What Has — And Hasn’t — Changed Since George Floyd Was MurderedMay 24, 2021
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, but where are we as a country a year later? Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin, has since stood trial and been found guilty of all three charges he faced: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. It’s a significant verdict, because it is still so rare for police officers to face legal consequences for misconduct.
The summer of 2020 was often heralded as a “racial reckoning” — more on why that’s not really accurate — but what has changed during the last year and what hasn’t? Where is the country after this “reckoning”?
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): There’s been some movement on the police reform front since Floyd’s murder, but most of the progress we’ve seen so far has been at the local level. In Austin, for instance, the city council cut the police department by one-third last summer, despite Republican pushback. Seattle did something similar. And the Berkeley City Council in California approved a measure that shifts traffic enforcement away from the police department.
sarah: Yeah, some cities, like Los Angeles and Baltimore, have also successfully reallocated funds from police departments to other parts of their cities’ budgets to try and address systemic police violence.
maggie (Maggie Koerth, senior science writer): There’s been a lot of inconsistency in the ways reform has happened, though. I’m struck by situations like, for example, how the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center passed a suite of police reforms very quickly after police there shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright this spring … but the city of Minneapolis itself has yet to implement anything nearly as sweeping.
It’s ended up feeling very random — what gets done, what doesn’t and, of course, where it happens.
hakeem (Hakeem Jefferson, professor of political science at Stanford University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): What I found most noteworthy, as a public opinion researcher, was the sizable jump in Americans’ support for BLM after Floyd’s death, and reported increases that suggested Americans were prioritizing race and racism more — even in corners where that kind of support and prioritization is unusual.
Of course, this support would quickly decline in the days and weeks following Floyd’s murder, but I was really interested in whether the change in racial attitudes would be stable. It doesn’t seem that that change has persisted.
sarah: Yeah, Hakeem. I remember this chart from The New York Times showing that in the two weeks following Floyd’s death, support for BLM had moved as much as it had in the previous two years. But of course, as you say, that didn’t last. This is something we’ve seen with other tragedies like mass shootings, where public opinion on gun control tends to ebb and flow.
Polls have found, though, that there is a lot of support for specific proposals to revamp and reform police departments, so has there been an overall shift in talking about police reform since Floyd’s murder?
alex: According to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from last week, only 17 percent of Americans believe race relations are better today than they were a year ago — suggesting that even if there were small-scale changes in policing over the last year, they either went unnoticed or haven’t impacted everyday people.
Black and white Americans also continue to have drastically different views on policing and reform, underscoring how opinions on things like white supremacy, trust in law enforcement and race relations tend to fall along racial and partisan fault lines. For example, a majority of Black Americans in that poll agree with President Biden that white supremacy is the “most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today,” while only 41 percent of white Americans said the same. Black Americans were also more likely than white respondents (89 percent versus 62 percent) to favor reforming current policies guiding the use of force by police.
hakeem: I think the question of whether there is steady support for various reforms is complicated. It seems that activists can garner support for fairly moderate proposals, like the banning of chokeholds. But Americans, especially white Americans, seem quite reluctant to embrace more significant reforms that activists argue would actually bring about meaningful change in the relationships between police and communities of color.
For example, I’m reminded of this work by Kyle Peyton and colleagues who find that support for protests declined precipitously when they were framed as protests to “defund the police” versus protests by Black Lives Matter or protests against police brutality.
maggie: I think it’s also significant that many cities saw a rise in violent crime this past year, even though that increase exists in the context of decades of declining crime rates and the fact that nobody actually knows what caused the increase. We’re starting to see it shape the way conversations about police reform are going.
I mean, here in Minneapolis where I live, we have some big conflicts between the mayor and the city council members who represent our historically Black neighborhoods over proposals for police reform and for combating violent crime and how far those should go.
A little girl was killed by stray bullets recently and the rhetoric is really getting tense. It feels like people are trying to pit police reform against community desires to reduce violent crime. Like if you want the latter, you have to stop talking about the former.
sarah: Yeah, Maggie, it does seem as if one data point nearly a year after Floyd’s death is that support for BLM has fallen while Americans’ trust in law enforcement has risen.
One other thing that seems to have changed in the last year, though, is that it’s not just police brutality that came to the forefront. There’s also been a larger examination of systemic racism in society. For instance, corporate businesses have largely backed BLM and rebuked Republicans for their efforts to make it harder to vote, most notably in Georgia.
