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Racism Declined During the Black Lives Matter Campaign

New research suggests those impassioned rallies and demonstrations may have had a positive impact.
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Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrate against police brutality in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrate against police brutality in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Black lives matter. And in the struggle to reduce racism, the Black Lives Movement matters.

That's the encouraging conclusion of new research, which reports both conscious and unconscious pro-white bias decreased during the early years of the political and social crusade.

"Anti-racist social movements like Black Lives Matter may have an effect of moving all racial groups toward more egalitarian racial attitudes," write Jeremy Sawyer of City University of New York and Anup Gampa of the University of Virginia. Their study is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The Black Lives Matter movement was born in July of 2013, as a reaction to George Zimmerman's acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Since then, protests have taken place in every major American city, often receiving major news coverage. This has raised the profile of activists arguing that African Americans are often unfairly targeted by police.

Did that message get through to white America? To find out, Sawyer and Gampa analyzed data from the Project Implicit website, which allows users to take a variety of tests to gauge their levels of implicit, or unconscious, prejudice. One of the tests focuses on race.

Explicit racial attitudes are judged by where people place themselves on a seven-point scale from "I strongly prefer African-Americans to European-Americans" to "I strongly prefer European-Americans to African-Americans."

Implicit racial attitudes were measured using a word association test. "If participants were faster to pair 'white' with pleasant words, and 'black' with unpleasant words (than the opposite), it was assumed that they implicitly preferred whites over blacks," the researchers explain.

The researchers analyzed results on tests taken between January 1st, 2009, and June 30th, 2016. That allowed them to compare racial attitudes during the 4 ½ years before the movement got underway with the three-year period when it emerged and grew.

In addition, they looked at seven specific periods they judged to be "high points" of BLM struggle and resulting media activity, including the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Restricting their analysis to test-takers who identified themselves as either black or white, they utilized data from more than 1.3 million tests.

They found whites' bias in favor of their own race "has decreased concurrent with Black Lives Matter and its high points of struggle." This was true for both the explicit and implicit measures, and for "participants of all political orientations," although the change was greater among self-defined liberals than conservatives.

Importantly, "these results were not due to a historical trend toward decreasing pro-white bias," the researchers note. "Before shifting to a decreasing trend during the Black Lives Matter movement, pro-white implicit bias was actually increasing during the (early) years of the Obama administration."

Results were different for black test-takers, in interesting ways. African Americans' scores on the implicit bias test did not shift substantially during the BLM campaign, and their explicit attitudes became less biased toward people of their own race.

"Decreasing bias on the part of whites during Black Lives Matter may have slightly lessened the need for blacks to maintain explicitly pro-black preferences," the researchers speculate. "The shifts in attitudes for both whites and blacks are consistent with the prospect that social movements may move attitudes closer to an egalitarian position."

Sawyer and Gampa caution that these results do not prove the Black Lives Matter movement directly inspired these shifts. They also note that this was not a scientifically chosen sample; it consisted of people who were curious enough to voluntarily take the test. (That said, weighting the data to better match the country's ideological balance actually increased the shift to less-racist implicit attitudes.)

In the end, these results contradict the argument that racially charge social movements "inevitably polarize whites and blacks against each other." Rather, the researchers write, "social movements and aggregate attitude change could be mutually reinforcing."

"Social struggle may change attitudes," they write, "thereby promoting further protest activity, which in turn would further transform attitudes."

At a time marked by so many downward spirals, it's refreshing to find one that points in a positive direction.