Earlier this summer, thousands of Americans spilled into the streets in anger and anguish over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, whose killings at the hands of police and vigilantes sparked an outcry against racism not seen in this country since the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Donations were made. Petitions were signed. Books like “How to Be an Antiracist" and “White Fragility" climbed to the top of bestseller lists. Protests spread from cities to suburbs, denouncing police brutality and demanding justice. More white Americans seemed willing to admit that deep-seated, structural racism did not end with the banishment of Jim Crow.
But recent polling suggests white support for the Black Lives Matter movement has slipped. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, support for the movement fell from 67 percent in June to 55 percent in September. The decline was driven largely by white adults, whose support dropped from 60 percent earlier this summer to 45 percent this month. Support also decreased 11 percentage points among Hispanics — from 77 percent to 66 percent — and six points among Asians — from 75 percent to 69 percent. Black support for the movement, at 87 percent, has remained virtually unchanged.
“The unfortunate reality is that most white Americans are personally not directly impacted by racism. We still live in a very segregated society,” said Mark Warren, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of “Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice.” “So it’s easier for white people to just become passive or accepting of the situation without the sense of the urgency of it.”
The widespread demonstrations reached a fever pitch in June, with tens of thousands in cities across the country defying stay-at-home orders amid the pandemic to rally against police brutality and systemic racism. The protests were unprecedented in their scale and diversity, noted Brandon Terry, an assistant professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies at Harvard University.
Months later, white engagement with the movement has slackened, mainly among white Republicans. The Pew survey found just 16 percent of white respondents who identify as Republican or lean Republican support Black Lives Matter, down from 37 percent in June.
By comparison, support among white liberals has held steady, falling slightly from 92 percent to 88 percent. Terry believes support for Black Lives Matter “has increasingly become a test of one’s support for [President] Trump.”
The decision Wednesday by a Louisville grand jury not to indict any officers on charges related to the killing of 26-year-old Taylor, who was fatally shot in her apartment in March, has inspired a new wave of demonstrations following a recent lull in protests.
But even among committed non-Black allies, energy has waned, said Toiell Washington, 22, one of the young organizers behind Black Boston 2020 and the massive 20,000-person march through Boston on May 31. She attributes the drop-off partly to anxiety and uncertainty about the future of the movement.
“After the marches die down, and everything stops . . . people say, ‘I’m going back to my normal life,’ which is a privilege for some,” Washington said. “The people who were at the front lines, who identify as Black, are still there.”
“We’re still fighting, but we’re drained,” she added. “People get tired. And sometimes you don’t want to be the leader, you want to be the follower. You want somebody to tell you what’s next.”
In the context of US racial history, it is not surprising that support among non-Black groups, and white adults in particular, has fallen, experts said. Historians drew parallels between the current moment and the 1960s, a decade that saw sharp peaks and valleys in white support for the civil rights movement.
Many white Americans who had been apathetic felt compelled to take a stand in the early ′60s after seeing photos of the Birmingham church bombing that left four Black children dead and footage of police terrorizing marchers with dogs, water hoses, and clubs.
“Importantly, that groundswell of support . . . followed white perpetrators attacking nonviolent demonstrators,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a legal historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. “That’s the scenario in which whites are likely to support civil rights movements because there are two clear sides” representing “good" and "evil,” she said.
Polling in 1965 showed a clear majority of Americans in favor of civil rights legislation, with 76 percent of adults backing a proposed law to ensure equal voting rights. But in the second half of the decade, media coverage and political framing of the movement shifted. Some prominent organizers began to question their commitment to strategic nonviolence, and in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, riots erupted in several cities across the country. White America’s support for the movement dwindled.
“What people saw on their television screens in the late ’60s was street protests,” said David Krugler, a history professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “They see chaos, they see a breakdown of civil order, and they say, ‘I don’t want that’ and make an association between that and the civil rights movement and Black power.”
Krugler and Brown-Nagin said white backlash to the civil rights movement was intensified by the “law and order” rhetoric Richard Nixon deployed in his 1968 presidential campaign, which Trump and other political figures have echoed in their derision of protesters today.
“In the very early stages of the protests, I think the Republicans and their surrogates in the press were surprisingly invested in making distinctions between white leftists they caricatured as ‘Antifa’ and Black Lives Matter protesters who received more sympathy. . . . This shifted very quickly, however,” Terry said in an e-mail. “The Trump administration now is engaged in a full-scale demonization of Black Lives Matter, charging them with hatred of whites, police, and America.”
That parallel between the 1960s and 2020 resonated with the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, who came of age in the ’60s and has watched energy for racial justice in Boston wax and wane over the years. “I think it has become political. Some conservative politicians started labeling [protesters] as troublemakers,” he said.
There is, however, one significant way in which the current moment deviates from all historic precedent, specialists said. Despite the backslide in white, Hispanic, and Asian support for Black Lives Matter, a majority of American adults remain in favor of the cause.
“Black Lives Matter has really captured the imagination of the American public in a way that was unthinkable even five years ago. The fact of broad white support for it is truly remarkable in light of history,” said Brown-Nagin. “It is an extraordinary development in the context of a movement for Black lives.”
Elizabeth Rucker, a volunteer for the Boston chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice, or SURJ, a national network of groups mobilizing white people against white supremacy, has seen “a huge uptick” in local interest in SURJ’s work. Since the start of the summer, SURJ Boston had added 60 core members, Rucker said. Their e-mail list has doubled. On Wednesdays, SURJ Boston hosts virtual “action hours,” in which participants make phone calls to lawmakers, write letters to the editor, and organize food and supply drives for organizations led by people of color.
Although participation in the action hours has dropped from a high of about 100 people in June to roughly 20 to 40 people any given week, Rucker said, members have “deepened their commitment" to fight for racial justice.
“I think we are seeing a stronger, more committed movement of people who are now activated, regardless of that drop-off we see," she said.