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Have Americans’ Views On Race Relations And Police Brutality Changed Since Ferguson?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Over the past week, there were a number of demonstrations across the U.S., protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. Videotape captured a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, ignoring repeated cries from Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe.”

But while the majority of Americans (61 percent) think Floyd’s race played a significant role, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, there is less agreement on how people are processing the protests. Fifty-one percent of Americans in that same poll described the unrest in Minneapolis as “mostly violent riots,” while just 10 percent described it as “mostly peaceful protests.” A quarter said it was a mix.

In many ways, what happened in the wake of Floyd’s death — the police officer was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday — felt like a watershed moment in how the majority of Americans view deaths at the hands of police. Police chiefs across the nation condemned what happened, as did many conservative news personalities, but in the aftermath of the protests, there has been, as Wesley Lowery of “60 Minutes” describes, a desire to ascribe “simple narratives to explain complicated realities.” In other words, the protests may risk dividing Americans along familiar partisan and racial fault lines.

The subject of race relations in America is complex, but what can we say, at this point, about what has happened as a result of Floyd’s death? Are Americans reacting differently from how they did in 2014, after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri? How have Americans changed — or not changed — on issues of police violence and racial relations since then?

To start, how is this moment different?

john.sides (John Sides, political science professor at Vanderbilt University): If anything, Americans have become more pessimistic about race relations, according to Gallup polling conducted before Floyd’s death.

Gallup has asked since the early 2000s whether relations between white people and black people are good or bad. And among African Americans, the percentage who said “very good” or “somewhat good” fell from 66 percent in 2013 to 40 percent in 2018. Views among white Americans are also less positive than they were in 2013, but they’re still higher than views among African Americans, as you can see in the chart below.

maggie (Maggie Koerth, senior science writer): I see some big differences in how white people, particularly conservative white people, and police officers are approaching Floyd’s death. I first noticed that earlier last week, when conservative family members started reaching out to tell me they agreed with the protesters and thought the police officer responsible for Floyd’s death should be arrested, including the officer’s colleagues who stood by and watched without intervening. And now we’ve seen things like police officers in other cities taking the knee … something I couldn’t have imagined happening a year ago.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): A couple of things are at work: 1) The video of Floyd’s death is pretty unambiguous. We know what happened. That wasn’t the case in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and in some other high-profile deaths by police. 2) We’re in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and economic meltdown. Floyd himself was allegedly trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill, and I think a lot of people see the protests over his death as indicative of the spot we’re in. People have been grappling with death for months. They’re angsty and in lockdown, social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. There are a LOT of emotions swirling in America.

sarah: Right, there’s both this unprecedented moment we’re in, as Clare says, and the fact that views on race relations in the U.S. had already taken a sharp downturn after 2014 during Obama’s presidency, after both the grand jury decisions in Brown’s and Eric Garner’s cases found the police officers not guilty. And as John pointed out earlier, these numbers haven’t exactly bounced back either.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): People see race relations poorly because the Black Lives Matter movement really gained prominence in 2014, Trump emerged as a presidential candidate the same year, and we’ve had racialized conflict ever since.

In other words, people see race relations as poor because they are poor!

The news media is also covering these conflicts in the frame of race conflict a lot, unlike it did pre-2014.

clare.malone: Yeah, there’s probably more nuance in the coverage of these protests and deaths.

maggie: Than previous ones, you mean? I’d agree with that, for sure.

clare.malone: First, we’ve now had a few years of these videos that make people — namely, white people — who aren’t as intimately acquainted with police violence, feel some digital proximity to those events. They are emotionally tugged. And they are then intellectually tugged into the conversation, and then, finally, in an activist way, tugged into actual protests. We’re basically seeing a maturation of the conversation, in part because more people have become aware of the issue and then, I think, the media has matured (slightly) in its coverage.

And what I mean by that is that there’s more awareness of what it means to call something a “riot.” There’s more talk about what motivates looting/anger/violent reactions to police in a protest.

