From Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey to the usually apolitical Michael Jordan, basically every famous black person in America has made some kind of public statement on the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the broader issue of how police treat black people. Former President Barack Obama, who has generally refrained from making public comments on major news events since leaving the White House, has weighed in several times in very personal terms. Polls suggest that black Americans are significantly more likely than white Americans and Hispanic Americans to say that they watched the video of Floyd’s interaction with the police and the subsequent news coverage of his death, that his race was a factor in what happened to him, and that the police treat black people unfairly.
Of course, it’s not just black celebrities or just black former presidents who have spoken out — lots of Americans across races and parties have voiced concern about Floyd’s killing and what it says about the nation and its policies. And part of the black reaction can probably be explained by partisanship. The general position of the Democratic Party is that Floyd’s race was a factor in his death and that the criminal justice system is biased against black people. So it’s not surprising that black Americans are taking that view, as about 90 percent of them have voted for Democratic candidates in recent national elections.
Another factor, however, likely explains the collective black response to what has been happening in America over the past two weeks: The overwhelming majority of black Americans view their racial identity as a core part of their overall identity, and this black identity and kinship with other black people has likely been heightened by Floyd’s killing and the resulting debate over the status of black people in the United States.
About 52 percent of non-Hispanic black Americans said they viewed being black as “extremely important” to how they thought about themselves, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year. Another 22 percent said it was “very important.” These numbers were considerably lower for non-Hispanic Asian, non-Hispanic white and Hispanic Americans. (More on the story with Asian and Hispanic Americans in a bit — it’s complicated.)1
Similarly, Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape polling from last December found that 75 percent of black Americans said their ethnicity and race was “very important to their identity,” significantly higher than the share of Hispanic Americans (58 percent), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (40 percent) and white Americans (30 percent) who said the same. Another 15 percent of black Americans said that their race was “somewhat important.”3
This heightened sense of black identity does not appear to be a particularly recent phenomenon — or one that was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which began to emerge in 2013. In 2012, about 70 percent of black Americans said that being black was either extremely or very important to their identity, about the same proportion as in 2016, according to surveys conducted as part of the American National Election Studies. In both years, black Americans expressed much greater ties to their identity than white or Hispanic Americans did.4
Part of the story here is about ethnic and racial groups other than black Americans — why aren’t an overwhelming majority of white, Hispanic or Asian Americans saying that their race or ethnicity is very important to their personal identities? This is not a simple question, and we won’t try to unpack it all here. Penn State political science and African American studies professor Candis Watts Smith, who has written extensively about identity, said that “Asian” and “Hispanic” aren’t really the identities that some people who fall under these groups associate themselves with. Hispanic Americans, she argued, might think of themselves as Cuban or Mexican but not embrace the broader Latino or Hispanic labels. Similarly, some Americans of Chinese or Japanese ancestry might not describe themselves as Asian or feel much attachment to that identity. White Americans, Smith said, tend not to think of themselves racially, she said, because “whiteness is viewed as normal by white people.”
Some scholars, most notably Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, emphasize that a significant number of white Americans do define themselves by their race, though still at lower rates than black Americans. Her research suggests that people with high levels of white identity tended to vote for Trump in 2016, and you can imagine more liberal-leaning white Americans would avoid talking about their pride as white people to avoid being cast as racist. Also, at least one poll, the 2016 Collaborative Multi-Racial Post-Election Survey, suggests that Asian Americans and Latino Americans express fairly similar views to black Americans in terms of having a positive view of their association with their racial or ethnic group.
That said, experts agree that black Americans express high levels of connection to their blackness. Karyn Lacy, a University of Michigan sociology professor who wrote a book on black middle-class people living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, said that the people she interviewed for her research wanted their children and grandchildren to be close to the broader black community.
“There is a lot of joy in being black,” Lacy said of the people she interviewed. “This is a really important point. Most of the media coverage of black people is negative. Scholars have spent a lot of time documenting the racial discrimination blacks experience. We do need to know about how and why discrimination persists. But there is very little attention to all the good things about being black.”
“We’re left with the impression that black people wake up every morning thinking, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to be black today, and it’s going to be awful.’ None of the people I interviewed held that view,” Lacy added. “They take a lot of pride in being black and worry that their kids might not embrace being black with the same enthusiasm.”
The centrality of racial identity to black Americans is important to consider in a lot of contexts. We mentioned earlier that black attitudes about policing could be explained in part by partisanship, namely that the overwhelming majority of black people vote Democratic. But that skips over something that’s extremely important to understand: Why are black people so much more Democratic-leaning than other ethnic and racial groups? Part of the answer sits in the power of black identity — scholars argue that, to some extent, black Americans vote as a collective to defend the broader group and sometimes shame and discourage other black people from voting Republican and breaking with that collective.
“Nobody likes Kanye right now,” Smith joked, noting that many black people have become frustrated with Kanye West since he started associating himself with President Trump and making controversial comments on racial issues.
Black NBA players’ doing everything they could to embrace Obama when he was president and then largely shunning Trump is no doubt related to those two presidents’ divergent personas and political stands, as well as to partisanship. But it’s tied to identity too — black NBA players took pride in a fellow black man being president and were angry after Trump slammed NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in America. Winfrey, in her decades as a celebrity, has generally avoided partisan politics. But she was very vocal in backing Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign and Stacey Abrams in her 2018 Georgia gubernatorial run. Obama became America’s first black president; Abrams would have been the nation’s first-ever black female governor.
“Their identity stems from lived experiences with discrimination, bias, violence, inequality, broken promises, empty rhetoric,” said Rosalee Clawson, a political science professor at Purdue University who studies the politics of race, class and gender. “I think we would be shocked if blacks didn’t share a sense of linked fate with their racial group.”5
So it’s worth considering Floyd’s killing and the black community’s reaction to it in that context. Police in the U.S. pull over, arrest and shoot and kill black people at much higher rates than their 13 percent share of the U.S. population. So perhaps men like Jordan and Obama see what happened to Floyd as something that could happen to them.
And it could. But it’s also likely that these famous black men and women, like most black Americans, view being black as a big part of who they are, and so feel that they should speak out when an issue related to being black is all over the news.
“Most of them were not always celebrities. And they have [black] friends and neighbors. And black celebrities face some of the same denigrating things [based on their race] as an average black person,” said Smith.
Even rich black people think, “It could have been me, it could have been my family member or my neighbor or a member of my community,” said Smith.
Being black, she said, “is always in their consciousness.”