Can the anger and destruction following the killing of George Floyd have an upside? According to a new poll from the Washington Post and Ipsos, there may be reason for optimist — at least among African-Americans. The overwhelming consensus of outrage over the Minneapolis police’s actions in the Floyd case has stoked hope that real change in policing could be coming.
What form that takes is another matter, but this time the partnership of whites in the demand for accountability has black Americans optimistic that the times may be a-changin’:
While a majority of Americans across all racial groups report feeling sad, angry and troubled by Floyd’s killing, black people perceive the country’s police forces as far more racially biased than white people do,the poll finds. More than half of black adults say they or someone they know had an unfair interaction with police in the past few years. More than a third say there was an occasion when they feared being hurt by apolice officer— much higher than the shares of white and Hispanic Americans reporting the same experiences.
But black people also largely believe Floyd’s death could be a catalyst for change, in part because people of all colors have participated in protests in hundreds of cities and towns and demanded movement from political leaders, actions several survey respondents cited in follow-up interviews. The survey suggests that the avalanche of revulsion to Floyd’s video-recorded killing — including criticism of the Minneapolis police officers’ actions across the political spectrum and a newfound embrace of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” — has sparked hope among black Americans that the country will address discrimination in ways it did not after past incidents in which police killed black people.
Nearly 6 in 10 black Americans believe Floyd’s killing will increase white Americans’ concern about racial discrimination by police. And a narrow majority think police treatment of black Americans is likely to improve in coming years.
“It’s white people’s participation, that’s the difference. They’re the ones who have to see it,” said Dexter Banks, a 46-year-old project manager from Memphis. “We can complain all day long, but if we’re not the majority, there’s not much we can do. They have to have an interest in our problems. As long as they are interested in it, then we have a shot.”
This poll was conducted strictly among respondents identifying as African-American, with a relatively large sample size of 1,153 adults. Almost all (96%) are registered voters too, so one can look at this as a typical RV poll rather than just a sample of random adults.
The optimism in the WaPo write-up starts with a low bar of expectations. Only 4% believe that the US has made all the changes necessary to “give blacks equal rights with whites,” a deeply pessimistic view that tempers any discussion of optimism in the future. Interestingly, this scores slightly better among respondents under the age of 35 (7%), whereas all the other age demos score 2%. In every age demo, more than 90% of respondents think the US has to make more changes to deliver equal rights.
And in an even more pessimistic observation which explains the newfound optimism, 81% of African-Americans think whites don’t understand the level of discrimination in their lives. That’s why the participation of white Americans in the protests and criticism of police matter, although it’s not entirely counteracting that issue. A majority of 59% think the increased attention from the Floyd case to policing issues will get white American more concerned, but only 19% think it will help “a great deal,” while 32% think it will only help “a little.”
Interestingly, only 11% of respondents have personally attended a protest or rally over Floyd’s killing, and only 38% have a close friend or family member who did. And yet, 89% think (lawful) protests are effective (52% think very effective) to improve police treatment of black Americans. One has to wonder why that didn’t prompt broader participation. Could it be that the violence that almost immediately erupted around those turned them off? A strong majority (57%) think the violence and the vandalism undermined the goals of the protests, with 36% saying those undermined the goals “a great deal.”
Other results should give more reason for optimism. Among other strategies for improving the lot of black Americans, 89% believe demanding reform from local leaders would be effective (63% very effective), and 92% believe electing better local leaders would be effective (70% very effective). That suggests that people will put pressure where it is most needed for real reform, rather than wait around for federal solutions that won’t change much on the ground.
Oddly enough, the poll never asks about “defund the police” as another strategy. That’s a strangely missed opportunity. One has to wonder whether that was a deliberate choice.