The movement against police mistreatment of African Americans is broadening far beyond its core support in the Black community, with potentially landmark consequences both for the movement itself and the younger generations of Americans who have fueled this spring’s massive wave of protests.
After years in which polls showed that the Black Lives Matter movement operated with limited support and even awareness beyond African Americans, surveys since the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis show it now also has majority support among Hispanics, Asian Americans and even Whites.
This widening circle of concern has advanced the furthest among younger adults, who now express preponderantly favorable views about the movement and have also provided a majority of those who have protested, according to one recent study.
The emergence of this broader transracial coalition, particularly among the young, is fundamentally changing the terms of debate over inequalities African Americans are confronted with in policing and other aspects of society, argues Terrance Woodbury, a Black Democratic consultant whose firm, HIT Strategies, studies attitudes among young adults.
“Essentially, the beginning of the movement for Black lives for many years was a movement of Black people vs. the police,” Woodbury says. “It was a battle that we just could not seem to win. The biggest difference here … is this movement has evolved from Black people vs. the police to young people vs. racism. That’s a very different dynamic.”
That shift may prove pivotal not only for the movement itself, but also for the politics of the massive millennial and Generation Z cohorts. In 2020, according to calculations by demographer Bill Frey, those two generations of Americans born after 1981 will compose roughly as large a share of eligible voters as the baby boomers and older generations born in 1964 or earlier, just under two-fifths in each case.
This spring’s mass uprising against racial inequity may prove a galvanizing cause for the political engagement of these racially diverse generations – especially with President Donald Trump defining the Republican Party in such stark hostility to the demonstrations.
“I think this is a trigger, really,” Frey told me. “Trump could be the trigger for this new multi-racial coalition going forward.”
Broader consensus on racial injustice
Building stronger cross-racial alliances could be critical for the movement for racial equity, because demographic change won’t inherently increase the political leverage of African Americans. Though the US has grown vastly more diverse over the past half century, the African American share of the population has increased only slightly, from around 11% in 1970 to 12.5% now, according to Frey’s calculations from census data.
That pattern will persist in the decades ahead as Whites fall below a majority of the population. Although Frey projects that by 2045 the non-Hispanic White share of the population will fall by about 10 percentage points (from almost 60% now to just under 50% then), he forecasts that African Americans will again increase only slightly, from today’s 12.5% to 13.1% of the total. Instead, Hispanics, Asian Americans and those of mixed race will provide most of the growth.
Already, in 2020, Frey calculates, the Hispanic share of the under-18 population is nearly double the Black share; Hispanics outnumber Blacks in the share of eligible voters among both millennials and Generation Z.
“The country is becoming more diverse, but not so much because of African Americans,” Frey says. “It’s especially Latinos and also Asian Americans.”
That reality underscores the importance of the panoramic diversity evident at this spring’s protests. Recent polling by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 1-in-10 American adults said they had participated in protests this spring – a finding that would translate to about 25 million people.
Critically, in their racial profiles, those who said they had protested virtually matched the overall population: In Kaiser’s findings, African Americans represented about 15% of the protesters, Asians and Hispanics slightly less than that, and Whites around three-fifths.
As Woodbury notes, that broader participation hasn’t disrupted the movement’s explicit focus on racial injustice toward African Americans. Instead, it’s meant that a broader chorus of Americans than earlier in the Black Lives Movement are expressing that discontent.
“For the first time, this is explicitly and exclusively about Black pain,” Woodbury says. “It is just not explicitly and exclusively Black people expressing it.”
A wide variety of public polls show that even before Floyd’s death and the current wave of protest, a rising share of Americans across racial lines have agreed that discrimination against African Americans remains a problem. In Gallup polling, for instance, the share of all Americans who say that Blacks are treated less fairly in encounters with police rose from 43% In 2015 to 52% in 2018, and the share that said racism against Blacks is widespread jumped 10 percentage points from 2009 to 2016.
Whites remain considerably less likely than African Americans to agree with such sentiments and on these questions stark differences still separate the parties. (In one 2019 national survey, two-thirds of voters who approved of Trump’s performance as President said discrimination against Whites was as big a problem as bias against minorities, while three-fourths of those who disapproved of him disagreed.) But public opinion on issues of racial inequity is unmistakably trending toward greater convergence across lines of race and ethnicity.
Recently, the Navigator research survey project run by two Democratic polling firms found broad agreement among African Americans, other people of color (including Hispanics and Asian Americans) and Whites on a long list of potential police reforms, including banning chokeholds, requiring dashboard and body cameras, establishing a national misconduct registry and retrenching the legal “qualified immunity” protection that makes it difficult to prosecute police officers accused of misconduct.
Attitudes toward the Black Lives Movement itself show the same progression. In 2016, Pew found that 18% of Americans described themselves as strong supporters of the movement, while another 26% said they supported it “somewhat.” In Pew polling earlier this month, those numbers had jumped to 38% and 29% respectively. The growth, according to detailed results provided by Pew, occurred across racial lines: The percentage who described themselves either as strongly or somewhat supporting the movement rose from 40% to 61% among Whites, from 33% to 78% among Hispanics and from 65% to 86% among Blacks. (Figures for Asian Americans were not released in the earlier poll but 75% identified as supporters in the new one.)
Moving toward solidarity
That sense of shared interest from Hispanics and Asian Americans in a movement focused on discrimination against African Americans may be the most important trend in these recent polls, given the role those groups will play in the nation’s future growth. Those different communities of color did not always express such common interests.
