Do White Americans Support Black Protesters?

June 28th 2015

Aron Macarow

Heading toward the Fourth of July, it feels like the right time to swap potluck recipes and stock up on barbecuing supplies. But the upcoming holiday can also generate more serious conversations about what it means to be American or why America is unique. With foundational stories like the Boston Tea Party ingrained in our consciousness from grade school and recent examples like the Occupy movement, the ability to protest and speak out against injustice usually ranks high on our list of key freedoms. (It certainly ranks high on mine.) It should be no surprise, then, when new polling released this month confirmed that most Americans think our country is always better off when we protest against unfair government treatment -- that is, unless the protesters are Black.

According to a nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey released June 23, 63 percent of Americans believe that protesting unequal treatment by the government improves our country. When asked if protests by Black Americans were always a good thing, however, that number dropped by almost 10 percent to just over half of respondents (54 percent). If we separate the responses of white Americans, the divide grows even more stark. Around two-in-three white Americans surveyed (67 percent) believe in the power of speaking out against government mistreatment via protest. But when the same question was asked to white survey takers specifically about Black Americans protesting against government injustice? Reframed around race, less than half of white Americans (48 percent) agreed with the same statement.

American vs. black Americans who support protesting unfair treatment by the government

“Most white Americans generally believe that protests are good for the country, but they hold significant reservations about protests led by African Americans,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, in the group’s statement on the new poll. “Among white Americans, strong support for protesting government mistreatment drops dramatically among whites when protesters are identified as black Americans.”

But younger white Americans are more likely to support black communities and Black protests, right? Wrong. 

Millennials like to think of themselves as a post-racial generation. MTV’s 2014 bias survey reported that 72 percent of our peers think our generation believes in equality more than older people. And it would be easy to point the finger at older Americans since phone survey response data generally skews older. (It’s often conducted mid-day via landlines.) Unfortunately, looking at the methodology as well as other recent studies, this view of Millennials simply isn’t accurate.

Age actually has less to do with acceptance than we want to believe. PBS wrote in March that younger whites age 17 to 34 were only slightly less likely than the 65-and-older crowd to say that Blacks were unintelligent (1.5 point difference) or lazy (3.6 point difference). Meanwhile younger whites were more likely to say that Blacks were unintelligent (4.3 point difference) or lazy (2.4 point difference) than whites only modestly older than them (age 25-49). Clearly, the narrative of racist attitudes decreasing with younger generations is less straight forward than we thought.

Whites agreeing with racist statements about black people, by percentage

Similarly, younger white Americans were almost as likely to believe the statement that “if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites” as those across all other age brackets. This sentiment is echoed in the MTV bias survey, too, where almost half of white Millennials answered that they thought so-called ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites was as big a problem as discrimination against people of color.

Could our unwillingness to see racial inequality be feeding into white America's mistrust of Black-led protests -- which often bring to light an American history of racial bias that we would much prefer sweep under the rug?

Black protester = thug. White protester = activist. 

Another issue arises in the language that we use. When protests largely comprised of white people are covered in the media, the individuals involved are usually described as activists. And while "activist" can carry negative meaning, it's generally political in nature rather than violent. (Think: 'activist judges.')

Meanwhile, the media frequently mischaracterizes #BlackLivesMatter participants as thugs, destructive and criminal. The same linguistic thread existed historically around around newly-emancipated Blacks, which Radical Reconstructionist era literature called the “black peril” with the suggestion that they would revert to crime without the control of a white slave owner. This language shows up in the courtroom as well. George Zimmerman’s attorney suggested a similar criminality in 2013, saying that Trayvon Martin was a “thug” who “viciously attacked” Zimmerman in his opening statement. And more recently, we've seen the same treatment in reverse by the media of the Charleston shooter, a white male who has sometimes been excused as mentally ill. 

It seems white American, regardless of age, are still afraid of Black mobs because of a historical narrative of black criminality.

This would be comical when police officers nationwide listed anti-government violence by ring-wing extremists as one of the top three biggest threats in a soon-to-be-released study -- if the impacts of such racist assumptions about the black community weren't so pervasive and harmful. (This isn't the first study to rate white men higher than other groups when comparing national threats either. White men are also more likely to be shooters in mass killings than any other race or gender combination.)

So what can we do? 

We can recognize that Millennials aren't anymore post-racial than prior generations. We can step up to the plate, and we can abandon color-blindness.

Sound like a big task? It is, but we can start with small steps, like recognizing the charged nature of the term 'thug,' for goodness sake, which some have commented is no more than a proxy for the 'n-word.' 

Demanding that media and high-profile individuals like Donald Trump, as well as our friends and family, cease and desist may seem minimal. But since it's used so frequently to demean and devalue Black protesters, committing to this action is one more important way that we can show that #BlackLivesMatter. For more starter suggestions, take a look at this list of twelve things white people can do to be better anti-racist allies.