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Why most Americans support the protests

Beyond the scenes of protest and resistance playing out in cities across the country, a movement of a different sort has taken hold.

The American public’s views on the pervasiveness of racism have taken a hard leftward turn over the past few years. Never before in the history of modern polling have Americans expressed such widespread agreement that racial discrimination plays a role in policing — and in society at large.

Driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, this shift has primed the country for a new groundswell, one that has quickly earned the sympathy of most Americans, polling shows. As a result, in less than two weeks, it has already forced local governments and national politicians to make tangible policy commitments.

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In a Monmouth University poll released this week, 76 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of white people — called racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States. That’s a 26-percentage-point spike since 2015. In the poll, 57 percent of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified, and another 21 percent called it somewhat justified.

In the Monmouth poll and in another released this week by CBS News, exactly 57 percent of Americans said police officers were generally more likely to treat black people unfairly than to mistreat white people. In both surveys, about half of white people said so. This was a drastic change, particularly for white Americans, who have not historically said they believed that black people continued to face pervasive discrimination.

“There’s definitely been a seismic shift in the country,” said Steve Phillips, a civil rights lawyer and political analyst who founded the advocacy group Democracy in Color.

He pointed to what might have sounded like a radical demand just a few years ago — cutting funding for police departments and redirecting it toward social services — and noted that it has now been openly embraced by some mayors and police chiefs in cities including Los Angeles. “I was interested to see how that would play itself out, and now they’re doing it; it’s actually happening,” Phillips said.

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Also this week, lawmakers in Washington have pushed to end a program that sends military equipment to local police departments, and House Democrats have vowed to unveil a sweeping police reform bill by next week. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden on Tuesday said that if elected president, he would immediately set up a national police oversight commission.

In 2009, the year President Obama took office, just 36 percent of white Americans said the country needed to do more to ensure that black people gained equal rights, according to a Pew Research Center poll. By 2017, four years after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, that number had leapt to 54 percent of white people and roughly 3 in 5 Americans overall.

Sixty-one percent of the country in that poll said it supported Black Lives Matter.

While polls can tell us only what people say they believe — and could therefore be affected by a respondent’s desire to sound politically correct — a 2018 study by two social psychologists determined that even people’s implicit attitudes had shifted during the Black Lives Matter movement.

That study asked more than 1 million digital participants to quickly associate a series of faces (some black and some white) with a series of words. The researchers found that during and after the protests, people were less likely to immediately associate black people’s images with negative words or to quickly tie white people to positive ones.

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The current round of protests is youth-led, and so too, to some degree, is the shift in nationwide sentiment. Millennials and members of Generation Z are far more likely to say they believe police are prone to racist behavior. And according to a PBS/NPR/Marist College poll last year, members of those generations were more than twice as likely to support reparations for slavery, compared with baby boomers and others in older generations.

A Pew survey in 2018 also found a stark generational divide over whether NFL players were right to kneel in protest of racial inequality. Among millennials and teenagers in Generation Z, more than 3 in 5 expressed approval of the protests; among baby boomers and other older Americans, an equally large share said they disapproved.

Similar trends play out specifically among young black people and other people of color, who express a greater desire for sweeping change and a more unanimous suspicion of police. In a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll of African Americans, among respondents 35 and younger, 9 out of 10 said they did not trust police to treat people of all races equally, higher than in any other age group.

Long before he declared himself “your law-and-order president” this week, essentially positioning himself against the protesters, President Trump had put support for law enforcement at the center of his political identity. In the process, he has often singled out Immigration and Customs Enforcement for praise.

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In this case, as in so many others, Trump’s combative brand of politics tends to draw clear dividing lines: Whether you support him will usually coincide fairly cleanly with your stance on any number of issues. Yet throughout his presidency, he has commanded a minority coalition. That’s certainly true now, with his approval rating stuck in the low 40s.

As he embraces harsh tactics against protesters and seeks to label many of those fighting for racial justice as “domestic terrorists,” he has helped force a commitment one way or the other. And for the moment, a large and growing majority appears to be choosing the other side.