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How The Recent Black Lives Matter Movement Gained Increased White Support

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Support for Black Lives Matter is way up. And as several recent polls show, a lot of that is due to big jumps in white support for the movement. Meanwhile, books like "How To Be Anti-Racist" and "White Fragility" are dominating the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists, their popularity mounting because of widely shared reading lists aimed at white consumers. All of this got Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team curious about the question, why now? What is so different about this moment? He joins us now to talk more about that.

Hey, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa. How's it going?

CHANG: Good. So you've hosted a podcast about race and identity for years now, and I'm just curious what you're seeing and personally experiencing now that feels like a real shift from movements in the past against police brutality. What do you think?

DEMBY: Right. So Code Switch is seeing, like, this inundation of new listeners to the podcast and new followers on social media just because of this moment we're in. So I was curious. There were all these new white people following us on our social media accounts. So I just wanted to pose to them this question - like, what has changed about you or the world that made this an activating moment?

CHANG: Interesting. So what did they tell you?

DEMBY: So we got a lot of responses. And, you know, caveats - this was not at all scientific. This was literally just Instagram messages. But people were really candid. And so there were three big themes that kept coming up in the responses - the first, President Trump. He was cited either directly or obliquely in almost everybody's responses. Some people said they did not think about these issues under the Obama administration. But we're now grappling what it meant to have a president who was such a demagogue on race and who had such loyal support while he was doing it.

There were quite a few people who said that President Trump's election had just made them more politically active in general. They went to women's marches. They joined local groups and online groups. And so when this moment arrived, they were just more practiced, you know, as protesters, as people, like, engaging in protest movements.

CHANG: That's fascinating. I mean - OK. So Trump was one big theme you have been hearing, but what's another that you've noticed?

DEMBY: The other one was white peer pressure. So I got a lot of responses from people saying that this time, they had pressure from other white folks in their social circles. And as we always talk about, most white people's social circles are white. But it wasn't just, like, pressure. It was also permission. A lot of people said that they finally had space to talk about these things.

CHANG: And I imagine a third big reason this time feels different is we're also in the middle of a pandemic.

DEMBY: Yes. The pandemic came up a lot as well. So people said they had no trust in the country's leadership during this particularly harrowing moment that we're living through. The pandemic has also interrupted people's routines. A lot of people said they've been stuck at home watching this really grim news over the last several months. People said they felt particularly vulnerable, both physically and economically, right now.

CHANG: So Gene, would it be fair to say that white people's attitudes about race maybe are slowly changing, but the social and the political context matter just as much the last several weeks?

DEMBY: That's what it seemed like. So I spoke to Nicole Fisher, who is a social psychologist and a contributor to Forbes. She basically predicted that we would see protests and unrest because we have all the kindling for social disruption - a broad lack of faith or trust in the people in charge. You have shared grievances. You have shared intensity. And you have this permission from the crowd. And pandemics, she said, have historically supercharged these things and led to political foment and civil disobedience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICOLE FISHER: All of a sudden, you have an introduction of a lot of white people who are also angry with the government. They're angry with authority. And as you said, now you're forced to wear a mask. You're anonymous. And away we go.

CHANG: OK. So you have this kindling, and I guess then you would just need a match. And George Floyd's and Breonna Taylor's killings were just, like, the matches here.

DEMBY: Yeah. And I think it's important to remember that for black communities, for Indigenous communities, for Latinx communities, this kindling is essentially the baseline - not lockdowns, per se, but, you know, police and authorities who control your movement. In a lot of communities, you know, the threat of deportation is a real thing. So there's plenty of kindling always there. And as these videos keep making apparent to people who don't live in those communities, there's always plenty of matches.

CHANG: Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team.

Thank you so much, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PSALM TREES' "CALL WHENEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.