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Excerpted From: Kevin Drakulich, Kevin H. Wozniak, John Hagan and Devon Johnson, Whose Lives Mattered? How White and Black Americans Felt about Black Lives Matter in 2016, 55 Law and Society Review 227 (June 2021) (22 Footnotes) (Reference List) (Full Document)


BlackLivesMatter05This declaration, originally conceived in 2013 after George Zimmerman's acquittal for the death of Trayvon Martin and used as a rallying cry after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has come to represent a larger social movement reflected both in mass protests over a series of deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police and in the work of activists and organizers across the United States . The declaration signifies the root concern of the movement: the devaluation of Black lives evidenced in broad racial inequalities and injustices and highlighted specifically in the disproportionate experience of hostile or fatal interactions between police and Black civilians.

Research suggests the movement's grievances are well-founded. Broadly, Black Americans experience persistent and striking socioeconomic inequalities and disparate exposure to the criminal justice system. More specifically, the police do, on average, treat Black citizens differently, including shooting and killing unarmed Black people more frequently than unarmed white people.

Despite this, most white Americans do not express support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In 2016, only 40% of white Americans expressed any kind of support for BLM and only 14% expressed strong support. Only 28% of white Americans thought that Trayvon Martin's death raised important issues about race, and only 37% felt the same about Michael Brown's shooting. This is in stark contrast to Black Americans, who largely thought both cases raised important questions about race (around 80% for each) and 65% of whom supported BLM, with 41% strongly supportive . Even among police officers, Black officers are substantially more likely than white officers to believe that the deaths of Black citizens at the hands of the police are signs of a broader problem.

Why is it that white Americans hold substantially less favorable views of the movement than Black Americans? To answer this question, we focus on a particular moment in time: the crest of the first wave of widespread attention to the movement in 2016, when protests were widespread across the country and the movement became a significant issue in the presidential election. Based on the specific and general concerns of the movement--police killings of Black Americans as a window into broader racial inequalities--and drawing on theory and past research, we develop and test four potential explanations for the divergence in perspectives. Two are at least superficially nonracial: that differences in support for the movement might be explained by racial disparities in experiences with the police or more generally in differences in affinity for the police. The other two propose a role for racism in explaining views of this racial civil rights movement, investigating basic racial affinity as well as a more modern form of racism that implicates the movement's broader concern: the relative positions of Black and white people in America's racial hierarchy, and the threat to the current racial order posed by the movement.

It matters that so few white Americans feel positively toward BLM. More than 150 years after the end of chattel slavery and more than 50 years after a racial civil rights movement challenged legal segregation and discrimination, the United States remains deeply divided about the persistence of racial inequality and injustice. Public opinion about the central concerns of the movement had political relevance in the 2016 election, and of course has broader consequences for the future of the country's racial divide.

For these same reasons, it also matters why white Americans are less supportive of the movement. Scholarly work generally frames opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a function of racism, suggesting opposition to the BLM movement may be similarly explained. However, there are two related reasons to consider alternative explanations. First, competing public narratives about the motivations behind support or opposition to BLM compel a systematic evaluation. Specifically, counter-protestors and social media critics argued that their opposition was rooted in their support for the police, and explicitly denied racism as a motivation. Second, real differences exist between the 1960s and 2010s, including a striking decline in overt expressions of racism. As a result, it is important to carefully examine the nature and sources of attitudes toward BLM.

The explanations we consider each imply different causal mechanisms. A difference in experiences with the police highlights a white ignorance of the experiences of Black Americans, perhaps protected by persistent segregation. Affinity toward the police speaks to competing claims--that feelings about BLM are not fundamentally about race, but about support for the symbolic guardians of the moral order, or, on the other side, about a hatred of those same guardians and the order they represent (an accusation made by the Blue Lives Matter counter-movement). The explanation rooted in an affinity for Black people reflects the problem of affective ties too rarely reaching across racial lines. Or opposition to the movement might be better explained by a more modern racism--a perspective that anticipates claims of superficially nonracial motivations. This implies something much more problematic: that white opposition to the movement reflects a more fundamental opposition to efforts to upset the racial status quo.

We conclude by situating our findings about views of BLM in historical context, drawing both parallels and distinctions between the Civil Rights Era and the modern one. In the end, racial and racist progress appears to run in parallel and interactive rather than pendular and divergent paths. We also consider the implications of our findings for understanding attitudes toward the movement beyond 2016.

We begin by developing four theoretical explanations for why white Americans, on average, feel substantially less favorably toward BLM than Black Americans. While the four explanations are not necessarily competing--each could explain some of the white-Black difference--we do not present them as equally likely, noting in particular serious questions about the first three that may be resolved by the fourth. The first two explanations are ostensibly race-neutral and focus on experiences with and feelings toward the police. The latter two focus on the role of racism, distinguishing more overt expressions of racial animus from more strategic concerns about group position.

The police

The first possible explanation is that divergent views of a movement concerned with police misconduct are a consequence of race differences in police contact. People of color--and people in communities of color-- experience a greater quantity of police contact, including stops and frisks, searches, citations, and arrests . While white Americans are more likely to initiate contact with the police or have contact with officers offering help, Black Americans are more likely to be stopped while driving and much more likely to be stopped and questioned on the street. Within this contact, people of color--and people in communities of color--are also more likely to experience police disrespect and misconduct, the use of coercive force, and be injured, shot, or killed.

In judging the likelihood of a phenomenon, people tend to privilege their personal experiences. Persistently high levels of racial segregation in the residential, professional, and social lives of Americans insulate many white Americans from the treatment many Black Americans receive at the hands of the police. Consequently, views of the police appear to be stratified not just by the race of individuals but also by the racial composition of the neighborhoods in which Americans reside . And although raising awareness about these kinds of experiences was an explicit goal of the BLM movement, people's selection into media outlets-- themselves relatively segregated--likely prevented many Americans from learning about these experiences in a manner that does not simply reinforce pre-existing beliefs. In short, white Americans may not support BLM both because of their own lack of experience with aggressive police stops as well as their social distance from those who have experienced frequent police stops.

One important problem clouds this explanation. Although people may privilege their own experiences in the absence of direct knowledge of the experience of Black Americans, they also bear some responsibility for this lack of knowledge given the choices they made that resulted in a lack of direct contact with Black Americans or in the media outlets they seek out. Even when people do encounter stories of the problematic treatment of Black Americans by police, they may choose not to believe them or interpret them as exceptional rather than systematic. In this light, an explanation resting on benign ignorance seems insufficient. Charles Mills describes a white ignorance--protected by an “epistemology of ignorance”--that acts to intentionally insulate white Americans from the realities of race. This willful ignorance of inequalities is a core component of theories of modern racism, including laissez-faire and color-blind racism, as we discuss below. In the context of understanding disparities in the criminal justice system, Drakulich and Rodriguez-Whitney describe this as a failure “to critically investigate the inconvenient truths of racial privilege.”

The second possible explanation for Black-white differences in views of the movement is that opposition to the movement is driven not just by experiences with the police but more broadly by feelings toward the police. The police act as representatives of the legal authority and are publicly tasked with protecting citizens from criminal harm and providing order. Psychologists identify “respect for authority” as one of the core moral foundations: nearly everyone has some level of respect for authority although people differ in how important this moral foundation is relative to others like fairness or caring. Thus, many people may have an affinity for the police, especially when they see them as providing important social goods like security and order. This may be especially true amidst broader concerns about social changes in which people may “look to the police to defend a sense of order”. If there are racial differences in support or affinity for the police, they may explain differences in views of BLM. In fact, BLM protestors and politicians who supported them were accused of lacking the proper respect for the police, and even of being motivated by a dislike or hatred of the police.

To the extent that there are racial differences in support for the police, it is also important to consider why they exist, as this may complicate this potential explanation. Work on moral foundations often specifies that this respect is for a legitimate authority. The relationship between legitimacy and respect for authority may be tautological: legitimacy is predicated on the existence of respect for authority and this respect only makes sense when the authority is viewed as legitimate. In this sense, it matters that many Americans, particularly people of color, have sincere questions about the legitimacy of the police. Several theories take different approaches to this phenomena, describing the concerns as rooted in procedurally unjust experiences with the police, as a legal cynicism in which the “the police and courts are viewed as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety”, or as a legal estrangement in which many in poor communities of color correctly recognize the law as operating to exclude them from society. If the police frequently act in racially biased ways, this not only recasts lower levels of support among Black Americans as justified, it also raises troubling questions about the meaning of white support. In short, what does it mean to support the police when the police are publicly accused of racial bias?


The third possible explanation for interracial differences in attitudes toward BLM is that feelings about the movement are rooted in feelings about Black people. This is among the simplest explanations and reflects the logic of the name of the movement, implying that Black lives are not valued equally by all Americans. Research on the contact hypothesis suggests positive intergroup feelings emerge from positive contact between members of different groups. Unfortunately, high levels of segregation, especially in residential communities, mean that affective ties often fail to stretch across racial lines. In this simple sense, then, a greater affinity for Black people among Black people may help explain their greater affinity for BLM.

There is a long history of anti-Black animus among white Americans, one that justified slavery, the post-Civil War Black Codes, the Jim Crow System, and even biased policies in northern cities during the Progressive Era. Thus, antipathy toward BLM may simply be a function of antipathy toward Black people. However, this explanation faces two related potential problems. First, relatively explicit expressions of racial animus--like a lack of warm feelings toward Black people as a group--have declined substantially. Second, many theories of racism focus on group interest rather than simple affection --something that was true even when overt expressions of racism were more common. Further, despite the seeming decline in overt expressions of racial animus, support for policies that disproportionately harm Black Americans and opposition to policies designed to ameliorate racial inequalities suggest a more modern form of racism not reflected in simple measures of racial animus. Thus, a simple indicator of racial feelings may miss a more complicated racial logic that better explains opposition to BLM.

The civil rights movement and subsequent decline in overt racism motivate the fourth and final possible explanation, which focuses not on a simple view of racial affect but on perceptions of racial group interest. A civil rights movement, by definition, presents a threat to the status quo racial hierarchy. Any perceived threats to the existing racial order and existing distribution of privileges and resources will engender racial prejudice as a protective mechanism. This can be seen most dramatically in the rise of racist collective action--including by the Ku Klux Klan --to preserve racial privileges thought to be threatened, but may also be reflected more broadly in public opinion among white Americans. Similar to the lack of support for the BLM movement, a majority of Americans--and white Americans in particular--opposed the protests of the 1960s civil rights movement.

In fact, “modern” theories of racism emerged out of attempts to understand the evolving views of race relations among white Americans both during the Civil Rights Era and in the decades following. Using a survey of Los Angeles residents collected in the months following the Watts Rebellion in 1965, symbolic racism was developed to help understand an emerging phenomenon in which some white Americans expressed support for racial equality in principle but simultaneously opposed policies attempting to ameliorate this inequality. During the Jim Crow Era, some white Americans used openly racist ideologies to justify their dominant position in the racial hierarchy, arguing that Black Americans were fundamentally inferior and thus undeserving of the same legal status as white Americans. However, when legal discrimination and racial inequalities were challenged--as they were by the civil rights movement--those in power began to shift away from openly racial ideologies and toward those emphasizing individualism while simultaneously minimizing or denying the role of historical or contemporary racism as barriers faced by Black Americans. This new form of racism, more covert but still effective at maintaining racial inequalities, has also been described as laissez-faire racism or color-blind racism. A substantial body of prior research has connected these kinds of ideologies to opposition to economic policies intended to address racial inequalities, while a smaller number of studies have connected them to support for criminal justice policies and practices that disproportionately harm Black Americans, Thus, while some of the opposition to a racial civil rights movement like BLM may be expressed in openly racial and racialized terms, some may be expressed in color-blind or laissez-faire terms: emphasizing that existing inequalities are the product of individual successes and failures while intentionally ignoring the very different circumstances faced by members of different racial groups.

This fourth potential explanation addresses some of the limitations of the three preceding explanations. First, we suggested that white ignorance about the experience of Black Americans with the police was an unsatisfying explanation when that ignorance is willful and instrumental as color-blind and laissez-faire theories of modern racism suggest. Second, we asked what support for the police meant in the context of accusations of racial bias against the police. Theories of modern racism suggest people may mask racist motivations--whether possessed explicitly or implicitly --in superficially nonracial positions. In other words, some white people may justify their opposition to BLM on the grounds of support for the police when their opposition is really rooted in indifference toward Black lives and an opposition to calls for racial justice. Finally, the fourth explanation also accounts for the changing nature of racial prejudice from more overt anti-Black bigotry to more covert and implicit modern expressions of racism.

[. . . ]

Our findings have a variety of important implications. The broadest is a reminder to be wary of false narratives masking true motivations, especially for public issues with racial dimensions. The paradox of modern race relations--the persistence of racial inequalities despite improved explicit racial attitudes--can be explained in part by a new racial logic promoting color-blind narratives. Prior work, for instance, has suggested that a focus on individualism to explain opposition to welfare policies or support for punitive policies that disproportionately harm people of color is in fact a cover for explicit and implicit racial animus. Similarly, in the present work, we find that declarations of support for the police as a reason to oppose BLM appeared to be a mask for racial animus and resentment. This suggests that statements like “Blue Lives Matter” may be motivated more by an animus toward Black lives than a concern about police lives.

These findings also have more specific implications for several fields of research. Research on perceptions of the police, for instance, often starts from the assumption that such perceptions are primarily about the police--that differences in perceptions must be a product of differences in experiences and interactions with law enforcement. Our results, however, revealed a more modest role for experiences with the police--at least in terms of the overall likelihood of contact--and found that views of a social movement concerned with the police were primarily shaped by views of race. For research on social movements, these findings help confirm the connection between BLM and earlier civil rights movements and shentd new light on the ways that opposition to such movements is falsely framed in nonracial terms. They also suggest, as discussed above, that we should continue to expect opposition from white Americans at moments when the possibility of real change to the racial order appears most likely. Research on racism often focuses on views of racial economic inequalities. The present findings--in particular the very strong association between racial resentment and opposition to BLM--reinforce the need for scholars to further explore other dimensions of racial inequality, including inequalities in experiences with the police and the criminal justice system.

Finally, it is important to remember the deeply troubling accusations at the core of the BLM movement: that the very institution and individuals publicly tasked with protecting civilians from harm are in fact causing harm to members of marginalized groups. In a democratic society that values freedom and equality--one which emphasizes basic rights to due process and equal protection--these accusations must be taken seriously as posing a fundamental threat to that democracy. In this light, it is striking that most members of the dominant racial group feel negatively toward a social movement raising these issues. How should we understand this indifference or hostility? Our results suggest it is not primarily out of a lack of experience, nor is motivated by support for the police. Instead, it is a dislike of Black Americans, and a resentment of the very acts of pointing out injustice and asking for equal treatment.

The authors would like to thank the American National Election Studies for including questions about the police and Black Lives Matter in their 2016 surveys.

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