The Disputed Influence of Black Lives Matter

Research suggests the movement affects voting behavior among African Americans in different ways.

Jeff Roberson / AP

The Democratic National Convention begins this week, with tense race relations as its backdrop. Black Lives Matter, born of police and vigilante violence against black Americans, has shed light on race issues in recent years and is expected to hold demonstrations in Philadelphia where the convention will be held. But while politicians and pundits treat the movement as a proxy issue for the broader problem of racial inequality in the United States to garner electoral support, it may not carry the level of influence over black Americans’ voting behavior that they often credit it with.

Republicans and Democrats remain divided on the acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement, how to address black Americans’ concerns, and the best way to improve race relations. This as the number of Americans who worry “a great deal” about race relations in the United States doubled from 17 percent in 2014 to 35 percent in 2016, after the advent of Black Lives Matter, according to a Gallup poll. A Pew Research Center survey found, however, that only 4 in 10 Americans support Black Lives Matter, with 40 percent of whites backing the movement compared to 65 percent of blacks. When partisanship is added to the mix, the polarization is particularly stark: 64 percent of white Democrats support the movement while 52 percent of white Republicans oppose it.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, while Hillary Clinton has expressed solidarity. Polling shows support for Trump among black voters in the low single digits, raking in only 1 percent nationally and as low as 0 percent in Pennsylvania and Ohio, important swing states.

It would seem therefore that the movement is a top issue for the black electorate when determining whom they will back in November. But a Monmouth University poll found that half of black voters believe the movement has not made much impact on race relations and 21 percent believe it has made things worse. As such, and in keeping with the truism that black voters are neither politically monolithic nor single-issue voters—a fact often belied by its near-uniform voting behavior—there are segments of the black electorate whose voting choices will be uninfluenced by the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump’s and Clinton’s views of it.

In the course of analyzing data from a survey fielded as part of my doctoral research, I found that views of Black Lives Matter affect the voting choices of different parts of the black electorate in vastly different ways. The survey presented 366 black respondents with multiple hypothetical election vignettes to determine the impact of various factors on their voting preferences. They included the state of the economy, black unemployment rate, health-care costs, violent crime rates, positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as on reducing racial inequality, and the candidates’ party, current office, and race.

When asked how best to reduce racial inequality and discrimination, respondents were presented with candidates supporting contrasting approaches—one who backs the Black Lives Matter movement and new civil-rights legislation, and another who prefers increased access to economic opportunity and a message focused on hard work and self-determination. The results showed that the Black Lives Matter movement has a low impact on the voting choices of black Americans, relative to other factors.

There were significant variations between groups within the electorate, however. Broken down by gender, black men were just as likely to vote for the presidential candidate who preferred economic opportunity and hard work as the best way to reduce racial inequality as the one who supported Black Lives Matter and new civil-rights laws. Black women were more likely to vote for the candidate who supported Black Lives Matter and new legislation. Age also played an integral role: The younger the voter, the more important it is to him or her that the candidate supports the movement. Black voters between ages 18 and 24 were much more likely to vote for such a candidate, as were those between 25 and 44. Black voters over 45 were equally as likely to vote for the candidate who emphasized increased economic opportunity as the one who supported Black Lives Matter.

Notably, black voters residing in households with an annual income of less than $60,000 and more than $150,000 held strong preferences for a candidate’s support of Black Lives Matter, but those making between $80,000 and $100,000 annually were much more likely to support the candidate focused on economic opportunity and self-determination. Also, voters with higher degrees in education were less likely to vote for the candidate who supports Black Lives Matter and believes new civil-rights laws are required than the candidate who supports economic opportunity and hard work. These results mirror recent findings that show affluent blacks are moving away from favoring strongly liberal policies.

But no other group of black voters prioritized Black Lives Matter in its voting choices more than single parents. They were, by and large, more likely to vote for the candidate who supports the movement and new legislation than the candidate who prefers an economic approach to racial inequality. This was likely driven by the more liberal leanings of young, black women relative to the rest of the black electorate.

Still, as evident by the survey, Black Lives Matter has not achieved the level of influence over voting behavior that the Civil Rights movement had in the 1964 presidential election, when blacks coalesced behind the candidate in favor of sweeping civil-rights legislation. In fact, of the 10 factors presented to survey respondents, the candidate’s approach to reducing racial inequality ranked eighth. That’s not to say that black Americas have become less concerned about civil rights or inequality. Rather, there is no consensus among them that support for Black Lives Matter is a precondition to receiving electoral support.

In short, Black Lives Matter will continue to shape the national debate about violent policing, racial discrimination, and the disparate black American experience, but it’s important not to conflate the movement’s political power with its electoral influence.