Americans in both Republican and Democratic households are sitting up and paying attention to race in ways that they haven’t in recent history.
New findings from the 2020 American Family Survey show that Americans of both party affiliations are discussing issues of race in high rates. When asked “Since March have you discussed Black Lives Matter or police brutality with your family?” 76% of Republicans and 77% of Democrats answered yes.
The numbers illustrate that race “has taken a leading role on the political stage in a way that it might not have a year ago,” Christopher Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said. “Part of the thing that was striking this summer is that across party lines (Americans agreed) that what happened to George Floyd was horrible and that it violated due process.”
But the conversations are different in Republican and Democratic households.
Asked whether they agreed, were neutral or disagreed with the statement “Black families face obstacles that white families don’t,” 80% of Democrats agreed while only 25% of Republicans did.
Karpowitz says that gap poses a tremendous challenge to the BLM movement. “Helping Republicans to see the ways in which racial inequalities affect families every day ought to be a big goal of this movement.” The data, he adds, suggests “Republicans are just not seeing it ... they’re not seeing systemic inequality in quite the same way as Democrats are.”
Regardless of party affiliation, Americans are speaking with their children about this issue at virtually identical rates. Of those who report having spoken with their families about Black Lives Matter or police brutality, 66% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats report having had conversations about these topics with their kids.
“We have to talk about something upsetting ...”
When Rorri Geller-Mohamed heard about George Floyd’s death, she said she knew right away she needed to have a difficult conversation with her son.
She’s a white Jewish woman and her son is only 5. But as a therapist who founded a small business — U Power Change — that focuses on anti-racist work, Geller-Mohamed knows how important it is discuss such events with children.
“So I pulled him aside and I said, ‘We have to talk about something upsetting,’” says Geller-Mohamed, who also has a 3-year-old daughter. She explained the Floyd event in basic terms, telling her son that it’s “not OK and we’re trying to stop these things from happening.”
They used his toy cars, she adds, “his little Hot Wheels and we put them in a circle to have a community meeting to talk about how ... we make change happen when things are messed up.”
She struggled, however, to explain what she believes are “the systemic aspects of racism,” which are difficult for a child to understand at that developmental stage.
Geller-Mohamed said it wasn’t the first such conversation she has had with her son. As a mixed-race, multicultural, mixed-faith family — her husband is a first generation Muslim American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana — issues of race are ever-present in their South Florida home.
A similar conversation played out in another mixed-race home in South Florida — this one, Republican.
“God made us all different colors ...”
Natasha Dan, 25, is the biracial child of a Black father and a white, Italian American mother; she is married to the U.S.-born and raised son of Guyanese immigrants. While both Dan and her husband were raised in Christian homes, they are both born-again Christians who embraced Jesus at young ages. As Christian conservatives, they said the Republican party best aligns with their values, particularly when it comes to family.
When George Floyd was killed, it took Dan and her husband a couple of weeks to come to terms with what had happened and to agree that they needed to talk about the issue with their eldest son, who is not yet 4.
When some family members presented Riah, 3, with a regular Spiderman rather than Miles Morales — the Hispanic Spiderman — who is his favorite, the opportunity to talk about race presented itself.
“He said, ‘I want the Spiderman with brown skin,’” Dan recalls. When he explained that he liked Miles Morales’s brown skin, Dan asked her son if he also liked her brown skin, her husband’s and his own.
Her son said he did.
Dan explained to him, “‘You know there are people who might not like your brown skin. They like white skin and they think white skin is better. But we know that’s not true. God made us all different colors and we are made in his image. God loves all the different colors.”
In a subsequent conservation, Dan says she told her son, “Some people try to hurt the people with skin they don’t like and sometimes those people are police.”
She recalls her son answering, “But the police are good.”
Dan says she agreed that most policemen are good but, sometimes, like all people, “they make mistakes.” In their third conversation about race and the police, Dan and Riah spoke about how when people in authority break the law they should go to jail.
“We haven’t really talked about it since,” she says. “We’re letting them lead.”
Who is protesting?
While Republicans and Democrats are talking about these issues with their children at similar numbers, there’s a slight partisan gap as to who is discussing these issues with their spouses or partners. Of those who said they had spoken with their families about BLM or police brutality, 93% of Republicans reported doing so with their spouse or partner as compared with 88% of Democrats. And then there’s a large gap that opens up along party lines in regards to cross-generational conversations: while 45% of Democrats who report having conversations with their families about BLM or police brutality did so with their parents, only 29% of Republicans say the same.
Some of that difference could be explained by the fact that Democrats tend to be younger, Karbowitz says, “(It) could be that they’re living with their parents but I don’t think that explains all of it.”
While both groups are talking about race and police with their spouses and children, Democrats are far more likely to join a protest against racial inequality — 14% reporting doing so compared to only 2% of Republicans.
The American Family Survey reports, “It should be noted that in a typical year on the American National Election Study the percentage reporting that they attended a political meeting of some sort is only around 7% ...”
So while 14% of Democrats protesting racial inequality might seem low, it represents a surge in activism in comparison with previous years.
Geller-Mohamed said prior to the pandemic she took her children to protest the detainment of migrant children. But because her husband has asthma, they’re too concerned about COVID-19 to attend BLM protests since George Floyd’s death.
Sarah Flatto-Manasrah is one of those Democrats taking to the streets. She and her husband took their 18-month-old daughter to BLM marches in Brooklyn this summer.
Flatto-Manasrah said she was careful about what protests she and her child attended, opting for ones that were during the day, large and that included many families.
“Some people would say no protests are safe to bring your 18-month-old — are you crazy?!” Flatto-Manasrah reflects. “I would push back and say that taking on a small level of risk is worth it for taking a moral stance on racism. ... It’s not just about talking to your kids about racism and reading diverse stories. It’s about taking actions.”