The impact of a social movement is notoriously difficult to measure. How do you quantify the influence of large, unruly networks of people unaffiliated with an official organization or obvious policy goals?
One way to do it is to look for evidence of the movement's influence on the national conversation. With the rise of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, the media's use of the term "income inequality" quintupled, and the theme subsequently evolved into the centerpiece of progressive economic policy discourse.
Increasingly, we have signs that Black Lives Matter, the 2-year-old movement responding to the death of unarmed black people at the hands of police, has transformed the national conversation on racial inequality. According to a new Gallup poll flagged by Vox, the percentage of people who describe themselves as "satisfied with the way blacks are treated in U.S. society" has plummeted to a low not seen in at least a decade and a half.
Between 2008 and 2013, satisfaction with society's treatment of black Americans increased among whites, blacks and Hispanics. But between 2013 and 2015, those numbers fell dramatically, with the national rate dropping from 62% to 49%. For whites, the number decreased from 67% to 53%, for Hispanics from 61% to 44%, and for blacks from 47% to 33%.
Gallup reports that this slump in satisfaction is specific to African-Americans and "not part of a broader reassessment of how minority groups are treated in the U.S."
But how do we know it's Black Lives Matter? Can the movement can take credit for this rise in the public's awareness of discriminatory police violence, or has an uptick in killings caused a major shift in mainstream attitudes?
That's a difficult question to answer, mainly because use of force by police is extremely poorly documented. There is no national database that systematically chronicles reports of police violence against citizens, let alone one that detects patterns in violence associated with race. But the limited data that does exist suggests that there has not been an exceptional increase in police homicides, and some criminologists say that they are at the lowest they've been in recent memory. Media and advocacy outfits that have been covering clashes between black Americans and law enforcement for generations have suggested that there hasn't been a notable increase in the phenomenon of police shootings in the past two years. And the aforementioned Gallup analysis finds that blacks are "no more likely than two years ago to report being personally treated unfairly in various situations because of their race, including dealing with the police."
Thus, it's likely that shifts in the national perception of race relations has been shaped by the salience of the Black Lives Matter movement, fueled by the proliferation of cell phone videos and social media. Constant protests, die-ins, community gatherings, online organizing, occasional riots and real-life confrontation with politicians have had a very real impact on the country's understanding of race.
A YouGov poll released earlier this year showed that over a period of about four months, the percentage of white Americans likely to characterize the death of a black man at the hands of the police as an "isolated incident" plunged by 20 percentage points.
The speed with which white perception of police homicides changed seems unlikely to be attributable to an uptick in deaths, which have been a constant feature of black life for years. It's much more likely to be the product of the sustained debate about systemic racism in policing and criminal justice that was forced into the national consciousness by the raucous Black Lives Matter movement, which garnered enormous media attention during those months.
The sum effect all this is that Americans are now reporting that they're more concerned about racism than they have been in more than 20 years. The last time it ranked so high in the polls was in 1992, when the beating of Rodney King by police officers sparked a national debate over the state of American race relations.