But both the grief of the pandemic and the shock of the video are temporary. And if high levels of support for B.L.M. following George Floyd’s death were surprising, the quick about-face was anything but. The precipitous decline in support, especially among Republicans and white Americans, mirrors the increased politicization of the issue by elites. In the days and weeks following Floyd’s death, Republican politicians quickly turned attention away from the actions of a murderous police officer to those individuals protesting the injustice. As just one salient example, three days after Floyd’s death, as protesters took to the streets in Minneapolis, Mr. Trump declared, in memorable rhyme, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Perhaps it is not coincidental then that this phrase finds its roots in the racial unrest of the 1960s, another period during which we observed volatility in white Americans’ attitudes toward racial justice. Though there were moments of sympathy, for example, following the brutal beatings of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, these were ultimately fleeting. When Black Americans took to the streets of American cities to demand a redress of grievances, white support for the civil rights movement declined.
So was this time different? In some ways, yes. Polling does reflect a change since 2018, but for white Americans, this change was temporary. On the other hand, nonwhite racial groups all display sustained higher net support for the movement. This pattern is also worth highlighting. If a broad “people of color” identity is becoming politically potent, we may see more instances of cross-racial coalition building, such as when Latinx activists participated in last summer’s protests, and more recently, when Black activists spoke out against anti-Asian hate crimes. This coalition-building may prove essential in counteracting the backlash toward B.L.M. observed among some whites and Republicans.
Democrats also exhibit higher, and relatively stable, support for B.L.M. Perhaps this helps us understand why every Democratic presidential candidate stressed the importance of racial justice while campaigning. And they did so not only to appeal to their diverse base, but also to white members of their party, many of whom have become engrossed in these issues. Insofar as white support for B.L.M. is distinctly low, it would be even lower were it not for white Democrats.
Another way to judge the significance of last summer is to consider the effects it had on policy. Political science research suggests that protests can pressure elites to pursue tangible legislative action. According to a New York Times analysis, more than 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws since the killing of George Floyd. However, and consistent with the backlash we observe among white voters, these reforms have been met with Republican opposition, or in some cases, legislative efforts to quell future protest.
On Capitol Hill, a Democratic police reform bill introduced last summer met predictable resistance from Republicans. Then a Republican senator, Tim Scott, of South Carolina, proposed his own reform measure in response, which maintained qualified immunity for police officers, among other policies. Democrats lined up in opposition to block debate on the bill leading to its collapse.
This leads us to an important concluding point. Black Lives Matter is a visible and influential social movement; by some accounts it is the largest movement in American history. So it is worthwhile to understand shifts in public opinion toward it. However, the significance of a “reckoning” depends on whether support for Black Lives Matter ultimately translates into policy.