Because police violence against Black people continues, should we expect another summer of multiracial demonstrations? That’s unlikely, given various differences between now and then, including a video of Floyd’s death, the coronavirus pandemic and the wall-to-wall media coverage. Notably, all those factors affected White Americans differently depending on how they think and feel about their racial category, my research has found.
How I did my research
In February and March 2020, I interviewed 40 White residents of the Twin Cities about their political identities, understanding of Whiteness, and political views, especially about racial justice and Black Lives Matter. To recruit respondents for interviews that lasted 45 to 90 minutes, I approached individuals in person, distributed research fliers and asked participants to refer others. The sample included 26 men and 15 women between the ages 18 of 85, most highly educated; 37 of the 41 had a college degree or higher. In keeping with the Twin Cities’ political demographics, 25 were Democrats, seven were Republicans and nine were independents. Although the sample does not perfectly represent the area’s population, through this qualitative research I identified patterns that can be tested with future quantitative research.
In July and August 2020, to see how the protests might have changed perceptions, I contacted half my original sample for re-interviews about how they viewed being White, their impressions of Black Lives Matter, and what policies they thought the protests had changed or should try to change. In this round, I conducted 20- to 25-minute interviews online.
How White identity shaped attitudes about Black Lives Matter in 2020
The large-scale protests immediately shifted public opinion about race, leading more White Americans to acknowledge ongoing racial inequalities in the United States. My interviews led me to develop a theory of White identification with two key dimensions. One dimension, which other political scientists developed, is called consciousness, or a person’s political awareness of being White. The second dimension is valence, by which I assess how much pride (on the positive side) or guilt (on the negative side) people expressed about being White. Where individuals fell on these axes was associated with distinctly different reactions to the 2020 protests, regardless of party.
In the second round of interviews, I found that many had become more aware of privileges associated with being White, which changed their political attitudes and behavior. But those changes were moderated by how they felt about Whiteness. Those who felt guilty were more likely to support Black Lives Matter and to act on that. For example, Kimberly (a pseudonym, as are all names used in this article) talked about reckoning with her own Whiteness by "doing a lot more reading, like with going through a book to challenge myself about all of that.”
Those who felt pride in being White were aggrieved that their racial position was being challenged and were less supportive of Black Lives Matter. For instance, Juliet, a Republican, said she doesn’t “think that skin color should be a part of our central identity. ... There’s not a reason to have Black Lives Matter without actual oppression.” Similarly Tim, a Democrat, said, “There’s some problematic rhetoric when people gather around a specific racial identity and say it’s someone else’s fault we’re being discriminated against.”
What’s different this year?
Let’s look at two major differences between the protests in 2020 and now. The first is that the video recording of Floyd’s brutal murder attracted national news attention. That hasn’t continued. Many respondents told me that the news coverage motivated them to engage with Black Lives Matter. Although that was particularly true for those who felt guilty about Whiteness, even those who felt proud were disgusted by what they saw.
For example, one respondent who felt pride in his Whiteness, Philip, said of the Floyd video, “It’s so unnecessary. … Once you got a guy handcuffed with his hands behind his back, there is no resisting arrest.” While Philip said he still supported the police, the Floyd coverage led him to acknowledge a problem.
Without video footage of Smith’s death or significant coverage of the protests, White people like Philip who feel more pride in their Whiteness are less likely to engage.
Further, in 2020, the pandemic was just beginning — leaving millions unemployed and millions of others isolated. As Maneesh Arora has shown here at TMC, the pandemic helped swell last year’s protests, motivating those suffering financially to take to the streets. And pandemic restrictions left Americans with little to do, helping to focus wider attention on the protests.
In my sample, respondents who recognized their Whiteness and felt some guilt about its privileges were more likely to join the protests. One such respondent, Jasmine, reported that during the pandemic, she was “out on the streets every day or every other day, going to rallies, going to cleanups, and that’s been now my life.” Jasmine was motivated by increasing awareness of and guilt about Whiteness, but the pandemic provided an additional nudge, because she missed “being able to share spaces with different groups.” The protests made that possible.
By contrast, this summer, the nation is open for business again. Less news coverage of ongoing protests and the changing context of the pandemic make it unlikely that as many Whites will join the multiracial coalition fighting for Black lives as did last year. People like Philip who were moved by last year’s unavoidable news coverage may not even know about ongoing protests. Whites who are sympathetic, like Jasmine, probably still support the movement, but have other ways to be among people than hitting the streets.
Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago.