In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Aleena Khan, covers the new article by Tyler T. Reny, Claremont Graduate University and Benjamin J. Newman, University of California, Riverside, “The Opinion-Mobilizing Effect of Social Protest against Police Violence: Evidence from the 2020 George Floyd Protests.”
Have the George Floyd Protests Changed Public Opinion on Race and Policing? It’s Complicated.
A counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes. This was the item that led a Black man, George Floyd to be killed on May 25th, 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer. Within days, millions of protesters across the United States and over 60 countries rallied against police brutality, under the banner of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The George Floyd protests became what is now known as the largest mass uprising of the BLM movement. Yet, this was hardly the first incidence of police violence against Black Americans. Over the years, police killings of Black Americans have propelled the BLM movement further, inciting mass protests and significant media attention. With widespread protests and calls for police reform, political science scholars, Tyler Reny and Benjamin Newman raise an important question in their recent American Political Science Review (APSR) study: How successful are these protests in shifting attitudes toward law enforcement and raising awareness about racial injustice? Reny and Newman show that the BLM protests did change attitudes toward the police and perceptions of anti-Black discrimination – but only among a portion of the public.
To investigate how the protests against police brutality affected the public’s attitudes, Reny and Newman focus on the George Floyd protests in 2020.
Like other BLM protests, the George Floyd protests shared the same inciting incident (i.e., police’s use of excessive force against Black civilians) and the same demands (i.e., police reform and addressing systemic racism). However, in contrast to other protests, the George Floyd protests were characterized by rapid mobilization of the public, large scale and in-depth media coverage, and widespread international support. For these reasons, Reny and Newman argue that the George Floyd protests were more likely, compared to other protests, to change public opinion or more specifically, the favorability ratings toward the police and perceptions of anti-Black discrimination in the United States.
However, Reny and Newman suggest that the changes in public opinion may not be uniform across the public given the considerable degree of partisan polarization over the police in the wake of the Ferguson uprising. Moreover, the emergence of counter narratives focusing on victims’ resistance to police orders, counter-slogans like “All Lives Matter”, and counter-movements like “Blue Lives Matter” may further divide public opinion toward incidents of police violence against Black civilians. As such, views toward the police and perceptions of discrimination against Black Americans may be dependent on an individual’s party identification and prejudice levels. Therefore, Reny and Newman suggest that those who are already sympathetic to the conditions of Black Americans will experience the most attitude change.
To test their theory, Reny and Newman use survey data from July 2019 to September 2020 from the Nationscape Survey (NS), with a total sample of 378,507, an average of about 900 respondents per day. With this data, they are able to examine how public attitudes change on a daily basis. They use a method called a regression discontinuity in time (RDiT) – which leverages the “as-if random” timing of the killing of George Floyd – to examine the shift in attitudes from before to after that event. They selected May 28th, 2020 – the day after the outbreak of protests – as the cutoff point. By examining the public’s attitudes before and after May 28th, Reny and Newman are able to assess how attitudes causally changed in response to the protests and whether these attitude changes are stable in the long-term.
Their findings showed an overall increase in unfavorable views toward the police and in perceptions of discrimination against Black Americans.
Most of this attitude change, however, was observed among individuals who identified as strong Democrats and were less racially prejudiced. These findings supported Reny and Newman’s suspicion that the protests would affect those who were already sympathetic to the BLM movement. Furthermore, the attitude change among the more sympathetic appeared to be somewhat stable long after the protests subsided. Though they find a decline in the unfavorable views toward the police and in perceptions of anti-Black discrimination over time, these attitudes are still at a higher level when compared to the time before the 2020 Floyd protests, indicating that the protests have consequences on public attitudes in the long run.
Reny and Newman conclude that the mass protests in response to police brutality have divided the attitudes of the public – with only some denouncing police brutality and recognizing the existence of racial discrimination. Their findings raise important implications for the narratives that are used in the BLM movement, suggesting that broader appeals to the public have to push against prejudice and partisanship, and perhaps, for national unity instead.
RENY, TYLER T., and BENJAMIN J. NEWMAN. “The Opinion-Mobilizing Effect of Social Protest against Police Violence: Evidence from the 2020 George Floyd Protests.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–9. doi:10.1017/S0003055421000460.