost a job; seen reductions in their pay or work hours; collected less in tips; had to miss work to care for children; or worked while ill because they didn’t have paid sick leave. Roughly 52 percent of respondents reported that they had been affected in at least one way; about 5 percent marked yes for all seven options.
I also asked respondents whether they had attended one or more of the 2020 protests against police brutality and whether they had posted on social media in support or opposition of the protests or the Black Lives Matter movement.
Those who have seen financial losses from pandemic public health measures are more likely to protest
Across both samples, I found that respondents who reported that they had been hurt financially by the pandemic were also substantially more likely to report that they had attended a protest and posted positively about the protests or BLM. Indeed, each additional way that respondents had been affected by the coronavirus predicted a roughly seven-percentage-point increase in their likelihood of attending a protest. I found a similar 4.5-point increase in the likelihood that they had posted a positive message on social media. These predicted probabilities are based on regression models that control for race, education, income, age, gender, party, ideology, residing in an urban area and having more free time during the pandemic.
Examining the results by race, I found that 69 percent of Black respondents reported being hurt financially by the pandemic, far higher than the 46 percent of White respondents. However, the relationship between being hurt financially and attending a protest, and posting positively about BLM, was roughly the same across racial groups.
Why are people who have been hurt financially by the pandemic more likely to protest?
To better answer this, I asked respondents who said they had attended a protest in 2020 why they had done so in an open-ended format. Most answers emphasized justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black individuals who have recently been killed, support for Black Lives Matter and racial justice, and opposition to police brutality.
However, about 22 percent of respondents, almost all of whom reported being hurt financially by pandemic-related public health measures, gave answers that did not focus on racial justice or police brutality, but instead emphasized justice for all people and discontent with the current federal government. These respondents were also less supportive of BLM and had slightly higher levels of what social scientists call “racial resentment,” a commonly used measure of anti-Black sentiment, than others who attended protests. Possibly, for these people, coronavirus grievances drove some people to protests who may not have attended otherwise. Indeed, almost 4 out of 5 of these respondents reported that the recent protests were the first BLM protests they had ever attended.
The pandemic may also be increasing protest attendance because people have had more free time, because they may not be able to work and a variety of social outlets have been banned. About 65 percent of respondents agreed that they had more free time during the pandemic. This number rose to 77 percent among those who said they have been hurt financially by coronavirus measures and 81 percent among those who have attended a protest. About 2 percent of protest attendees explicitly said that they had attended in part because they had the time or lived nearby. Moreover, respondents who reported having more free time during the pandemic are about 14 points more likely to have attended a protest.
Most people say they have gone to protests because they believe in racial justice and support the Black Lives Matter movement. But for many, particularly those who had never before turned out for a BLM protest, what pushed them into the streets was being hurt by pandemic public health measures. In this way, the pandemic has helped fuel what political scientists Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman wrote here at TMC has been the broadest and most sustained social movement in U.S. history.
Maneesh Arora (@maneesh_arora) is an assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College.