Study: Racial bias declined during the Black Lives Matter movement — but not during Obama’s presidency

A new study provides evidence that racism in the United States declined during the Black Lives Matter movement, especially among Whites.

The findings, which were recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggest that anti-racist social movements can transform people’s attitudes and reduce racial bias.

“The Black Lives Matter marches are some of the most inspiring demonstrations that we’ve seen and participated in over the past several years,” said Jeremy Sawyer of City University of New York and Anup Gampa of the University of Virginia, the two authors of the study.

“We wondered what impact this mass movement against institutional racism might have on the American psyche. We know that the Civil Rights movement radically transformed racial attitudes in the U.S, and we wanted to know if this new movement could do something similar. Our society fosters racial bias in many ways, and we wondered if an anti-racist movement could change not only overt racial attitudes, but also more automatic racial biases that we can absorb without being fully aware of it.”

The researchers analyzed data from more than 1.3 million Black and White participants who completed the Race Implicit Association (RAI) Test at Harvard’s Project Implicit website between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2016.

The test measured participants’ implicit and explicit racial biases. Implicit biases refer to unconscious positive and negative associations people make with different races, while explicit biases are attitudes that people consciously express.

The researchers found that pro-White implicit bias was on the rise during the Obama administration, but started to decline after the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.

“Our study demonstrates that while overall racial bias in the U.S. was not reduced by the first four years of the Obama presidency, both implicit and explicit racial bias did decrease during the Black Lives Matter movement,” Sawyer and Gampa told PsyPost.

“The beginning of Black Lives Matter coincided with a shift from rising pro-White bias to declining pro-White bias, with additional decreases in bias during periods when the movement was most active in the streets and most visible in the media,” the researchers added.

This change occurred mostly among Whites. Implicit attitudes among the Black participants showed relatively little change. However, Blacks’ explicit attitudes did become less pro-Black as the movement rose to prominence, suggesting both Whites and Blacks moved to more neutral, egalitarian positions.

“We think our study echoes the lessons of U.S. history, in that institutional racism and racist attitudes have been most effectively challenged by mass movements. For example, it took a Civil War to end slavery, and a Civil Rights movement to end legal segregation and racial discrimination,” Sawyer and Gampa remarked.

The researchers controlled for a number of demographic variables, including age, race, Latino ethnicity status, education, political ideology, and gender. But the study, like all research, has limitations.

“The size of the attitude changes we found are relatively small, and an overall pro-White bias remains in our society. We also can’t rule out the possibility that people who were less biased were more likely to take the IAT during BLM,” Sawyer and Gampa said.

“However, attitude changes occurred during high points of the Black Lives Matter movement, and rising pro-White bias in the years before the movement began to decline once the movement began. This evidence supports that idea that the Black Lives Matter movement played a role in these changes.”

“One question remaining to be answered is whether movements that win structural changes in society – like the Civil Rights movement – are more effective in changing attitudes than movements that do not yet have such concrete victories, like Black Lives Matter,” the researchers said. “Finally, our study shows changes in racial attitudes, and future work should explore how this connects to behavior, including actively taking a stand against racism.”

The two researchers added that they don’t agree with political speculation that contends BLM has been counter-productive.

“In the last few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has been demonized by many on the right, and the political climate from the White House down has given confidence to white supremacists who are organizing and carrying out violence, including that in Charlottesville, VA,” they told PsyPost.

“Unfortunately, many liberals have concluded from these events that anti-racist social movements are counterproductive because they inevitably provoke a racist backlash. However, in the period we studied from 2013-2016, we found reductions in pro-White bias among Whites across the political spectrum, including those who identified as very conservative. This suggests to us that anti-racist social movements can have a progressive impact throughout society.”

“Furthermore, political movements have the capability to reach far more people than bias reduction trainings that focus on changing one mind at a time, without challenging the social conditions that give rise to racist ideas in the first place.”

The study was titled: “Implicit and Explicit Racial Attitudes Changed During Black Lives Matter“.