Talking about it and being about it

talking about it and being about it

Talking about it and being about it

Differences by race in the perception of policing and protests
Key findings: 
  • There are profound differences by race in attitudes about recent protests against police violence. For white respondents, the protests were a call to awareness, whereas nonwhite respondents saw the protests as a call to action. The “call to awareness” entails talking about privilege and achieving understanding, whereas the “call to action” entails concrete reform rather than mere talk.
  • When asked about their views of the police, white respondents often resort to very abstract characterizations of police, typically referring to them as a benign force. By contrast, nonwhite respondents turn immediately to concrete examples of their interactions, most of which were anything but benign.
  • The differences by race in attitudes about protest may reflect the differences by race in experiences with police. The concrete “call to action” comes from respondents with concrete negative experiences with police, whereas the abstract “call to awareness” is associated with respondents who typically have limited, abstract, and benign experiences with police.
Corey D. Fields, Rahsaan Mahadeo, Lisa Hummel, Sara Moore

There are a number of words with the syntactic capacity to accurately represent the feel of the rebellions of 2020: “intense,” “furious,” “eruptive,” “explosive,” and “transformative.” To describe the uprisings as “spontaneous,” though, would be disingenuous. There is a genealogy to the massive protests of 2020 that can be traced back to historical forms of structural and racialized violence that endure today. Mark Twain once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The continued police violence against Black people and other racialized people living in the United States suggests that history has been “rhyming” for quite some time. Does history really need to repeat itself or even rhyme, when the soundtrack of racialized violence has never skipped a beat?

The purpose of this report is to show how this “genealogy” of long-standing racialized violence has led to two very different conversations about race and the massive protests of 2020. For most white people, these protests were seen as a “call to awareness,” an opportunity to reflect on white privilege. By contrast, the very same protests were seen by most Black people as a “call to action,” an opportunity to convert talk into concrete reform. Although the ways in which Black and white people talk about race has long differed, the protests of 2020 may accordingly be seen as a wedge event that sharpened this conversational divide.

Corey D. Fields is an associate professor and the Idol Family Chair in the sociology department at Georgetown University. Rahsaan Mahadeo is an assistant professor in the department of sociology and Black studies at Providence College. Lisa Hummel is a PhD candidate in sociology at Stanford University and Sara Moore was previously a research manager at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.