Has the past year signaled a change in how corporate America works? How do you reconcile the changes there with the larger conversation around police brutality?
alex: It’s interesting, Sarah. Axios reported last week that the number of people with the title “head of diversity” skyrocketed 104 percent from 2015 to 2020. Meanwhile, the number of people with the title “chief diversity officer” increased 68 percent.
But I’m not convinced these companies are really agitating for social change. That’s because 1) there are business incentives for taking these measures and 2) the Fortune 500 firms undertaking these initiatives are predominantly run by white men. And according to Civiqs, a majority of white Americans have never supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Per their polling, support among white Americans peaked around 43 percent last June, just days after Floyd’s death. Since then, though, their support for the movement has dipped back down to roughly where it was before Floyd’s death.
hakeem: Yep, Alex, you’re exactly right. That peak was very short-lived.
On this point about corporations, there are a couple of ways to think about this. On the one hand, perhaps they should be applauded for speaking out against systemic racism, but I’m reminded here of this piece by Victor Ray written after the Jan. 6 insurrection, which highlights how long it took corporations to divest from white supremacy.
These corporations understand that having seemingly “anti-racist” attitudes sells among key parts of their consumer base, but we should consider how long it has taken for them to come to these attitudes and whether they will use the power that comes with their money and influence to affect real and lasting change beyond the emails they send out.
alex: To Hakeem’s point, one could argue there’s a strong business incentive here, too. Millennials and Gen Zers for example, largely support the Black Lives Matter movement, and, combined, their spending power is in the trillions. Plus, a majority of millennials say it’s important that the companies they buy from share their values.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if these companies issued these pro-BLM statements to mainly ensure they keep business afloat.
sarah: Right, Alex. It seems notable to me, though, that Floyd’s murder didn’t just spark a national conversation around our criminal justice system, but it also triggered a conversation around the forces that allow systemic racism to survive in the workplace (including the media).
But a point you made recently, Hakeem, in a piece about white identity is that some of the current focus on how to be antiracist can still fall short, “as it does not alway prioritize the practical needs of people of color over the emotional and psychological needs of white antiracists.” The fact, though, that we’re talking about these issues more broadly, does strike me as a change in the last year, though.
alex: I think it’s a change, for sure. For the first time in a long time, companies are being held accountable for how they talk about race, diversity and inclusion.
hakeem: My co-author Koji Takahashi and I thought it was really important to point out that in this moment, as the landscape shifts around discussions of race and racism, we have to be careful not to get too excited about what appears at first glance to be antiracist action.
These actions, sometimes adopted by white liberals to assuage the bad feelings they have about being white, can still fall short if they are not sincerely geared toward improving the lives of marginalized people. As we write in that piece, insofar as antiracism is more about white people’s feelings and less about the material conditions of Black people, for example, we should be wary of those who see any given moment as a moment of “racial reckoning.”
maggie: I’m a white person watching this, so I’m not sure if my sense of the changes that have happened would match what Black people see. But I’ve kind of felt a bit like there’s been more cosmetic changes (of the sort of corporate statements supporting BLM Alex was talking about) and fewer systemic changes that look likely to shift equity in the long run.
I think I just did a “jinx” post with Hakeem here. Pinch, poke, owe me a Coke.
alex: One thing I found interesting from the Marist poll I cited earlier is that white Americans (45 percent) are more likely than Black Americans (34 percent) to think race relations have deteriorated in the past year. That may, in part, be because a much larger share of white Americans had a positive view of the status quo to begin with — 42 percent of Black respondents who said that race relations were about the same also said that was a bad thing, compared to just 27 percent of white respondents.
I’m not entirely sure how to explain the disconnect on views of race relations, but it seems as though this is evidence of performative white guilt, as we saw after Floyd’s murder. It seems like people are OK with acknowledging structural racism, but don’t want to admit how things like white supremacy, policing, etc., plays a part in amplifying it.
hakeem: If there were ever a set of conditions that could exercise the many feelings white Americans have about their racial identity and its association with racial oppression, the events of last summer provided all of them. A white police officer brutally murdered a Black person in broad daylight and attention turned immediately and forcefully to discussions of systemic racism and the like. White people were forced to reckon not just with the plight of Black Americans but with their own responsibility for this plight. And that, I’m certain, unnerved many white Americans, on both the political right and left.
sarah: So OK, let’s turn then to what hasn’t changed in the last year.
alex: I might be too cynical here, but I think the data on what reforms did or didn’t pass is irrelevant when we consider that there have only been six days this year where a police officer hasn’t killed a civilian. Additionally, the biggest reform ideas proposed at both the state and federal levels have either stalled or died.
