What Can We Learn from the Protests Against Systemic Racism in Summer 2020?

I just posted a piece at FixGov at the Brookings Institution that summarizes my recent piece with Stella Rouse, “Intersectionality within the racial justice movement in the summer of 2020,” which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article analyzes data collected from participants in the protests after George Floyd was murdered to understand why protests were diverse. It concludes that collective efforts, coupled with identity-based motivations, and the moral shock of witnessing the murder of an unarmed Black man by a police officer over social media provided a dynamic catalyst for participation across race, gender, sexual orientation and other salient identities.

The new piece also discusses what social movements can learn from this particular moment in the struggle against systemic racism in the US. As some of my other recent work has discussed, a critical mass in the streets can help motivate concessions from policymakers in ways that smaller activism does not. By combining solidarity, identity, and moral shock, the BLM movement after George Floyd was murdered was able to mobilize the masses and sustain their engagement throughout the summer of 2020. 

Movements that aim to employ outsider tactics like protest would be wise to learn from these mobilization strategies to attract a broad base of support and engagement.   The question that remains is how to translate such a diverse and prolonged mass mobilization into social change.  Unfortunately, the effects of the protests in summer 2020 have been relatively disappointing so far, yielding mostly what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “the low-hanging fruit of symbolic transformation.”  Systemic racism is one of a range of progressive priorities that have highlighted the vast distance that must be traveled between protest and legislation or other forms of policymaking.  Once the masses are mobilized to participate in sustained activism, there is still much to learn about how to channel outrage in the streets into enduring social and political change.  There is no question, however, that the opportunities are substantially increased when protests are large, persistent, and include crowds that are diverse enough to be representative of the general American public.