What inspired you to embark on this research project?
It was my personal experience of the massive changes in public mood, and in accepted political framing and rhetoric, after a summer of BLM protests in the US. It felt as if we were in the middle of cultural revolution, a cascade of change. The mass participation by young and educated non-black people, a large proportion of them first-time protesters, has shifted the way the democratic half of the country perceives their society.
As a consequence of that shift, many institutions – most universities, major art institutions, most big companies – are rhetorically committing themselves to combatting “systemic racism” and dedicating resources to that project, typically by doubling down on existing affirmative action policies.
US history has rarely seen racial inequality and discrimination so high on the political agenda since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I think it is important to capture such a critical juncture and to try to understand how it came about.
What is the main research question?
Why did whites and Hispanics join BLM protests in such large numbers, making up the majority of protest participants? The movement has existed for several years, police brutality and other racist or discriminatory incidents have not changed much in frequency over the past decades. What has moved people with no personal interest in the injustices suffered by blacks? My hunch was that COVID and its wider impacts on Americans must have had an effect, must have acted as a catalyst. The challenge is that there are several competing explanations for this wave of white solidarity and engagement with a black movement.
- Due to the pandemic, people simply had ample time on their hands.
- General frustration within the population needed an outlet, and the BLM movement provided one (in other countries, people joined protests for other causes).
- The movement could have flourished, independent of COVID, because people waited for any kind of opportunity to protest the Trump government.
My own argument, however, relates COVID to BLM participation through the psychological mechanism of compassion:
- Those more exposed to COVID deaths or infections, or laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, became more compassionate to the suffering of others. When the brutal killing of George Floyd became widely witnessed in the form of a YouTube video, many felt the suffering of this man vividly and personally.
- If this experience was combined with openness to certain ideological concepts such as white privilege or systemic racism, white individuals felt a sense of moral outrage and of personal responsibility to ‘do something’. Protest participation offers an opportunity to show to yourself and others that you stand on the right side of the moral divide.
How does your project identify which explanations reflect what is really going on?
To disentangle these possible effects, we use different data sources. First, we analyse county-level data on protest participation with a host of independent variables such as COVID deaths or infections per capita, unemployment increase during the pandemic, restrictions in geographic mobility due to lock-downs, Google searches for “white privilege” or “racism” before the pandemic, and more. Second, we use survey data from another research organisation that allows us to test the hypothesis at the level of individuals. For example, we check whether having been laid off due to the pandemic, or knowing someone infected with COVID, is associated with participation in a BLM protest.
But this statistical analysis cannot confirm that the key to non-black protest participation is compassion induced by COVID, right?
Right. For this, my colleague Gerard Torrats Espinosa and I are developing an experimental survey. We hope it will allow us to see the emotional reactions, as people are exposed to narratives of COVID victims (or not, in case of the control group), to information about racial inequality (or not), and to a detailed story about George Floyd’s last minutes (or not). After these various priming and prompts, we measure survey participants’ interest in donating to BLM, signing a petition for police reform, etc. We also measure their feelings of empathy and compassion with standard questions developed by psychologists.
We are working with the survey company Qualtrix to get a representative sample of non-whites, and currently we are completing the IRB process.
Can you describe what you actually mean by a rise in compassion, and how that affects political mobilisation?
Compassion is increased empathy for the suffering of others if you yourself have gone through or are going through difficulties. If your grandfather has just died from COVID after weeks on a ventilator, you will perceive the minutes-long agony of George Floyd differently. Whether empathy translates into political action, however, depends on attribution: whom you blame for the suffering of George Floyd. Only if you put the blame on systemic forces (racism in the police force, or white privilege and racism in society in general) will you feel responsible and called to action.
Does identity figure in your theory?
Yes, both in the puzzle – for the US, race has always been one of the strongest identity divides, and shared political purpose and action are extraordinarily rare – and in the way compassion works: it decreases the tendency to see only ‘my kind of people’s’ suffering as relevant. It enlarges the moral boundaries of belonging, in other words.
How long will the effect last?
This is very hard to predict. Whatever happens with the movement itself, I think that the cultural-political revolution on the left that it has generated is here to stay. Discourse about ‘structural racism’ and rhetorical commitments to ‘overcome’ it will continue to be de rigueur among coastal elites. Now, whether this is enough to touch the foundations of racial inequality in the US, which is deeply entrenched and thoroughly intertwined with the general dynamics of class reproduction, is a completely different matter, and here I am much more pessimistic. Many of the policy options necessary to address racial inequality in a serious way (such as disincentives for private schooling and massive investment in public schools) would alienate even liberal-progressive elites who are now committed to the rhetoric of overcoming systemic racism.
A bio of Andreas Wimmer can be found here.
Photo credit: "Black Lives Matter protest at a Vikings game" by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0