Balancing risks of structural racism and global pandemic: Black Lives Matter US protests

In this third post drawing from her research on people’s reactions on social media during the US covid-19 crisis, CDE member Dr Gillian Bolsover develops a study of the discourse on US twitter of how people balanced the risks between structural racism and the global pandemic, in deciding whether to take part or not in the BLM protests.

At the end of May, the US saw what may be the largest protests in its history, numbering between 15 and 26 million people. These protests were the latest in a long series, associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and precipitated by incidents of excessive use of force by police against African Americans. May’s protests occurred after the death of George Floyd who was killed by police while he was restrained face down on the street with an officer kneeling on his neck for almost eight minutes. The BLM protests have been notable not only due to the incidents that spur their cause but also for the heavily militarised police response to the protests that seems to underscore the claims of the protestors.

The millions of people who took to the streets in late May, however, faced riskier conditions than previously. These protests occurred at the same time as the US was struggling to control the spread of the coronavirus, with more than 20,000 new cases per day. Protest conditions as well as police tactics to control the protests would have facilitated the spread of the virus. In addition, African Americans in the US have suffered disproportionally from the virus, with almost twice as many deaths as would be expected for their share of the population. Early analysis of these disparities suggests that both police violence and COVID impacts have similar root causes in structural racism, marginalisation, and lower socioeconomic status and opportunity.

Given these factors, we hypothesised that participants in May’s BLM protests would have had to balance the risks and magnitude of effects of structural racism and infectious disease in choosing if and how to participate in the protests. We also hypothesised that new types of BLM discourse could be emerging that considered both BLM and COVID, given the disproportionate impact of both police violence and COVID on African American populations.  As social media has played a key role in the development and proliferation of the BLM movement, we focused on Twitter discourse in the week after Floyd’s death.

In the data memo, we find no evidence of the hypothesised risk balancing, or discussion of BLM in the context of COVID or vice versa. Rather it appeared that discussion of BLM had replaced discussion of COVID. The number of posts in political trends that concerned COVID dropped from 35% the week of 27 April to 3 May to 5% in the week following the death of George Floyd. During this period, 59% of posts in political trends concerned the BLM movement. None of the posts that supported the BLM movement or protest action discussed COVID and neither was COVID mentioned as a factor by those who opposed protest action.

There was, however, evidence that similar patterns of polarisation, divisiveness, hate and incivility were playing out in this new event. Opposers of the BLM protests used similar language as was found in previous studies of COVID discourse that examined responses to President Trump’s apparent endorsement of misinformative treatments for COVID and in discourse that opposed social and economic restrictions to control the spread of COVID. These posts cited frequently blamed enemies – George Soros, the Democratic party, socialists, the traditional media – for the BLM protests, as they had when supporting Trump and when opposing restrictions to control the spread of COVID. While there was no evidence of discussion of BLM in the context of COVID, it seemed that the same polarised identity positions and underlying thought patterns had been mapped onto this new issue.

There was also no evidence of the issues uncovered by the impact of COVID on African American populations being incorporated into BLM discourse. However, there was evidence of evolution in framing and language of BLM supporters (compared to 2014 research) that saw greater discussion of opposition and challenges to the BLM movement. These frames included discussions of more widespread white racism outside of law enforcement and the challenges posed by the Trump presidency. The heavy and militarised police response to the protests was a major subject of discussion, working in harmony with the incidents of individual excessive use of force that have catalysed the protestors. Some BLM supporters held up positive examples of how police in select US jurisdictions have stood in solidarity with protestors.

These examples suggest that institutional approaches provide the most positive way to move forward from these horrific incidents. Social media can continue to provide a space where the videos documenting incidents of racism and excessive use of force that underpin the BLM cause can be disseminated. However, levels of hate, divisiveness and polarisation mean that it does not seem to be a place where productive discussion about the excessive use of force captured on video can be undertaken. It was also not a place where the complicated balance of risks between systemic racism and disease transmission was able to be addressed. Rather it evidenced a playing out of entrenched identity positions and polarised arguments that shifted, perhaps temporarily, from being viewed through COVID to being viewed through the BLM movement Based on this finding, we suggest that it will be difficult to solve either the issues associated with COVID or those highlighted by the BLM movement until the underlying polarisation of these discussions is addressed. Solutions to these entrenched positions, through which new events are perceived as opportunities for the same polarised rhetoric, are essential in addressing the events through which this polarisation is channelled.

Download the full data memo to learn more about the research