In other words, has policing really changed?
maggie: Oh wow, Alex.
I had not seen that statistic before.
hakeem: Wow, Alex, is right!
alex: On top of that, I think a lot of people used the Chauvin verdict as affirmation that the justice system is working and fairly punishes “bad apples.” But the Chauvin verdict didn’t change or get rid of the racism in America’s criminal justice system and it didn’t change the fact that officers who engage in this type of behavior are rarely punished.
maggie: Chauvin himself had gone unpunished for repeated cases of violence and improper behavior over many years before he killed Floyd. And an investigation by reporters with the Minnesota Reformer found that between 2013 and 2019, just 2.7 percent of police misconduct complaints in Minneapolis resulted in any kind of discipline.
sarah: This was a point Alex made in her write-up of the Chauvin verdict and one FiveThirtyEight contributor Mimi Onuoha wrote about for the site, but something Floyd’s death underscores is our society’s obsession with proof. Floyd’s murder needed to be captured on video, witnessed by a crowd of onlookers and take place in broad daylight.
hakeem: The rarity of these convictions and our surprise even in the face of overwhelming evidence tells us how broken the whole system is.
I was always cynical about the endurance of white Americans’ commitments to racial equality post-Floyd. Racial attitudes are sticky and white Americans’ attitudes about race and justice are notoriously fickle, subject to change as the conditions change.
Frankly, I think folks read too much into these sudden spikes in white Americans’ attitudes, which some interpreted as newfound enlightenment on these matters. To have gotten that excited, you really had to have little sense of history.
maggie: I’m reminded of when FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and I were reporting on police reform proposals last summer. Experts we spoke to were pointing out that most of the time nobody is tracking how well reforms that do get implemented work … or even how well they’re being implemented, to begin with.
Even at the peak of “Hey, maybe change can really happen here” sentiment back in the summer of 2020, the people who study police reform for a living were basically telling us, “IDK, maybe we should try dismantling the police because we’ve tried a bunch of smaller reforms and it’s been undermined or hasn’t worked.”
hakeem: To this point about proof, I think that’s right. In my work, we show rather powerfully, I think, how ambiguity allows individuals to fill in the gaps with their own narratives in response to police shootings.
There was just no room for that kind of ambiguity in this case. But what does that mean for all the instances of police violence not captured on video or ones that don’t take place in front of a crowd of onlookers? Our work suggests that in the absence of this kind of rock-solid proof, white Americans remain very skeptical of the victim and rather supportive of the police officer, on average.
maggie: That’s interesting, Hakeem. That’s one of the things I sort of thought had changed, from just an anecdotal perspective.
But apparently not!
sarah: We talked at the outset about some of the changes we have observed, if imperfect, in the past year, and here at the end, about how big America’s problem with racism still is. What then, if anything, are you tracking on the question of systemic racism and police brutality a year after Floyd’s murder?
maggie: I know I’m going to be paying attention to whether and how cities start actually documenting and publishing metrics of police behavior. It’s just become so clear to me how little of this is tracked and the impact that has on what reform even means.
alex: I’m not expecting robust changes to policing or police reform, largely because the criminal justice system writ large hasn’t changed. But I’m going to be paying attention to where the Black Lives Matter movement goes from here and further explore whether Biden meaningfully talks about race and racism during his presidency. (Which, as I’ve written, is probably unlikely).
hakeem: I can remember quite well being glued to all forms of media when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 and then Michael Brown in 2014 and on and on and on. This really does feel like an intractable problem in the U.S. Whether facing down white vigilantes or white police, Black Americans live under the constant threat of state violence. I don’t mean to be overly cynical here, but I’m just not sure what small fixes around the edge can do to reform a system that appears to me to be rotten at its core in so many ways.
As I tell my students, insofar as I feel any sense of hope, it comes from the persistence of activists, so I’ll be paying attention to movement actors and others holding politicians’ feet to the fire and charting the path forward. I don’t suspect this will be easy, but that’s what I’ll be watching.