WASHINGTON – It's rare for public opinion on social issues to change sharply and swiftly. And yet in the wake of George Floyd's death, Americans' opinions about police brutality and racial injustice have moved dramatically.
About half of American adults believe police violence against the public is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, according to a poll conducted earlier this month by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Only about a third said the same as recently as last September, as well as in July 2015, just a few months after Freddie Gray, a Black man, died in police custody in Baltimore.
The recent shifts in public opinion stand out when compared with years of survey research conducted following similar slayings of Black people by police. They are distinct from slow and steady movement on other social issues, such as support for same-sex marriage. And there is evidence they may last.
“I think this seems to be something different from the gradual change that we often see with cultural and social issues," said Jennifer Benz, the deputy director of the AP-NORC Center.
The new poll and recent trends from NORC's General Social Survey, she said, are "suggestive that there’s been something brewing for the past couple of years that could well be leading to lasting change, as opposed to situational change.”
More Americans than in 2015 say police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person than a white person, 61% today compared with 49% in 2015. Only about a third of Americans say the race of a person does not make a difference in the use of deadly force, compared with roughly half in 2015.
And 65% say that police officers who cause injury or death in the course of their job are treated too leniently by the justice system, compared with 41% in 2015. Fewer now think police are treated either fairly or too harshly.
The recent poll builds on marked changes in public attitudes toward race relations observed in the 2018 General Social Survey, a long-running poll of Americans that started in 1972. The percentage saying the country spends too little on improving conditions of Black Americans peaked at 52%, up dramatically from 30% in 2014. Republicans and Democrats alike were more likely to say that. The poll also found more Americans attributing racial disparities in income, jobs, housing and education to discrimination.
SLOW AND STEADY SOCIAL CHANGE
Opinion on social issues often change gradually over an extended period of time.
Just 11% of Americans said gay and lesbian people should have the right to marry in 1988, according to the General Social Survey. That grew to 31% by 16 years later, the next time the question was asked. But after that, support for gay marriage didn't rise by more than 10 percentage points from one survey to the next. Support instead grew steadily over two decades to become the majority opinion, most recently at 68% in 2018.
The trend is similar in support for marijuana legalization. In 1973, the General Social Survey found that just 19% of Americans said marijuana should be made legal. Support ticked up and down for most of the following three decades, never exceeding 30%. It reached 31% in 2000 and steadily rose to 44% in 2010 and 61% in 2018. Like for same-sex marriage, the share saying marijuana should be legal never rose more than 10 percentage points from one poll to the next.
Sometimes, public opinion responds to specific events that bring attention to a social issue, but then returns back to a “normal” in quiet moments. Polling by Gallup is evidence of how American views on gun laws are responsive to mass shootings, with somewhat more saying they want to see laws on the sale of firearms made more strict in the aftermath of such an attack.
Support for stricter gun laws ticked up from 60% in February 1999 to 66% in late April that year, just after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which killed 21 people. By the early 2000s, the percentage of Americans preferring stricter gun laws slipped back down — as low as 51% in October 2002.
Gallup polling shows the trend has oscillated regularly since. It fell as low as 43% in 2011 but rose again to 58% the next time the question was asked in December 2012, after the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 28 people. A year later, support fell back to 49%.
A similar bump again happened after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.
Meanwhile, significant shifts in public opinion inevitably follow presidential and midterm elections. In April 2016, before President Donald Trump was elected, just 34% of Republicans considered the nation’s economy to be in good shape, according to an AP-NORC poll. By March 2017, that figure rose to 63% and was 89% in January 2020 before taking a hit amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, according to Gallup polling, just 24% of Democrats in 2018 said they were satisfied with the country’s global standing, down 32 percentage points from 2017. What changed? Trump's inauguration in 2017 following eight years of President Barack Obama's time in office.
But events or crises that touch most Americans can often be agents of change.
Approval of President George W. Bush went from 51% in the days just before the Sept. 11 attacks to 86% in the days just after, according to Gallup polling.
And more recently, the pandemic has deeply affected Americans' views of their own lives. A May poll from NORC at the University of Chicago found the lowest percentage of Americans saying they are very happy in nearly five decades. Just 14% say they very happy today, down from 31% in 2018.