The recent protests against police brutality are some of the largest and most widespread in American history. An estimated 15 million to 26 million Americans have taken to the streets to protest police violence and advocate for Black lives.
The remarkable size and scope of these demonstrations has translated into real policy gains, too. Dozens of state and local police reforms have been enacted since the protests started. And at the federal level, President Trump signed an executive order that outlines his administration’s priorities for police reform, including creating a national database that catalogues police misconduct. The House of Representatives passed an even more ambitious piece of legislation that proposes a series of reforms, like tying federal funding to bans on chokeholds and setting up a task force to address excessive police force, but the GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t taken it up.
Arguably, though, the protests’ impact on public opinion has been even more immediate and wide-ranging. Unfavorable views of the police, acknowledgement of widespread discrimination against African Americans and support for Black Lives Matter all jumped up by at least 10 percentage points, according to tracking polls conducted shortly before and after the protests by both Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape and Civiqs.
These changes in public opinion are being driven in large part by white Americans, who for years have been much less likely than Black Americans to acknowledge that racial inequality remains a real problem. Since the first wave of large-scale Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, white Americans’ racial attitudes have gradually become more liberalized while Black Americans’ views have remained relatively steady.
Trump’s many offensive statements may be contributing to this trend, as they seem to be driving Democrats, particularly white Democrats, to adopt more liberal views on race in response. That’s one reason so many white Democrats showed up at the most recent protests.
But the protests’ impact on public opinion appears to be fading — particularly among white Americans, as you can see in the chart below. Black Americans’ opinions have stayed much steadier, as they have in the past.
Drawing on data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape’s weekly tracking surveys, I found that unfavorable views of the police are trending back down toward their pre-protest levels among white Americans and have dipped among Black Americans. White respondents are also becoming somewhat less likely to say that African Americans face “a lot” or “a great deal” of discrimination, though those numbers remain higher than they were before before George Floyd was killed in May. Black Americans’ views on the discrimination they face have remained essentially unchanged.
The same patterns are evident in tracking surveys from Civiqs and YouGov/The Economist. In the Civiqs data, white respondents’ net support (support minus opposition) for the Black Lives Matter movement surged from -4 shortly before the protests to +10 in early June, but has since dropped to 6 points underwater. Meanwhile, Black Americans’ net support went from +76 in early May to +85 in early June and has remained within a point of that mark ever since. And in the YouGov/The Economist surveys, the share of white Americans who said racism is a big problem decreased from 45 percent in June to 33 percent when the question was last asked in early August. Three-quarters of Black Americans, on the other hand, said racism was a big problem in both surveys.
Why, then, do white Americans’ views on racism and the police seem to be returning to their baseline, but Black Americans’ views remain steady? Well, as media attention turns away from the protests, it may simply be easier for white people to forget about the issue, while the stakes were always greater for Black Americans.
In an analysis of closed captioning data of cable news broadcasts from the TV News Archive,1 we found a huge spike in the number of clips that mentioned “racism” or “Black Lives Matter” as the protests raged during the first two weeks of June. But, as you can see in the chart below, the amount of attention cable news paid to racism and the Black Lives Matter movement has dropped as we’ve moved farther away from peak protest activity. (Coverage of these two issues is still higher than it was prior to Floyd’s death, however.)2
This surge and decline in media attention clearly corresponds to changes in public opinion among white Americans, and it’s possible that some of the historic gains we’ve seen in white views of the Black Lives Matter movement might not last.
This drop is not surprising, since we’ve seen it before in how public opinion changes on school shootings, for example. Because media attention on even the most high-profile mass shootings tends to be fleeting, so are these shootings’ effects on public opinion. And now, white Americans’ opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement may be following the same trajectory. That’s driving a decline in overall public support even as Black Americans continue to back the movement at very high rates.
This decline in public opinion is consistent with a long line of political science research that tells us that the effects of events on public opinion tend to last only for as long as they are at the forefront of the country’s — or, in this case, one group’s — collective consciousness. That also means that without prolonged activism and sustained media attention, the impact of this year’s protests on white public opinion could evaporate entirely.