Black Lives Matter Movement Moves Racism Needle

May 26, 2018

A student study shows that social movements are a potentially effective way to change attitudes in this country.

black lives matter protest
A student study looks at the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement on racial bias.

The Black Lives Matter movement may have led to a decline in racial bias against African Americans, according to new research that analyzed both conscious and unconscious biases.

“The movement is having an effect on both explicit and implicit racial biases,” says Graduate Center Ph.D. alumnus Jeremy Sawyer (Ph.D. '17, Psychology), the lead author of the study.

The Black Lives Matter movement was a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Sawyer was inspired by the marches that swept across the country and wanted to investigate the movement’s impact on racial biases. “We were really excited about this development of a mass movement against racism in this country and began to wonder if these marches would shape attitudes,” says Sawyer.
For the study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Sawyer and his colleague turned to the Project Implicit website, which allows users to take tests that measure implicit biases to a number of groups. Implicit attitudes are thought to be somewhat unconscious but can lead to automatic reactions to people. Explicit biases are beliefs that we are fully aware of and even endorse publicly.

The website asks visitors to match “white” faces with pleasant words, and “black” faces with unpleasant words, or then to do the reverse. If users are faster at pairing white with pleasant and black with unpleasant than they are at pairing white with unpleasant and black with pleasant, then it is scored as a pro-white bias. The reverse would be true for a pro-black bias. Sawyer and his colleague looked at the results of more than 1.3 million users of both races between 2009 and the summer of 2016.

The researchers found that individuals show an overall preference for whites over blacks, and that a pro-white bias had been on the rise during the first four years of the Obama presidency, especially among whites. But after the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013, this bias began to decline. Declines were seen among liberals and conservatives, but were three times greater among the liberals.

“This shows that social movements are a potentially effective way to change attitudes in this country,” says Sawyer. Traditionally, our society has tried to address systemic racial bias through individual trainings, such as the Starbucks day of bias training or police training. But there’s little evidence that these methods are effective. “Our study shows that there may be another way to challenge racism in this country,” says Sawyer. “It took a civil war to end slavery, a mass civil rights movement to end segregation. It will take another mass movement to challenge institutional racism,” he says.