As Protests Against Systemic Racism Continue, How Black Americans Are Responding
On May 25, 2020 a video recording showing the death of George Floyd in real time by Minnesota police officers hit the news. Almost immediately, the unremitting coverage of COVID-19 disappeared. In its place came a stream of videos, statistics and stories highlighting the complicated and tragic relationship between African Americans and American law enforcement. Within a few days, Americans in all 50 states took to the streets in unprecedented, sustained protest against police violence. As the world was seemingly awakened to the pandemic of racism and police brutality, Black people faced yet another ugly reminder of its deep-rooted existence in America.
On day five of these protests, the BET Insights team reached out to the Black community. Through an online survey of 800 African Americans and 500 non-African Americans, BET asked how they are responding to and coping with the recent coverage and protests related to police killings of unarmed African Americans, and how they personally plan to take action against police brutality in the immediate future and beyond.
ACTIVITY AROUND RECENT EVENTS: Most frequently, Black respondents have been staying informed and speaking out: 40% have read articles related to the recent murders and subsequent protests. Thirty-two percent have posted their own words or images on social media; 29% have shared someone else’s content. In terms of taking action, 22% have signed petitions, 16% of Black respondents have protested or marched, and 14% have donated money to a cause or relief effort. Black respondents age 38 and younger have most frequently have taken immediate political action, being twice as likely to have called or written to an elected official.
SOCIAL MEDIA: If there is a medium for this movement, it’s social media. With the exception of those over age 45, all Black respondents report social media as the #1 source for news and updates related to the recent events, non-Blacks report the same. For many Black people, social media has become more than an information source. As US states slowly begin to re-open, over 32% of Black respondents report using social media as a coping mechanism, giving them an outlet to tell their own story or share those of others. In terms of short-term plans, ‘sharing information on social media’ is one of the top 3 ways Black people plan to support the movement against police brutality.
COPING: In the face of the constant news stream, Black respondents have turned primarily to prayer for coping; 47% report praying as a result of this week’s events (51% of Black women vs. 41% of Black men). One-third have reportedly turned off their TVs as a result of recent events. Black men are turning to social media, coping through their social media posts almost two times more than Black women.
PROTESTING: In just over a week, 16% of Black respondents have taken to the streets to demand justice and reform through protesting. Reported rates of protests are higher among Black vs. non-Black respondents (16% vs. 10%). Additionally, Black men are 42% more likely to report protesting in the last week vs. Black women. Across age groups, roughly 19% of Black respondents age 38 and younger report participating in a protest (12% of 39+). Looking at protests through the lens of coping, we see an even stronger correlation across age with younger Black people most often reporting protesting as a method of coping: 25% of Black people surveyed under 38 years vs. only 10% of those age 39 and older.
Regardless of personal participation in protests, 76% percent of Black respondents perceive protestors positively vs. 70% of Non-Black respondents. Positive perception of protestors is highest among Black Democrats, where 82% see protestors positively. Despite lower reported protest participation, older Black respondents are more likely to have a positive view of protestors.
POLICE, PROTESTORS, AND A PRESIDENT: Responders were asked to rate their perception of several groups involved in recent events: protestors, police, looters, news reporters, Minnesota elected officials, and the US President. Of all groups surveyed, Black respondents are most likely to feel positive about protestors (76% positive). Among Black responders, negative perception is strongest toward the President, followed by looters and the police. Black and non-Black respondents differ most on their perception of the President and the police, where less than half of non-Black respondents have negative perceptions, 45% and 42%, respectively, compared to 71% and 62% negative perception among Black people.
MIXED FEELINGS ON VIOLENT PROTEST AND LOOTING: Black respondents are split on the validity of violent protest: 30% agree that ‘violent protests are just as valid as non-violent protests’, while 24% disagree. Black men and younger Black respondents (under age 39) are the most likely to feel the two forms of protest are equally valid (~35% agree).
Black responders have more empathy towards looters, compared to violent protests. Forty-seven of Black respondents agree that ‘frustration and anger are the cause of looting’, and 46% agree with the statement ‘I do not support looting, but I understand the meaning behind it’. Sentiment on the causes of looting are similar among non-Blacks (roughly half of non-Blacks also agree with those statements), however there are differences in how the two groups feel about punishment. Forty-six of Black responders agree that ‘those who loot or damage property during a protest should be arrested’ compared to 72% of Non-Black responders.
RESPONSE FROM BIG BUSINESS: Over 50% of Black responders agree that brands and large organizations ‘should have spoken out before’ and, even more, that they are now ‘only speaking out due to pressure’. While Black respondents agree on many actions brands and large businesses can take to end police brutality, political muscle is most important. Thirty-four percent of Black respondents think the single most important thing brands can do is to either speak out against politicians who do not work to end police brutality, or to withhold financial support from those politicians. While political affiliation and support are important for organizations like the NFL and NBA, Black people surveyed also look to these groups to step up with a public voice. Thirty-five percent of Black respondents say ‘public acknowledgment of the injustice’ is the most important thing sports organizations should do in the fight to end police brutality.
POLICE BRUTALITY VS. BLACK LIVES MATTER: Black and non-Black respondents are equally in support of the movement to stop police brutality (75% and 73%, respectively), however non-Black respondents fall about 10 percentage points short in agreement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
ACTIVISM VS. SUPPORT: While Black respondents stand in strong support for ending police brutality and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (agreement with each movement is over 70%), less than 20% of Black people consider themselves to be “participants” in either movement. Alternatively, Black respondents identify as “supporters” much more often. Fifty-one percent (51%) consider themselves “supporters” of the movement to end police brutality and 61% consider themselves “supporters” of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Black respondents under 38 are most likely to identify as “participants” in each movement, at rates almost 3 times Black respondents age 39+.
CAUSE OF POLICE BRUTALITY: According to our study, Black respondents see systematic racism and corrupt police systems as the biggest contributing factors to police brutality. Forty-six percent say ‘systematic racism’ has had ‘a great deal’ of impact on police brutality vs. 39% of non-Black respondents (this is a 17% difference). Forty-one percent feel ‘a corrupt police system’ has a great deal of impact on police brutality, compared to 38% of non-Black respondents. On the contrary, ‘isolated incidents with bad police officers’ is the #1 most impactful factor among non-Black respondents, 46% vs. 36% of Black people surveyed.
MOBILIZING FOR THE FUTURE: In the short term (4-8 weeks), Black respondents feel they can best fight police brutality through financial support and political engagement with their community; 40% think Black people ‘should support Black-owned businesses’ and 35% ‘getting more involved with community or city politics’. Interestingly, when asked the single most important short-term action for Black people to take, ‘supporting social justice or civil rights organization’ rises to #1. In terms of their personal plans for the next 4-6 weeks, Black respondents are most likely to support Black-owned businesses and share information on social media (30% each); 28% plan to be more involved in community or city politics. Non-Black respondents are most likely to share information on social media (22%), educate themselves on the political and judicial systems (21%), and donate financially (21%). Twenty-four percent of non-Black responders said they were not likely to do any of the options presented.
Ultimately, to impact police brutality in America, Black respondents place confidence in changes in legislation over changes in the police force, noting they feel the biggest impact on police brutality will come from ‘better laws to prosecute and convict police officers’ (66%). Following closely behind this is increased Black voting at the local level (64%). Correspondingly, when asked about their personal long term (6-12 month) plan to personally impact police brutality, most Black respondents (42%) plan to focus more on voting and 29% plan to stay more informed about police, district attorney, or local city official appointments.