I don’t think you get that without America having had a few years of just seeing these videos over and over again. It’s horrific that we’ve had years of videos of these deaths at the hands of police. But I think that it has made the problem more understood.

maggie: There’s also an element of the heavy-handed response against the press having an impact on how the protests are covered. It’s one thing to be a local TV news reporter covering Black Lives Matter protests in Minnesota a few years ago and framing them largely as a rude, maybe scary, inconvenience. (Which is what I, as a local citizen, saw the media do.) Now, though, when the police are shooting reporters with munitions live on TV, well … the conversation changes.

sarah: Yeah, this piece from Slate caught my eye because, while it pointed out that the police’s public response to Floyd’s death has been different — police officers have condemned the officer and called for him to be charged — the overall police response to protesters hasn’t actually been all that different.

maggie: Yeah. We just published a story on Monday with The Marshall Project, about how difficult it is to change police norms when it comes to dealing with protests — even in the face of 50 years’ worth of evidence.

clare.malone: Of course, you’ve also got forces like the Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York City that feel pretty free to put some nutty stuff/rhetoric out there too …

john.sides: This is not my area of expertise, but there is research indicating that police respond more harshly to protests that are specifically reacting to police brutality.

sarah: What do we know so far about how Americans are reacting to the protests, though?

john.sides: Attitudes toward the protests are mixed. That Yahoo News/YouGov poll you mentioned earlier, Sarah, showed big differences in people’s views of the protests. For example, 33 percent of Democrats described the protests in Minneapolis as “mostly violent riots,” but 73 percent of Republicans said this.

There were also pretty big differences in whether respondents said the riots reflected genuine desire to hold police accountable versus just a long-standing bias against the police. Republicans were 43 percentage points more likely to say it’s just bias.

clare.malone: Yeah, I mean, I’ve even seen the police described as “counterprotesters.”

sarah: It is definitely a weird and troubling dynamic that the organization/people being protested (i.e., the police) are also the ones responsible for ensuring the safety of the protesters.

clare.malone: Right, the protests are about police violence. Yet, in some instances, police feel personally (and physically) attacked by protesters. There’s also an element of politics here, though, in that the police in the Trump era have been talked about more and more as a Trump constituency — the law-and-order constituency — and maybe been given great authority as a result. But then some cops dismiss the protesters as just part of a political dynamic (on the left) that sees them as the enemy.

It’s troubling when the government has a monopoly on legalized violence and that the wielders of that violence — the police — aren’t in many, many cases exercising it in moderation. The videos of police cars ramming protesters, the pepper-spraying of people who aren’t being violent, etc. It’s a bad dynamic.

john.sides: The protests are exactly the kind of event where you’re going to see these differences play out by party and race, too. They’re diffuse events, varying within and across cities. Additionally, it is not always clear what is happening and who is responsible. Are these people looters or political protesters? So ordinary Americans are going to take cues from news coverage and their party’s political leaders to make sense of events.

sarah: Yeah, that Yahoo News/YouGov poll seems to point to this quite clearly. Although Americans have shifted from 2014 in how they view police violence, they still rely on their partisan lenses when it comes to thinking about the unrest that has resulted. Do we have a good explanation for that disconnect?

john.sides: It is one thing to ask Americans about an event with such clear video documentation, like Floyd’s death. That helps to eliminate ambiguity, and it’s why Americans of both parties agree with the firing of the officers involved, according to that same poll. But when it comes to the larger issue of police treatment of African Americans, there’s a lot less agreement. For example, on the question of whether deaths of African Americans during encounters with police are isolated incidents or part of a broader problem, 84 percent of Democrats say it’s part of a broader problem compared with just 32 percent of Republicans.

sarah: Right, and this poll from Ipsos MORI found a strong racial divide as well. Seventy-eight percent of black Americans polled said they didn’t think white Americans understood the level of discrimination they face in their lives.

Has this disconnect on racial relations in the U.S. — especially between white and black Americans or between Democrats and Republicans — gotten worse since 2014? Or has it remained about the same?

john.sides: Overall, attitudes about race line up much more with partisanship than they used to. Democrats and Republicans increasingly disagree on crucial questions like how much racial inequality is due to structural forces like discrimination. What my research with Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck found is that views on issues like racial inequality were one of the key factors that better predicted vote choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. We found this played an even larger role than it did in 2012, predicting vote choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney. And that probably had to do with the fact that the 2016 campaign focused a great deal on racial issues.

clare.malone: The idea that eight years of a black, Democratic president helped accelerate voter awareness of where the parties stood on racial issues is fascinating. And the fact that Trump made a lot of racial subtext in the past four years has done a lot to keep the focus on race in politics and what that means for both parties.

perry: Right, in some ways believing that there is structural racial discrimination is part of being a Democrat now.

john.sides: And it really didn’t use to be this way. Tesler has done some important work on this, finding that there were larger party divides on whether “12 Years a Slave” deserved an Oscar than on the 1995 O.J. Simpson verdict.

sarah: Let’s shift gears a little and talk about the administration. There’s a lot of coverage on how Trump has been notably silent as protests raged outside the White House and across the country. But on Monday, he berated governors for not being tough enough, telling them they have to step up the military response against the protesters and “dominate.”

Clare wrote on Friday about how some of Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric might be shortsighted here in 2020. So where do we think the conversation is headed next?

Biden has his own complications with taking black Americans for granted, as we saw in his interview with the Breakfast Club host Charlamagne tha God. And even President Obama was criticized for not doing enough in response to the Ferguson protests in 2014.

What are the political fault lines here moving forward?

perry: Biden will probably tread carefully — he is trying to stay near what he thinks is the center of the electorate, so that means he will probably want to try hard to not offend the police or black people. I wouldn’t expect his comments on Floyd’s death to resonate with the protesters, though. They seem to be younger and more liberal and want aggressive, transformative rhetoric and policies.

All of this probably does affect his campaign, though. For instance, it’s probably hard for him to pick Sen. Amy Klobuchar as his vice president now. She is being criticized for refusing to file charges against police officers who killed civilians when she was the top prosecutor in the Minneapolis area. So it is hard to imagine Biden choosing her as his running mate given the firestorm around criminal justice issues in her home state. Not to mention that some prominent black Democrats, even before Floyd’s death, were already wary of Klobuchar.

Biden himself will also have to speak about issues of racial inequality more, and he may not be particularly effective at that.

john.sides: Biden will likely turn this into another attack on Trump’s leadership, though — similar to his attacks on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic or the economy. You could imagine him talking about how Trump sat in the bunker with the lights off at the White House and chastising him for trying to blame everything on governors. Biden has already highlighted his willingness to talk directly with the protesters rather than hunkering down.

And that poses a challenge for Trump. He talked about ending American carnage in his inaugural address. But how does he campaign when the carnage has only grown worse since he became president?

It’s not that Trump is directly responsible for the smashed windows or fires. It’s just that Americans sometimes blame incumbent officeholders for a wide array of problems, even ones out of their direct control.

maggie: So Trump is more likely to be punished electorally for the fact that disruption is happening generally than for anything he specifically did or did not do about it?

perry: I think, like COVID-19, it is really hard to see all of this mattering much electorally. The polls are just not moving much. I don’t think voters are learning a ton of new information about Trump from this.

clare.malone: For Trump, his lack of response to this — a death that people of both parties see as unjust — is more an example of the leadership void people have been seeing from him on COVID-19.

john.sides: Figuring out the exact electoral impact is hard. There is evidence that violent protests may have hurt Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in 1968, even as nonviolent protests helped him (and may have given a long-lasting boost to Democrats). But research on the violent protests after the Rodney King verdict in 1992 found that the protests moved public opinion in a liberal direction. We just don’t have a lot of cases to generalize from. Moreover, as Clare and others have rightly pointed out, Trump is the incumbent here, which complicates the analogy to 1968.

sarah: Right, it’s hard to know where things will go from here, but it certainly seems as if Floyd’s death is a turning point in the conversation around police brutality. It’s just an open question of where we go from here.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: The data behind police violence

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”