Investigating Changes in Racial Attitudes During the Black Lives Matter Movement

By Jordan Axt

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement aims to intervene on anti-Black racism in the United States. Since July 2013, BLM protests occurred in nearly every major Given the widespread attention given to BLM on television and social media, how might the BLM movement have impacted individuals' explicit and implicit racial attitudes? Jeremy Sawyer and Anup Gampa investigated this question in a paper recently published at the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Using data from the Black-White IAT at Project Implicit (available to download here), Sawyer and Gampa found that both implicit racial attitudes (measured with an IAT) and explicit racial attitudes (measured with self-report) changed more during the BLM movement (July 2013-2016) than before the BLM movement (2009-June 2013). Specifically, White participants' implicit and explicit racial attitudes became slightly less pro-White during BLM, and Black participants explicit (but not implicit) racial attitudes became slightly less pro-White during BLM.

While these results are very interesting, the analyses have limitations. First, the effects were very small (for example, implicit preferences were only about 0.2% weaker during BLM than before BLM), and the real-world consequences of such small effects are unclear. In addition, the authors had to rely on a 'cross-sectional' analysis, meaning they compared changes in racial attitudes among visitors to the Project Implicit over time. This means that results may be overly influenced by changes in who visits the website. For example, younger people tend to have weaker racial preferences than older people, and if visitors to Project Implicit became gradually younger over time, it would look like there were changes in attitudes even though such changes were entirely due to characteristics of the sample and not actual attitude change. To that end, it is even possible that media analysis of the BLM movement mentioned Project Implicit and drove people to the website, which would further bias the sample if people interested in reading about BLM were more likely to have smaller implicit and explicit racial preferences.

Regardless, one compelling aspect of this work is that it contradicts past research using similar approaches to study changes in racial attitudes following prominent race-related events. Specifically, past work found that neither implicit or explicit racial attitudes substantively changed during Obama's election or presidency. The authors cannot provide a full explanation for why the BLM movement shifted racial attitudes but Obama's campaign and presidency did not, but they offer some possibilities. For one, the BLM movement was directly concerned with the treatment of all Black people, whereas Obama's presidency may have been interpreted by many as concerning only a single person.

Finally, this study shows similar results as other analyses of Project Implicit data that also found (small) changes in attitudes over time for different topics. For example, a recent paper found that implicit preferences for straight over gay people reduced significantly between 2006 and 2013. Future investigations may likewise show changes in attitudes over time; one intriguing possibility comes from a new study added to the Project Implicit website measuring implicit and explicit attitudes about transgender people. The BLM analysis is the latest example of how researchers are beginning to understand what topics or events are most likely to show changes in attitudes over time.