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White Americans are finally talking about racism. Will it translate into action?

Polling data shows a seismic shift in white people’s opinions about racism. But opinions aren’t everything.

A portrait of George Floyd is held by protesters as they march across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 9.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

The numbers are enormous.

It’s not just the 100,000 people who protested in Los Angeles last weekend, or the estimated 200,000 who gathered in the nation’s capital, or the thousands more who took to the streets in small towns across the country to rally against racism and police violence in recent weeks.

It’s also the change in public opinion: 76 percent of Americans now say racial discrimination in the US is a big problem, up from 51 percent in 2015. And public support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much in the past two weeks as it did in the previous two years, according to the New York Times.

Some of this change is happening among black Americans and other people of color — for example, 84 percent of black Americans now say racism is a big problem compared with 69 percent in 2015. But perhaps the biggest shift, pollsters and others say, is among white people.

In small towns and across America, “people of color already know that there’s a problem,” Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln who studies racial bias, told Vox. “They have been long aware of racial bias.”

But for some white people, the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd — captured in a video seen by millions around the country — and the worldwide uprisings that resulted have been eye-opening in a new way. “You don’t see inequality in schools, because we go to different schools; you don’t see inequality in wealth,” Candis Watts Smith, a professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State University, told Vox. “But you can see a killing.”

Not only have white Americans watched this graphic killing, for now, at least, they’re paying attention to America’s larger systemic problems of racism and police brutality.

But the question remains whether that attention will be sustained and whether the white people who have become newly aware of police violence and discrimination in recent weeks will support the structural changes needed to fix them. “Historically speaking,” Smith said, “we’ve seen trends where white Americans say that they support egalitarian principles, but they haven’t always followed with egalitarian policies.”

There’s been a huge shift in public opinion on racism and policing, especially among white people

The uprisings of the past few weeks are part of a long history. Thousands protested around the country in 2013 when a Florida court acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old. In 2014, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the killing of Michael Brown, a black man, by white police officer Darren Wilson, led to greater national attention for the Black Lives Matter movement, as P.R. Lockhart reported at Vox.

Those protests had a significant effect on the way people — including white people — talk about race and racism. “People have become more attuned to these issues” since Ferguson, Smith said. In the 2020 primary debates, for example, “Democratic candidates had to say ‘systemic racism,’ and they had to say what they felt about reparations,” she said. “They had to say something about questions of racial inequality in a way that they hadn’t been forced to in the past.”

Still, as of 2016, just 34 percent of Americans said police were more likely to use excessive force if a suspect is black, according to a Monmouth University poll. And as of January 2020, 42 percent of Americans supported Black Lives Matter — a significant portion, to be sure, but still a minority.

Then the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests, became national news, and public opinion changed dramatically and rapidly. Now, 57 percent say police are more likely to use excessive force on black people. And as of June 8, 53 percent of Americans say they support Black Lives Matter, according to a Civiqs poll. Tracking data also shows swift increases in disapproval of the police and belief that black people face a lot of discrimination, according to the New York Times.

The change is coming “at a speed that I don’t think we’ve seen before in American politics,” said Dorian Warren, president of Community Change, a nonprofit that works with grassroots groups in low-income communities around the county.

And a lot of the shift is coming from white people. Looking at changes in polling data over time, “most black respondents in 2014 and now had pretty progressive views,” Duncan Gans, an analyst at the polling firm PerryUndem, told Vox. “Most of the change was among white respondents.”

For example, in 2016, 77 percent of black Americans said that police were more likely to use force on black people. That jumped to 87 percent this year. But among white Americans, the change was much greater, from just 25 percent in 2016 to 49 percent in 2020.

It’s not just polling. White people are also engaging in protests and other activism in ways they haven’t always in the past, many say. Organizers on the ground are pleasantly surprised by the sustained outpouring of support from people of all races, including people getting in touch for the first time asking how they can help, Warren said. “In some ways we’re seeing the vibrant renewal of civic engagement in our democracy.”

