George Floyd’s Murder Changed Americans’ Views on Policing

But will those shifts lead to lasting reforms?

Black Lives Matter protesters holding signs
Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

President Joe Biden likes to recall a conversation he had with Gianna Floyd, George Floyd’s daughter, at Floyd’s funeral last summer. “Daddy changed the world,” she told Biden. If the first step to changing the world is changing people’s minds, Floyd’s murder one year ago did that—though just how much, and with what long-term effects, remain unclear.

In the weeks following Floyd’s May 25, 2020, death in Minneapolis, the country saw an astonishing shift in public opinion. The number of Americans saying that Black people face serious discrimination, holding unfavorable views of the police, and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement spiked in the weeks after his murder. But since that peak, views have tempered somewhat, with support settling below the highs of that summer. Notable shifts persist, but they’re unevenly distributed within the population.

The most significant changes have come among white Americans, with reactions diverging based on partisanship. Black Americans didn’t require any epiphanies on race in the United States: They live it, and polls have long shown that Black people, while hopeful about the future of the country, hold a more negative—or more realistic—view of race relations.

“These have been issues that have been a priority for African Americans for a long time—for decades. Last year, it was really just put into the spotlight for America writ large,” says Mario Brossard, a pollster at Global Strategy Group and a co-author of a recent report on Black voters’ priorities. “The one thing that may have changed [for African Americans] is the optimism.”

One source of hope is the growing recognition within the broader population of unequal treatment of Black Americans, demonstrated by the massive, diverse protests in summer 2020 as well as the widespread approval for the conviction last month of Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder. Before the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery last spring, Americans believed that race relations were improving, according to the online pollster Civiqs. That trend quickly reversed. Gallup found that Americans are now more conscious of race as a problem in American society, with the biggest shifts coming among white people.

Since the early months of the Trump administration, Civiqs has been asking Americans about their views on Black Lives Matter. Support for BLM increased among pretty much every demographic during summer 2020, a pattern that appears across different polls.

“Last summer was an inflection point for awareness around racial-justice issues and the need for policing reform,” says Bryan Bennett, the director of polling and analytics at the Hub Project, a progressive coalition, and an adviser to the Navigator poll.

Since then, support has subsided among most groups, but it hasn’t done so evenly. White progressives remain supportive: Navigator found that three-quarters approved of BLM in April, down slightly from 82 percent in June 2020. This parallels a broader shift in views among white liberals, with the group now to the left of even Black voters on some racial issues (though notably not policing).

But just 16 percent of white conservatives supported BLM in the April Navigator poll, a drop from 27 percent last summer. The Civiqs poll helps explain what happened: More than creating an increase in support for BLM, Floyd’s murder seems to have led to a real but ephemeral softening in opposition to BLM among conservatives. The number of Republicans saying they opposed Black Lives Matter steadily dropped over the past few years, from 83 percent at the outset of the Trump administration to just 58 percent immediately after Floyd’s death. The change didn’t come from growing support for the movement, which topped out at 9 percent in Civiqs’s surveys, but from mounting ambivalence. Today, however, Civiqs finds that Republican opinions are virtually identical to where they stood four years ago. A recent NPR poll even found that Republicans feel like race relations have improved since August 2017—a result that sets them apart from every other slice of the respondents, including Black people, white people, Hispanic people, Democrats, and independents. (A quarter of Republicans also believe that white people face “a lot” of discrimination, according to the Pew Research Center, more than the number who believe that Black people face similar prejudice.)

Among respondents who are Hispanic or members of other minority groups, support for BLM increased about 10 percentage points over the same four-year period, per Civiqs. In fact, that margin—from eight to 10 percentage points—recurs over and over. In every age bracket, for example, there’s been a jump that size in support for Black Lives Matter. But younger Americans are much likelier than their older counterparts to support the movement, which augurs growing support in the population over time.