In polling during the 1990s and the early years of this century, significant numbers of African Americans expressed support for limiting immigration, many Asian Americans opposed affirmative action programs in higher education that benefited Black and Hispanic students (at the expense of their children, they believed) and significant numbers of Hispanics expressed negative stereotypes about African Americans. Those racial fault lines were most visible in the way these different groups divided over the succession of racially inflammatory ballot propositions that California passed during the 1990s to deny public services to undocumented immigrants, end affirmative action and bilingual education, and impose longer prison sentences on repeat offenders.
But many observers believe these groups are allying more closely in part because of a sense of shared threat from Trump, who has rolled back civil rights enforcement (including investigations of local police departments), limited immigration, separated undocumented families at the border and repeatedly targeted immigrants and minorities with racist language, as he did at his Tulsa rally Saturday. Also contributing to the greater alliance may be the heightened priority that young people of all races are placing on confronting systemic bias and inequity.
Polls this spring have consistently found that support for the protests and discontent over police behavior are greatest among young adults. One recent Washington Post/Schar School survey found that more than four-fifths of adults younger than 30 said they supported the protests and that police must continue making changes to treat Blacks fairly, while nearly as many said Floyd’s death was part of a broader pattern. In the latest CNN poll, three-quarters of people aged 18-34 said the criminal justice system favors Whites over Blacks.
Pew’s survey this month also found that four-fifths of adults younger than 30 expressed positive views toward Black Lives Matter, significantly more than any older age group, with little difference again between the views of Whites and people of color.
Similarly, in an online study of younger adults released last week for the liberal organizing group NextGen America, the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, found broad support for the Black Lives Matter movement across every racial and ideological segment of those generations except for the one-fifth who identified as pro-Trump Republicans, says Andrew Baumann, who conducted the survey. Even the Republicans in that age group who are skeptical of Trump preponderantly backed the movement, he found.
While the current movement remains tightly focused on “the pain of Black America,” Woodbury says, the cross-racial nature of the protests points to the possibility of “blending the priorities of our entire generation” around an agenda of greater equity for other minority groups, from Hispanics and Asians to the gay community.
“Systemic injustice is not unique to Black America… it reaches across a lot of racial lines, a lot of demographic faults,” Woodbury says. “That’s where there is an opportunity to broaden the coalition and … the message.”
A crystallizing moment?
The overwhelming consensus about confronting racial inequity across the millennial meneration (generally defined as those born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (tentatively defined as those born from 1997 to 2014) could make this spring’s protests a crystallizing political moment for these two huge and racially diverse cohorts. Together, Frey has calculated, they now represent just over 42% of the population, a larger share than the massive baby boom cohort – born from 1946 to 1964 – did even at its peak (37% in 1964).
While the two younger generations will roughly equal baby boomers and their elders as a share of eligible voters in November, they will clearly exceed the older groups by 2024, with the gap widening steadily after that. But lackluster turnout – fewer than half of eligible adults younger than 30 voted in 2016 – has diluted their impact so far.
Democrats have been uncertain those turnout numbers will improve much this year, both because of presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s very weak performance with young people during the primaries and polls showing younger adults less enthusiastic about voting than older generations. But Baumann says the movement that erupted following Floyd’s death might trigger greater engagement, particularly because it is already driving local policy changes in several cities.
“I think it’s a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle,” he says. “They are seeing that they are taking action and they are seeing change because of it, and it is going to make them realize even more that they can make an impact.”
Young people have provided the critical mass for this spring’s protest movements: The Kaiser poll found that those aged 18-29 made up a majority of the adults participating, more than double their share of the population. In that way, the magnitude of the movement underscores the impact these diverse generations may have if and when they turn out in numbers that more closely approximate their share of eligible voters.
And that prospect underscores the generational roulette Trump is playing as he defines the GOP around his brand of racial nationalism.
Pew found this month that three-fourths of young adults said the President was delivering the wrong message in response to the protests; younger Whites were as likely as people of color to express that view, according to detailed results Pew provided. In the CNN survey, three-fourths of young adults likewise said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of race relations; just 31% of them approved of his overall job performance.
The numbers don’t differ much in young people’s attitudes on other issues where their views collide with the dominant perspective in the contemporary GOP, including climate change, equal rights for gay and transgender people, and legal protection for young undocumented immigrants brought to the US by their parents.
“All the things the Republican Party is defined by right now is absolutely pushing away this generation, and there’s not much time left for them to try to correct that,” says Baumann.
Younger Republican consultants such as pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson counter that these youthful generations express skepticism of centralized institutions, including government, that could open them to aspects of the Republican message. But few of them dispute that the bristling brand of racially confrontational conservatism that Trump has defined is alienating most in these emerging generations.
The prospect that Republicans will remain locked into those positions by a party base attracted to Trump’s message prompts Woodbury to raise a transformative possibility: While Democrats are focused on whether Biden can reach the 60% support among young adults that President Barack Obama notched in 2012 – much less the 67% he attracted in 2008 – Woodbury says that over time Democrats should aspire to winning something closer to the three-fourths or four-fifths of millennials and Generation Zers who take liberal positions on issues, particularly those surrounding race relations.
“As long as Republicans … allow Donald Trump to define their position on race as a party, then it is fueling a realignment,” Woodbury says. “In the equation of young people vs. racism, it is forcing young people and even young Republicans to declare which side of that line they stand on.”
The scale of this spring’s protests over racial inequity, and the diversity of the crowds that have filled them, offers Republicans an ominous preview of how that re-sorting among younger generations may unfold in years ahead if Trump’s brand continues to define the GOP.