That includes many who have taken to the streets in small towns across America, where protests initially got less coverage than those in major cities, as Anne Helen Petersen notes at BuzzFeed. Some of those towns are in parts of America “where you can literally grow up your entire life and not see a single person of color,” Willis-Esqueda said. “That lends itself to having a particular ideology system that would not necessarily reflect reality.”

But now, she said, “I think what’s happening across the US is much like what happened with the Vietnam War,” when Americans’ attitudes were altered by watching coverage on TV. “It’s very powerful to see visual images of what’s happening.”

The George Floyd video may be one reason. History is another.

Indeed, many link the swift change in public opinion, including among white Americans, to the video footage of George Floyd with officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. The May 25 killing came as black Americans were already bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in many communities, becoming sick and dying at higher rates than white people. But that inequality wasn’t starkly visual in the same way.

“We can hear that black people disproportionately suffered from the disease of Covid, but we didn’t see those deaths,” Smith said. “But when you see a man killed slowly in broad daylight, that’s a different kind of thing.”

Supporters of police have tried to explain away past killings of black people, like Michael Brown, by arguing that they had threatened their killers or resisted arrest. But the video of Floyd’s death made that harder than ever, Warren said. “You can’t argue with the facts that you’re seeing, or wish them away, or make up an alternative story, because it’s 8 minutes, 46 seconds.”

Moreover, the Floyd video came on the heels of years of organizing by Black Lives Matter activists, as well as movements like the Women’s March and, further back, Occupy Wall Street, Warren said. It also came after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, young black Americans whose deaths also sparked outrage. Activists have been drawing attention to issues of police violence and race, gender, and class inequality for years, and those issues have only grown more urgent in recent months.

“One way to think about this metaphorically is like an earthquake,” he explained. Organizing by Black Lives Matter and other groups moves slowly, like tectonic plates: “and then all of a sudden they collide.”

The question is, what now?

Now that Black Lives Matter has white Americans’ attention, many are asking what’s next. It’s not clear whether people who say they support the movement in polls also back concrete policy changes to combat police violence and racial inequality. For example, Smith asked, “are more people supportive of reparations, or are more people supportive of shifting funds from police to social services?”

Indeed, in one Yahoo/YouGov poll conducted as protests sparked by Floyd’s death grew in late May, majorities of Americans said that police do not treat white and black people equally and that police are not held accountable for misconduct. But only 16 percent said they would support funding cuts to police departments. That number was even lower — 12 percent — among white Americans, while 33 percent of black respondents said they would support cuts.

Meanwhile, some are concerned that those new to an awareness of police violence and systemic racism may be satisfied with smaller, incremental changes that don’t really get to the root of the problem. For example, some have criticized 8 Can’t Wait, a slate of requirements including a ban on chokeholds aimed at reforming police departments and reducing violence. While the plan may sound good, “some of the more racist and violent police departments have already adopted many of these reforms, to essentially no effect,” Edward Ongweso Jr. writes at Vice.

Those who support the larger goal of police abolition say “we shouldn’t settle for reforms created years ago when their effectiveness is questionable at best, especially when those reforms do nothing to disrupt the political economy of policing or law enforcement,” Ongweso writes.

Beyond policy changes around policing, there’s also the question of whether people will connect what they saw in the video of Floyd’s death to inequities across American society, not just in the criminal justice system.

“I’m curious to see if people connect the issues that they see in policing with other domains of American life,” like education or health, Smith said. After all, “people are protesting with masks because they’re protesting during a pandemic,” one that has killed a disproportionate number of black and Latinx Americans. Smith questions whether Americans are going to be up for delving into those issues, or whether they will be satisfied with a few police reforms, like banning chokeholds or no-knock warrants. “These changes are important, but is the enthusiasm for equity in policing going to spill over to other domains?”

Looking back at American history, “it’s always my concern that people will give lip service to change and to being more ‘tolerant,’” Willis-Esqueda said. However, the current moment does present an opportunity.

“Psychologically, people are upset; they’re motivated to take action,” Willis-Esqueda said. “My hope is that we create some kind of meaningful change.”