BLM is, however, a vexed and potentially misleading proxy for attitudes about race and policing. It is an effective shorthand for last summer’s protests and views of police violence, but the movement also quickly became a target for Republicans and conservatives. Then-President Donald Trump, having condemned Floyd’s killing, quickly pivoted to denouncing BLM as “a symbol of hate,” and those who support it as “thugs.” Conservative media sought to connect the movement to antifa. These attacks, combined with the rallying effect of partisanship as November’s election neared, sapped much of the newfound support for BLM.

“There was a moment in the initial days and weeks following the video’s release where it felt like there was a universal condemnation, including among other police forces, which you almost never see,” says Omar Wasow, an assistant politics professor at Princeton. “In the months since, even something as plain and visceral as a video of one person resting his full body weight on another and that person being convicted of murder has become another partisan issue. For a nontrivial chunk of the population, it’s gone from having a kind of singular moral force to being a point of division by party.”

Nevertheless, the protests and voters’ responses to them may have helped swing the presidential election away from Trump and toward Biden. First, Black voters turned out in droves in 2020. A recent analysis by the progressive data group Catalist found that despite Trump winning a slightly larger percentage of Black voters than he did in 2016, increased Black turnout helped lead to Biden’s victory. And while Black voters had no shortage of reasons to turn out in November—the past four years provided many answers to Trump’s infamous 2016 question “What the hell do you have to lose?”—the protests were likely a major factor. Brossard notes that while older Black Americans are regular voters, younger Black Americans—who are less consistent voters—also came out in 2020.

Drawing conclusions about white voters’ reactions is more complicated. Ahead of the election, voters consistently panned Trump’s handling of race and the protests, and the post-Floyd effects on conservative opinion had not fully decayed by November, though they have by now. Wasow has studied public-opinion reaction to the civil-rights protests of the 1960s, and found that violent protests (as contrasted with violence by the state against protesters) helped create a backlash that elected Richard Nixon in 1968.

The scale of violence in the summer of 2020 pales in comparison to that in the 1960s, but violent protests—including the burning of police stations and other buildings—did occur in cities including Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; and Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Economist’s G. Elliott Morris calculated that Biden underperformed his expected vote share in and around Kenosha, particularly closer to where violence had broken out, as compared with Milwaukee. Biden was still able to eke out a win in the Badger State, which was closer than most states, but the apparent loss of potential votes points to the mixed effects the protests may have had on voter behavior.

Even with the polarization of views on BLM, and despite the partisan gap, Floyd’s death has created a window for agreement and policy changes. Large majorities of Americans backed the Chauvin verdict, despite high-profile attacks by the likes of Tucker Carlson, though that is partly a testament to how unique Floyd’s case was. Six in 10 respondents (though only three in 10 white conservatives) in Navigator’s polling said the country needs to change the way the police operate, including 50 percent who said that big changes are needed.

While conservatives may be less eager to broach racial subjects (one focus-group attendee called it “necessary but icky”), the Navigator poll found that nearly two-thirds of all voters back the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban police choke holds and no-knock warrants, among other reforms. Biden had set a deadline today for that legislation, but amid slow yet promising bipartisan negotiations on Capitol Hill, he’s waived the deadline. Many cities and states have already passed at least some changes to laws about policing.

This common ground and the changing opinions that created it may still be fragile. Violent crime, including murder, is on the rise around the country, and higher crime rates have historically brought about public demand for tougher policing. This time may be different, or such demands may be tempered by greater skepticism of the police, but the question of public reaction is still open. Pulling in the opposite direction, Black Americans who helped put Biden in office and hand Democrats tenuous control of the Senate want to see results.

“Last year, Joe Biden said Black voters had his back during the election and he would have Black voters’ backs moving forward. Black voters are watching to see if he does what he said he was going to do,” Brossard says. “It was really a hopeful vote last year. Black voters have really high expectations for this administration, particularly as it relates to race relations.”

These countervailing dynamics make for an unpredictable future. The only certainty is that new examples of police brutality against people of color will keep the issue in the public eye.