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Do protests move the needle?

Do protests move the needle?
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College students see themselves as agents of change with protests. In the last few semesters alone, stories of varied demonstrations regularly make the news. The Higher Education Research Institute based at the University of California in Los Angeles found that the portion of incoming college students who think that they will protest while undergraduates increased 175 percent from 1999 to 2019. It also found that about a third of incoming college students had demonstrated for a cause during high school.

One issue that arises is whether or not these recent protests are actually effective with raising awareness and prompting change. These students have been directly involved in recent movements, including the marches for women and rallies in support of gun control and climate health, but many believe that very little change emanated from these events.

With the growth of Black Likes Matter and civil disturbances popping up around the country in protest of police action, my students want to know if the latest demonstrations have changed public opinion. Thanks to new data from a poll by the Los Angeles Times and Reality Check Insights, I tell them that the reaction from the country to these protests varied widely by demographic and may not have had the impact that they hoped.

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The Black Lives Matter protests did not appear to shift the majority of Americans on racial justice. A national sample of over 1,400 Americans were asked after the election if the protests in many cities over the killing of George Floyd and others by police changed the way you think about racial justice in the United States. The answer may not be as encouraging to my students as they would have hoped. Just a third of Americans said that the protests helped them think “a lot” about racial justice, and more than 40 percent said the protests did not change their views.

The protests had very different levels of impact along racial lines. Among blacks, over half believed the protests changed their thinking about race versus the quarter of whites who felt the same way. About a third of blacks said the protests did not change their thinking compared to 45 percent of whites. About a third of Hispanics believed the protests changed their views, while another third said the protests did nothing at all.

The reactions are remarkably inconsistent around the country, and it is evident that Americans did not overwhelmingly or uniformly accept the ideas behind the various protests, calling into serious doubt the efficacy of the protests themselves. The protests failed to shift attitudes outside of younger generations. While more than 80 percent of Generation Z and almost 70 percent of Millennials said the protests changed their thinking on race to some degree, less than a fourth of Baby Boomers believed the protests forced them to think “a lot” about the issue at hand.

Responses on the impact of the Black Lives Matter and related protests had varied widely by demographic, despite the fact that these protests were the largest and most intense that the country has seen in decades. With our political era of diminished direct democracy and an established lobbying system with interest groups, the same old kinds of protests may no longer be moving the needle for a majority of Americans.

This means that students may want to focus on voter turnout, candidate selection, and primary engagement instead of protesting on a broad scale for change. Even with over 25 million participants and the national focus, most Americans have been simply unfazed. Students have every right to peacefully protest and gain a social benefit from doing so, but if they seek real change, this approach may not have the greatest impact.

Samuel Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar for the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington.