A group of young adults participate in a Black Lives Matter protest. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr.

A month after George Floyd’s death, protests continue around the nation and the globe. Wikipedia now maintains a list under “George Floyd Protests” of the 2,000-plus cities and towns where protest marches have taken place. They have been in every state and in over 60 countries as of mid-June. The news media label the protests the “George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests” and increasingly they address both systemic racism and police reform. A Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted June 3-7 found that 74% of Americans supported the “protests following Floyd’s killings.”

Not surprisingly, people have begun to wonder how the Black Lives Matter movement differs from the US civil rights movement 60 years ago. The civil rights movement ended with the passage of the major Civil Rights Act of 1968. It became known as a classic social movement because it created social upheaval and in significant ways transformed the entire society. Political scientist Dewey Clayton conducted a media analysis comparing the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and found very similar distributions between the two in terms of both the number of references to human rights issues and to institutional criticisms. From that he inferred that the two movements framed the issues the same and in other ways were very similar.

Historically we remain in the middle of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) social movement and cannot predict how it will end. But we do know that the BLM movement is responding to the many interests of local communities to reform the police and to reduce racism and inequality. Not only is it shaped by the opinions of the communities of protest, but it is shaping public opinion as well.

Public opinion surveys on Black Lives Matter (BLM) reveal that both the protests and the pandemic have influenced how people feel about BLM. This evidence most notably comes from an online poll conducted by CIVIQS. They had been collecting data on a daily basis since May 2017 about a number of social concerns including Black Lives Matter. Their question wording was “Do you support or oppose the Black Lives Matter movement?” The answers recorded were “Support, Oppose, Neither Support nor Oppose, and Unsure.”

For an entire year ending May 2018, answers to this question did not budge from 40% oppose; 38% support; 20% neither. And from May 2018 through March 2020, those saying they opposed Black Lives Matter (BLM) slowly eroded from 40% to 31%. But during the pandemic months of April and May of this year, support for BLM increased from 40 to 46% with opposition dropping from 31% to 28%. Then during the 14 days of massive protests across the nation from May 26 to June 10, support for Black Lives Matter rose from 46% to 53%; those opposed dropped from 28% to 26%; and those saying “neither oppose nor support” dropped from 24% to 19%. Finally, during the first two weeks of the nationwide protests, support increased an additional 14%.

In summary, for the three years leading up to the pandemic, American support for the Black Lives Matter movement went virtually unchanged. But for the two months of the pandemic lockdown, support increased by 9-percent; and then the BLM protests increased it an additional 14%. The figure below depicts this movement of opinions across the last three years, with the blue line for “support,” orange for “oppose,” and green for “neither.” At this point, it is too early to tell whether this rapid rise in support will continue to grow, fade, or remain stable in coming years.

Support and Opposition to Black Lives Matter, May 2017 to June 2020

Graph showing support for and opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.

A core issue of the BLM movement has been excessive force used by police against black men and women. A Monmouth poll taken the last four days in May asked the following question: “When faced with a difficult or dangerous situation, are police officers more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black, or are they just as likely to use excessive force against black and white culprits given the same type of situation?”

A majority of Americans (57%) said that police officers are more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black when polled during the last four days in May. However, when asked the same questions four years earlier, only 34% gave that answer. This was a substantial 23% shift in public opinion.

Both polls show major spikes in opinions supporting Black Lives Matter (BLM) or its platform during the days just after the unjust death of George Floyd under the knee of a white policeman. As the images replayed around the world, protests in communities around the world spontaneously formed and repeated the messages that BLM had been promoting.

The Pandemic and the Role of the BLM Movement  

Perhaps the biggest surprise in these data is the 9% jump in support for BLM during the two pandemic months before the protest began. During this period statistics had been released showing major racial inequities. In March, Congressional Democrats requested racial breakdowns from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In early April, health agencies and the media began reporting that Black communities were being hit much harder by the pandemic. Not only were Blacks more likely to be unemployed than whites, but Black-owned businesses were much more likely to be shuttered. Not only were Blacks more likely to be infected by the Coronavirus than Whites, but they were much more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.

By mid-May researchers had reached consensus on the effect of race. An article in Lancet said the “evidence is irrefutable” that the infection rate for Blacks is several times that of Whites. And researchers at Yale concluded that age-adjusted analysis of national data showed black people are three times as likely to die of the virus as white people.

A CDC report in June attempted to explain the why Blacks were more likely than other ethnic groups to get infected and die from COVID-19. These were the sets of factors leading to these negative outcomes for Black-Americans: (1) living conditions (densely populated areas, residential segregation, distance from grocery stores and clinics, and over-representations in jails and prisons); (2) work circumstances (working in essential industries, and lack of paid sick leaves); (3) underlying health conditions (greater rates of heart disease, and other chronic conditions, greater levels of toxic stress, and other healthcare inequalities); (4) lower access to care (much less coverage by health insurance, and much less ability to pay for medical costs), and (5) “stigma and systemic inequalities.” No wonder the public opinion of all Americans had started to support the Black Lives Matter movement that had for a number of years been pushing for systemic reforms that would remove the barriers to health and well-being of Black-Americans.

US public opinion over the past 50 years on most topics such as abortion looks mostly flat with little change. Occasionally, an opinion issue comes along that changes with dizzying speed. Opinions on Black lives Matter (BLM) is such an issue and we have seen it jump just in the past days and weeks in response to both the pandemic and the race-related protests.


Ron Anderson

June 16, 2020


Ron Anderson is Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities where he taught sociology from 1968 to 2005. His early work focused on social and institutional factors shaping the diffusion of technology-based teaching. Since 2007, his work has focused on web-based compassion and world suffering.