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There’s no question that the wave of protests against police violence and racial injustice across the country has had a tremendous impact. For weeks, the country’s attention has been locked on a nationwide movement at a scale not seen since the 1960s.
Like the protests today, the civil rights movement forced many Americans to confront their attitudes toward race in a new and revealing way. But the success of that era wasn’t just psychological. The 1960s were also a period of tremendous systemic change that enshrined principles like voting rights, fair housing and antidiscrimination into law.
The current movement may feel like it has built that same sort of transformative energy in the weeks after it was sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it’s too early to tell whether it will have the sustained support needed to create lasting change.
Why there’s debate
“It’s different this time” has been a frequent sentiment among historians, activists and other experts. While modern U.S. history has no shortage of social movements, today’s effort seems more focused and universal, they argue. The past few weeks have seen a remarkable shift in public opinion on issues related to racial justice. In 2016, 27 percent of Americans supported Black Lives Matter. Today, 57 percent do. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed disappointment in the lack of support for civil rights from white moderate voters, who he called the “great stumbling block” in the “stride toward freedom.” Modern activists have expressed hope that opinions among white Americans have shifted enough to tip the scales.
Another reason for optimism among activists is the broad recognition that the entire system of law enforcement needs to be fixed, instead of just focusing on accountability for one police officer. An emphasis on specific policy proposals, rather than abstract sentiments, gives the movement a chance to achieve major legislative victories, they argue.
Others have expressed skepticism that the movement will achieve its goals. The power structures that have stifled previous efforts or limited their impact still exist, they contend. While it’s easy to build support for the idea that police shouldn’t be allowed to kill people with impunity, it can be much more difficult to maintain that consensus when the focus shifts from awareness to action. The intense partisan divide in America means that everything eventually becomes a fight between Democrats and Republicans — and attempts to enact laws around social justice aren’t likely to be an exception, some political experts argue.
There are also questions about whether the current level of enthusiasm can be sustained in the coming months and years if protesters are no longer in the streets. Some activists worry that many Americans, particularly white Americans, may feel like the goal has been accomplished after minor changes to police procedures are enacted or symbolic victories, like the toppling of Confederate statues, have been won.
It’s not just a black movement anymore
“The long history of black folks in this country is conflict and struggle, between ourselves and the state and other interests within the society so that we can live free. And this is the first time that I think a lot of us have felt that the battle was legitimately joined, not just by white people but other people of color.” — Author Ta-Nehisi Coates to Vox
Political winds are shifting in the direction of change
“The evidence of police brutality has become too widespread even for elected officials to ignore. They can no longer easily coddle police unions in exchange for political support; now ignoring police misconduct will become a political liability, and perhaps something will change.” — Farhad Manjoo, New York Times
The current moment feels like the start of something larger
“Although it’s too soon to say what will be the result of the protests, there’s very little question that this is only the beginning. When anxiety meets moral outrage traveling at the speed of social media, an increasingly concerned and available populace becomes the match on the powder keg of America’s social tensions.” — Dana R. Fisher, Business Insider
There’s reason to believe the movement will last after the protests end
“This is how movement works. My expectation is things will die down ... and we will have recruited more people who are now fully committed to continuing the work until the next moment. The goal, obviously, is to have less and less moments, but those moments [are] what bring people into the movement, the long protracted movement.” — #MeToo founder Tarana Burke to Time
There has been a remarkable change in public opinion
“In what may represent one of the more rapid shifts in racial attitudes in recent U.S. history ... a broad majority of Americans now believe that both the police and society as a whole are beset by systemic racism.” — Andrew Romano, Yahoo News
The current effort is a continuation of a transformation that has been ongoing for years
“In short, America is already in the middle of a broad and electorally significant cultural backlash against radical politics. ... On a remarkable range of cultural and identity-political issues — from LGBT rights to immigration — the conservative movement has either lost outright to the left in the court of public opinion or adopted positions extreme enough to alienate important constituencies like Latinos or white college-educated women.” — Osita Nwanevu, New Republic
People won’t be satisfied with small victories
“Beyond a spirit of endurance, these protests are characterized by a certain insatiability for justice — the small wins aren't nearly enough. ... The collective desire for change has never been more urgent — and never felt more within reach.” — Shanté Cosme, Mic
Protesters understand the scope of systemic racism — and have a clear set of proposals to defeat it
“The protesters who have turned out over the past week also seem to be more aware of structural racism in the past, and prepared to combat it. Many seem to recognize that the criminal justice system is just one part of a panorama of structures of oppression across this country, from the criminalization of the poor to widespread, unequal access to housing, nutritious food, employment, environmental safety, health care, clean air, water and citizenship.” — Peniel E. Joseph, Politico
A backlash to the movement is inevitable
“There will be a backlash to these actions. ... That backlash may come at the ballot box, or it may come in some other indirect form. Some people aren’t interested in direct confrontation in the streets. They may simply prefer to express their opposition in a way that these protesters expect it least — businesses moving out, reluctance to hire, reluctance to visit a neighborhood, effectively abandoning a community.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
Partisanship may prevent any major legislative changes
“Admitting there’s a problem with policing and racism in America seems to have bridged the partisan gap that, well, there is a problem. But creating policy solutions will be harder, and like in so many other instances where there is broad bipartisan support for action (immigration, guns), it may be a partisan divide that prevents anything from changing.” — Amber Phillips, Washington Post
Immediate change is needed, before the window of opportunity closes
“Unless we choose a radically different path now, our persistent racial divisions and oppressive political and economic systems may unravel our democracy sooner rather than later.” — Michelle Alexander, New York Times
Democrats haven’t shown the ambition needed to tackle the scale of the problem
“Already Democrats are at odds with activists and even popular opinion over how to address police brutality.” — Alexander Sammon, American Prospect
Republicans have the power to stop true reforms
“This spreading recognition highlights an ever starker dividing line in America. On one side, a growing majority of the country is increasingly ready to repudiate its history of structural racism. On the other, many of those in power, especially at the White House, are eager to deny it.” — Justin Worland, Time
The movement may be confined to a series of symbolic victories
“When things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened. What they do is never enough.” — Tre Johnson, Washington Post
Systemic racism is a constantly moving target
“The United States has the remarkable ability to reconstitute old oppressions from the ashes of social movements.” — Tressie McMillan Cottom, Politico
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