Weeks of protests and opinion polls have demonstrated that a multiracial coalition of Americans supports a racial justice agenda, focused on big changes to the criminal-legal system. It’s a dramatic turnaround from five years ago, and what’s driving the shift is unclear. But some of the most compelling explanations suggest that, beyond being unusual, this coalition is built on a shaky foundation, rife with conditions and subject to sea changes that already seem to be underway.
The results of an Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published on Tuesday show that 69 percent of American adults — including 65 percent of white people and 46 percent of Republicans — think the criminal-legal system needs either “major changes” or a “complete overhaul”; large majorities “strongly favor” establishing clear standards for use of force, prosecuting officers who use excessive force, and penalizing officers for racially biased policing. (Less popular are two of the more radical proposals that have circulated: reducing focus on policing low-level offenses and less funding for law enforcement, neither of which enjoys more than 46 percent support.) These are remarkable numbers, especially in light of where things stood a few years ago: AP polling from 2015 showed that 58 percent of white adults thought police violence was a serious problem; in 2020, that number is 74. Now, 54 percent of white people believe that police are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person, compared to 39 percent five years ago. The most dramatic difference lies in how white Americans say police should be treated by the criminal-legal system: In 2015, 32 percent said that officers were treated too leniently; today it’s 62 percent, a 30-point leap.
This change in sentiment — which was starkest among whites; large majorities of black Americans already viewed many of these changes favorably — has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers. Congressional Democrats and Republicans have each submitted bills to sate white America’s newfound hunger for law enforcement reform; President Trump has issued an executive order dangling grant money to incentivize local police departments to meet national use-of-force standards. None of these proposals go very far, especially from the Republican camp, but all signal a desire to at least appear as though officials are taking action — even if that action is inadequate, ineffectual, or primed to reinforce the very problems it purports to address.
The pressure to look busy is attributable mostly to the protests and riots that have engulfed the United States since May. Video footage of 46-year-old George Floyd begging for mercy while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, eventually killing him, was the tipping point for an explosive public outcry, perhaps most notable for escaping the Black communities where such unrest is typically confined and spurring white action as well. It’s become normal to see white people composing large pluralities of demonstrators in big cities like New York, where many are subjected to similar rates of indiscriminate police violence as greeted mostly Black protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere between 2014 and 2016. In smaller, majority-white towns and burgs, they’ve composed the vast majority or entirety of dissidents; Black Lives Matter protests recently spread to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where 93 percent of the population is white and 0.5 percent is Black.
There are many potential explanations but no clear answers for why May 2020 is when so many white Americans decided the status quo was untenable. Several of the same elements underlying today’s protests were present in 2014, when Eric Garner was choked to death by police on Staten Island; in 2015, when a University of Cincinnati police officer killed Samuel Dubose and Michael Slager killed Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina; and in 2016, when Philando Castile was killed by police in St. Anthony, Minnesota, while his girlfriend livestreamed his death on Facebook from the back seat of his car. Yet the national response was markedly different. White people protested in some cities, but not in numbers that were remotely comparable to today. Many more regarded with suspicion any claim that violent policing — particularly as demonstrated by its outsize impact on Black people — was a significant problem that merited sustained attention, let alone aggressive government action. Other aspects of American culture have changed course, too. It was rare, then, to see corporate brands pay lip service to caring about race at all; now it feels like a struggle to find a single commercial that doesn’t pair its sales pitch with a reminder that Black lives matter. Employers across the country — many of whom have spent years ignoring complaints from Black staffers — feel suddenly compelled to reexamine the ways they’ve failed to create racially equitable workplaces.
The most straightforward effort to unpack this enigma, at least that I’ve seen, came from NPR’s Code Switch podcast. In the June 16 episode, hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji posed a simple question to assorted white people, including Dr. Nicole Fisher, a regular Forbes contributor who has a doctorate in public health and focuses on human behavior: “Why now?” The answers varied, but a handful of major themes emerged that distinguish today from the last time police violence prompted widespread upheaval. One of most common answers was the tacit social permission granted to formerly apathetic white people by other whites, who’d recently become radicalized and more vocal in their urgency to confront racism. Much of that urgency was attributed to the election of President Trump in 2016; whereas before, the presence of a Black president worked as a pacifying mechanism — Obama was seen as a trustworthy steward of racial progress, respondents indicated — the White House’s current occupant is an open bigot and obvious hindrance to such progress. The third theme was the social tension (and extra free time) caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the government’s bumbling response, and the attendant economic convulsion — dynamics whose contribution to the recent protests I’ve noted before. This latter point was why Fisher joined the podcast episode: Back in March, she wrote a piece for Forbes predicting riots in response to the pandemic, citing historical records that showed the same happening in places ranging from 16th-century Russia to modern-day Liberia.
These findings are anecdotal, and the explanations offered to Code Switch demand empirical study. But all are consistent with a factor that often makes this sort of broad, interethnic political coalition fragile and fleeting: Its benefits are viewed narrowly along racial lines. The latest white fervor has focused mostly on what whites can do to combat racial inequality, a societal arrangement from which they profit and Black people suffer. But the spoils of waging such a fight are unevenly distributed, meaning that white mobilization is forced to depend less on the prospect of material gain than altruism. Whether whites are motivated for such an undertaking depends on them feeling a sense of urgency to solve a problem that most understand as someone else’s. This is almost always fleeting, and rarely works out for the more disadvantaged party. A similar dynamic underpins more distinctly spatial phenomena, like residential segregation, for example: In their book American Apartheid, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton write that confining Black people to exclusively Black neighborhoods accelerates disinvestment and neglect because it reduces the shared benefits of securing social goods, like public works and municipal services; what’s good for Black people is, broadly speaking, understood as only good for Black people.
There are, of course, benefits to be had for white Americans by reining in unaccountable policing — though most didn’t seem to think so until the last few years. Police violence in the U.S. has been a problem for decades, and the subject of strident Black-led protests as recently as 2016. About half of the people killed by American police every year are white; much of the brutality being deployed to quell the current protests has been directed at white dissidents. But the fact that today’s heightened focus — and its attendant policy responses — may have required near-unprecedented levels of social permission granted between white people; the election of recent history’s most openly bigoted U.S. president; and a world-stopping pandemic to reach fruition highlights the tenuousness of a political outcry that rests so heavily on people who, in normal times, enjoy the luxury of noticing such problems selectively, if at all.
On the other hand, we could be witnessing an enduring shift. Depending on the state or municipality, the legislative impact of the last few weeks could hold for years; efforts to shrink policing are already being considered in cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco, and national Democrats’ interest in addressing the issue seems to have grown since the Obama era. To varying degrees, these trends might yield benefits that don’t rely on whether masses of Americans are actively pushing for them. Perhaps large majorities of white Americans have indeed acquired a permanent taste for antiracism. But more likely, and in some places more than others, today’s energy and the circumstances that allowed for it will fade, while lawmakers drag their feet debating the merits of piecemeal half-measures masquerading as solutions. Reactionary backlash will take hold; Republicans in the Georgia Senate are already trying to add police as a protected class under pending hate crime legislation, even with Rayshard Brooks’s grave plot still fresh. The pandemic will — presumably — abate, if not end. Donald Trump will leave the White House, and a new president will replace him. Little in the last six years, meanwhile, suggests that even dramatic spikes in public outrage over police violence are enough on their own to effect long-term change, let alone sustain it; on the contrary, police killings since 2014 have held steady, to the tune of roughly 1,000 dead each year. The question of why so many white Americans feel unusually altruistic these days remains unsettled. Evidence points to motivating factors that are both fleeting and contingent. Anyone who expects them to outlast this exceptional moment does so at their peril.