Americans around the country are protesting the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed last week in Minneapolis by a white police officer, as well as other recent instances where black civilians died at the hands of police officers. But while the protests are largely about the deaths of black people, the protests themselves are not all-black events — there have been plenty of white people at the demonstrations. These white protesters are representative of a broader phenomenon, and an important way in which the country has changed since the Black Lives Matter movement first emerged in 2013.
White Americans, particularly those who are younger, college-educated or liberal-leaning, have shifted their views on racial issues in the last several years, increasingly saying that they view the United States and many of its policies as discriminatory against black people.
This shift didn’t happen in the last few weeks — FiveThirtyEight wrote about it in early 2018, for example, and Vox dubbed it “the Great Awokening” about a year later. But these protests and the white presence at them are another point in the growing body of data that shows many white Americans have become increasingly conscious of discrimination against black Americans — particularly in the years since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in 2012 and Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014.
Here are some of the most important findings from recent polls about the racial views of white Americans in particular, but also other Americans, and how those views have shifted over the last several years.
White Democrats share black Americans’ views on police
Eighty-eight percent of white Democrats said that police treat black Americans less fairly than white Americans, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year. That’s similar to the number of black Americans (84 percent) and black Democrats (86 percent) who expressed that view. Similarly, 86 percent of white Democrats said they thought the overall criminal justice system is unfair to black people — right in line with the share of black Americans (87 percent) and black Democrats (90 percent) who said the same.1
Eighty-four percent of white Democrats and 78 percent of black Americans said they thought the killings of black Americans by police officers was part of a broader pattern, not a series of isolated incidents, according to a 2019 YouGov survey.
You can see the shift over time in this Pew question we highlighted in that 2018 article, about whether the country “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites”2:
The trend also shows up in this General Social Survey question about the government’s role in addressing past discrimination against black Americans:
Many Republicans share policing concerns
There is a wide gulf between white Democrats and white Republicans on most racial issues, with white Democrats being much more likely than white Republicans to see evidence of discrimination against black people. But it’s worth noting that on criminal justice issues specifically, a fairly large bloc of white Republicans do see evidence of discrimination based on race.
Forty-three percent of white Republicans said that the police treat black people unfairly compared to white people, according to that same 2019 Pew survey. And 39 percent of white Republicans in that poll said the criminal justice system as a whole is unfair to black Americans. While the YouGov survey found that the majority of white Republicans (69 percent) said that police killings of black Americans were isolated incidents, 31 percent viewed them as part of a broader trend.
We don’t yet have many polls conducted since Floyd was killed, but a Yahoo/YouGov survey released amid the protests over the weekend showed similar numbers: 39 percent of all Republicans said they thought the criminal justice system treats white people better than black people. And a plurality of Republicans, 48 percent, said that the police don’t treat white and black people equally, compared to 42 percent who thought both groups got the same treatment. That there is some wariness of the criminal justice system among Republicans shouldn’t be that surprising — after all, in 2018 President Trump signed into a law a criminal justice reform package.
White Democrats focus on broader inequality
As you saw in the chart above, in 2009, 50 percent of white Democrats agreed with the idea that “the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites,” according to Pew polling. By 2017, that number had increased to 80 percent. Similar shifts are evident on other policy questions regarding race and inequality. The number of white Democrats who support reparations for black Americans who are descended from enslaved people has increased from 11 percent in 2002 to 33 percent in 2019, according to Gallup polling.
White Americans increasingly agree with the notions that “black people have gotten less than they deserve” and “slavery and discrimination still hold black people back today,” according research by Sean McElwee of the left-leaning Data for Progress. White Democrats saw almost as much evidence of racism as black Americans on an extensive range of issues, according to the 2019 Pew survey.
This shift and focus among white Democrats isn’t just about racial issues that primarily affect black Americans. White Democrats also seem to have increasingly positive views of immigrants, perhaps reacting to Trump’s efforts to curtail immigration. And surveys suggest Democrats, including men, see substantial evidence of gender discrimination negatively affecting women, perhaps a result of the #MeToo movement.
But, as mentioned, in contrast to policing and criminal justice, there’s still a big gap between white Republicans and white Democrats on most other questions about discrimation against black Americans. For example, 64 percent of white Democrats said that America has not gone far enough to give black Americans equal rights, according to the 2019 Pew survey. Just 15 percent of white Republicans held this view, while 31 percent said America had gone too far in trying to give black people equal rights. Sixty percent of white Democrats in that survey felt that America’s voting system is unfair to black Americans, compared to 7 percent of white Republicans.
Republicans simply haven’t shifted all that much on these issues in the years since the Black Lives Matter movement became a national issue. According to the 2017 Pew survey, 36 percent of Republicans said the country needs to make changes to ensure black Americans have the same rights as white ones, similar to the 30 percent who said that in 2009. Nine percent of Republicans in 2009 said that racial discrimination was the main reason black Americans can’t get ahead in America; that number was up only slightly, to 14 percent, eight years later.
Nonwhite Democrats are shifting a bit too
According to the Pew poll from 2017, 90 percent of black Democrats said the country needs to make changes to give black Americans equal rights to whites, compared to 81 percent in 2009. Among Hispanic Democrats, that number surged from 49 percent in 2009 to 76 percent in 2017.
In 2013, 47 percent of black Americans and 61 percent of Hispanic Americans described themselves as satisfied with how black Americans are treated in American society, according to Gallup polling. By 2018, those numbers had dipped to 18 percent among black Americans and 39 percent among Hispanic Americans.
Support among black Americans for reparations increased from 55 percent in 2002 to 73 percent in last year, according to the 2019 Gallup survey.
Young, educated Democrats may drive changes
According to the 2019 Pew survey, 55 percent of white people over age 65 think too much attention is being paid to race and racial issues in America. So do 56 percent of white Americans who have a high school degree or less.
In contrast, a majority of white people with a bachelor’s degree or more either think America is discussing racial issues an appropriate amount or that the nation isn’t talking about them enough. A majority of white people between 18 and 49 also hold this view.
Research from Data for Progress suggests that white millennials are much more likely than older white people to agree that black people in America face structural racial discrimination.
You are probably thinking that white people with bachelor’s degrees and under age 50 are increasingly aligned with Democrats, so if many college-educated white people and white people under 50 are Democrats, could they have simply have adjusted their racial views to match the broader Democratic Party?
But there’s some evidence that people are increasingly choosing which party they align with based on racial issues. So it might also be the case that some white people under 50 and college-educated white people see a lot of racial discrimination in America, and that causes them to align with Democrats, while people who think racial issues get too much attention are aligning with the GOP.
This article has focused on white people, but we should emphasize that many of these protests are organized and spearheaded by black leaders, with many black people in attendance, as well as people of other races. None of this data is meant to downplay the role of that black leadership, or suggest that the protests are somehow better or more important because white people are attending. And the white presence at these protests is hardly unprecedented — there were plenty of white people involved in the civil rights activism of the 1960s.
All that said, the protests are a vivid illustration of a broader shift in American politics: The Democratic Party is increasingly a coalition of people of all races pushing for racial equality.