In what may represent one of the more rapid shifts in racial attitudes in recent U.S. history, a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that a broad majority of Americans now believe that both the police and society as a whole are beset by systemic racism — a messaging victory for the Black Lives Matter movement and the related protests that have roiled the nation since George Floyd died last month under the knee of a Minneapolis cop.
Likewise, most Americans reject President Trump’s claim that “law and order” can solve the problem, even as they worry that activists’ preferred approach of “defunding” the police goes too far.
The survey, conducted June 9 and 10, found that the mass protests have triggered a sea change in perceptions of race in America. In 2016, just a quarter of Americans (27 percent) told YouGov that they approved of Black Lives Matter; today, 57 percent say they have a favorable view of the movement.
A similar majority (56 percent) say they have become more concerned about racial injustice in the U.S. since the protests began just two weeks ago.
As a result, 60 percent of Americans now say that “racism is built into American society” and that “the assumption of white superiority pervades schools, business, housing and government.” An identical number say the police have a problem with systemic racism; even more (63 percent) say America has a problem with it. A majority (53 percent) say “many” Americans are racist, while an additional 8 percent describe “most” Americans that way. Sixty-nine percent say race was a factor in Floyd’s killing; 54 percent say it was a “major” factor. And 60 percent say the deaths of African-Americans during encounters with the police are signs of a broader problem rather than isolated incidents, with 63 percent saying police officers don’t treat black and white people equally.
Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, most Americans tended to disagree with such views.
The public has even changed its mind, seemingly overnight, about one of the most contentious cultural issues of the last few years: whether NFL players such as former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick should protest racism and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. Asked in 2016, just 28 percent of Americans considered Kaepernick’s conduct “appropriate”; asked again in 2018, just 35 percent said the same. Now, for the first time, a majority of Americans (52 percent) agree that it’s “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African-Americans” — while only 36 percent say it’s not.
As racial attitudes evolve, Trump appears to be increasingly out of step. A staggering three-quarters of Americans — including 66 percent of Republicans — say the country is out of control. Yet only 36 percent of Americans agree with Trump that “law and order” would help matters; the remainder (64 percent) prefer an approach that involves “bringing people together.” (As of Thursday morning, Trump has “LAW & ORDER!” pinned to the top of his Twitter profile.)
The problem for the president is that he receives dismal marks on uniting the country. Asked whether they agree or disagree with the recent criticism from Gen. Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, that the president “does not try to unify the American people” but instead “tries to divide us,” 60 percent concur with Mattis. Only 15 percent say Trump’s response to the protests has been helpful. Just 31 percent say it was appropriate for the Trump administration to forcibly remove protesters adjacent to the White House. A full 55 percent say the protesters were cleared so Trump could pose with a Bible in front of nearby St. John’s Church — not so security forces could widen the safety perimeter to protect federal buildings, as the administration claimed. The same number disapprove of Trump’s recent tweet baselessly accusing a 75-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., protester who was shoved to the ground and bloodied by police of being an “ANTIFA provocateur.” And in the previous Yahoo News/YouGov poll, conducted May 29 and 30, a minority of white people (43 percent to 46 percent) said yes when asked if Trump is a racist. Today, however, a plurality of white people (46 percent to 39 percent) say he is — a net shift of 10 percentage points in as many days.
Twice as many Americans — 54 percent to 26 percent — think former President Barack Obama would have handled the Floyd protests better than Trump. On the same question, Trump trails presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by 10 points (42 percent to 32 percent); on the question of who would do a better job handling race relations overall, Trump trails Biden by 17 (44 percent to 27 percent). A full 49 percent of Americans say they now plan to vote for Biden in November. Just 40 percent say they plan to vote for Trump.
Which isn’t to say Americans agree with the protesters about everything. In late May, a majority (51 percent) described the Floyd protests as “mostly violent riots”; only 10 percent thought they were “mostly peaceful.” Now those numbers have largely flipped, with 43 percent saying the protests have been mostly peaceful and 21 percent saying they’ve been mostly violent. Yet by a 13-point margin — 43 percent to 30 percent — the public still thinks the protesters have been more violent than the police during the last two weeks, with a majority saying that “most” (12 percent) or “many” protesters (42 percent) have broken the law, while a minority says that most (11 percent) or many (34 percent) police officers have responded to peaceful protests with violence.
Americans disapprove of the police’s response to the protests, with a majority rating it either fair (31 percent) or poor (25 percent). But they also remain skeptical of protesters’ demands. Only 25 percent favor “cutting funding for police departments” — a 9-point increase from last month’s poll, but still far less than the 53 percent who oppose cuts. A full 59 percent of Americans agree that “police departments have a problem with race, but the problem can be fixed by reforming the existing system,” with most of the specific reforms under consideration in Congress receiving widespread support. Just 24 percent say that “police reform hasn’t worked” and that “we need to defund police and reinvent our approach to public safety.” Meanwhile, 64 percent of Americans insist that “we need more cops on the street,” not fewer; black Americans are evenly divided (50 percent to 50 percent) on the issue. When the question about defunding is rephrased as “spending less money on police” in order to invest “more money [in] a community’s education, housing and health care programs,” a plurality (40 percent) are still opposed.
Americans seem more inclined to favor (by a 49 percent to 30 percent margin) “gradually redirecting police funding toward increasing the number of social workers, drug counselors and mental health experts responsible for responding to non-violent emergencies” — a key tenet of most defunding proposals. Yet while a majority of Americans describe the Minneapolis City Council’s recent pledge to dismantle the city’s police department and replace it with a new system of public safety as either a “very good” (19 percent) or a “somewhat good idea” (32 percent), a substantial plurality (45 percent) say they are opposed to their own city council doing the same thing.
There are still limits, in other words, to how much Americans say they are willing to sacrifice to address systemic racism — and how much responsibility they are willing to take. For instance, a plurality (46 percent to 33 percent) say that race relations in the U.S are “generally bad” rather than “generally good.” Yet the numbers are radically reversed — 63 percent good vs. 17 percent bad — when Americans are asked to assess race relations in their own community. By the same token, just 4 percent of Americans say yes when asked if they themselves are “racist.” Eighty-four percent say no. Only 20 percent admit to having any “racial biases” at all.
Cover photo thumbnail: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,570 U.S. adult residents interviewed online between June 9-10, 2020. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education, as well as 2016 presidential vote, registration status, geographic region and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. residents. The margin of error is approximately 3.4 percent.
Read more from Yahoo News: