A majority of American voters support the demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice that have roiled the country over the past month, embracing ideas about bias within the criminal justice system and the persistence of systemic racism that are central tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a new national poll of registered voters by The New York Times and Siena College.
Fifty-nine percent of voters, including 52% of white voters, believe the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis was "part of a broader pattern of excessive police violence toward African Americans," the poll found. The Black Lives Matter movement and the police had similar favourability ratings, with 44% of registered voters viewing the movement as "very favourable," almost identical to the 43% rating for the police.
The numbers add to the mounting evidence that recent protests have significantly shifted public opinion on race, creating potential political allies for a movement that was, within the past decade, dismissed as fringe and divisive.
It also highlights how President Donald Trump is increasingly out of touch with a country he is seeking to lead for a second term: While he has shown little sympathy for the protesters and their fight for racial justice, and has continued to use racist language that many have denounced, voters feel favourably toward the protests and their cause.
A survey of battleground states critical to November's election largely mirrored the national results. Fifty-four percent of voters in those states said the way the criminal justice system treats Black Americans was a bigger problem than the incidents of rioting seen during some demonstrations. Just 37% said rioting was a bigger problem, though Trump and his allies have tried to discredit the protests by focusing on some isolated incidents of violence.
It has not worked."I probably didn't understand what bringing people together meant until Trump started talking the way he does," said Rita Hopkins, 55, from rural Clark County, Missouri, in the northeastern part of the state. "Now I see what a president says can divide people."
Hopkins, a white registered Democrat who describes herself as a centrist, said she was particularly galled by Trump's comments at one point during protests over Floyd's death that the Secret Service had been prepared to sic the "most vicious dogs" on protesters outside the White House gates.
The words immediately brought to mind photos of Alabama police aiming snarling dogs at peaceful Black protesters.
"I hate to say it, but I had forgotten about those pictures I had seen," said Hopkins, who lives in an overwhelmingly Republican county. "I kind of thought we had gotten past that."
The attitudes cut across race, geography and educational status, and speak to a country that has been awakened through protests to complaints that Black Americans have long made about police brutality and systemic racism. What began in the Democratic primary, in which white liberals showed a new openness to candidates speaking frankly about systemic injustice, has continued into the general election, with a spotlight on Trump's response.
The coalition of people sympathetic to the protesters' cause, including Latino voters, exposes the limits of Trump's tendency to exclusively speak directly to his overwhelmingly white and conservative base. As with other issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, the administration's narrow focus has been derided by experts and voters, who say the governing strategy does not reflect the country's broader interests, or the current political realities.
"Over the past six years, so much of the work has been focused on convincing the country - and convincing policymakers and white communities that there's an actual problem," said Samuel Sinyangwe, an activist and co-founder of Mapping Police Violence. "Now there's been universal condemnation of the George Floyd incident and a recognition that things needs to change."
Though the poll overall shows former Vice President Joe Biden in a very strong position, especially on racial justice, and voters' belief in his ability to unite a divided country, it also indicates how difficult a task that could be:
More than 40% of white respondents agreed in some measure that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as other forms of discrimination, reinforcing a theme of white grievance politics that the president and his supporters have long expressed.
There are also broad generational gaps between how voters are responding to the national moment of unrest. Every age bracket said the use of force by the police against Black Americans was a bigger problem than looting at demonstrations, however support for Black Lives Matter gets more tepid among older voters, the polls found. Sixty-seven percent of voters ages 18 to 29 viewed the Black Lives Matter movement as "very favourable" as did 54% of voters ages 30 to 44.
Among people 45 to 64, the support dropped to 37%, while 22% viewed the movement as "somewhat favourable." Voters 65 and over were the least persuaded: Only 31% had a "very favourable" view of the Black Lives Matter movement, and 25% had a "somewhat favourable" opinion.
Michael Berlinger, 67, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and considers himself an independent voter, said he thinks the Black Lives Matter movement is too myopic. The protests over Floyd's death have been too destructive, he said.
"The whole message has been undermined in a lot of ways," said Berlinger, a white retired teacher. "I'm not a big fan of people who break the law to say they're working for a cause. I don't think that's the correct way of doing it."The looting and the property destruction were "a dilution of the message and the results they wanted to achieve."
Berlinger is likely to vote for Trump, he said, but he described the choices on the Republican and Democratic ballots, respectively, as one between "a lunatic and a senile senior citizen.""I think all lives matter," Berlinger said. "The Black and blue lives, and red, white and blue lives."
Charles Defever, a 28-year-old Minneapolis Democrat, said he felt this was a moment to get more involved. His activism was limited to the occasional comment in support of Black Lives Matter on social media - until he saw the video of George Floyd's arrest, he said.
"I was not very active, and my interest would fade," said Defever, who is white and works as a produce buyer for a food wholesaler. "I would write on the Black Lives Matter page and see truth and pain and hurt in so many people I know but would not go out and protest."
"I've spent a lot of time at the state Capitol listening to young Black and brown youth speak about the world they want, and that's the world I have," he said.
Defever was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont but said he planned to vote for Biden because he was "better than having destructive Republican policies and leadership."c.2020 The New York Times Company
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