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Guest Essay

14 Trump Voters on
the Legacy of George Floyd

14 Trump
Voters on the Legacy
of George Floyd

A Series on George Floyd and America

A Series on
George Floyd and America

How Conservatives Think About George Floyd’s Death and BLM 1

Photograph by Damon Winter/The New York Times

What 14 Trump Voters Think About George Floyd’s Legacy

May 21, 2021

Mr. Healy is the deputy Opinion editor of The Times.

This article is part of a special section on George Floyd
and America, a year after his death. Read more about this project
in a note from deputy Opinion editor Patrick Healy in our Opinion Today newsletter.

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Ahead of the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, my Times Opinion colleagues and I began planning articles from civil rights leaders, academics and others to explore Mr. Floyd’s legacy, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and race in America. We also asked younger people to tell us, in their own words, what changed — and didn’t — after his death.

As part of this coverage, I wanted to see if some conservative voters had shifted their thinking on Mr. Floyd and the continuing racial justice movement; Republican support for Black Lives Matter briefly rose after his death. I was curious to hear their views at a time when Americans are both divided and interdependent, when many people listen only to like-minded opinions and when systemic racism is an urgent issue for the entire society.

I decided to sit in on a focus group led by Frank Luntz, a longtime strategist for Republican candidates and a veteran of such discussions. He chose 14 conservative Trump supporters who reflected the Republican electorate: overwhelmingly white, evenly divided by gender, more old than young.

As is customary in focus groups, my role was not to argue with or fact-check the speakers. Mr. Luntz encouraged them to share candidly; several made false claims, including that the election was stolen and that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist or violent hate group. Many criticized the news media but were clearly shaped by it: Some kept overstating the scattered street violence last summer, which Fox News and other news outlets popular with conservatives regularly showed.

This transcript has been edited for length; the full audio is below. As is common with focus groups, the speakers’ last names are not included.

How has the racial justice justice movement shaped conservatives’ views?

These 14 Trump voters were invited to share their thoughts candidly and unfiltered, as is common in focus groups; inaccurate statements were not interrupted. The voters were chosen by Frank Luntz, a political strategist and the focus group moderator.

Frank Luntz: When I say “George Floyd,” what word or phrase comes to mind?

Wanda (from Indiana): That’s a tragedy.

Diana (from Colorado): Painful.

Alex (from Florida): Addict.

Larry (from South Carolina): Murdered.

Josh (from Wisconsin): Divisive.

Nancy (from New Jersey): A sad situation.

Martha (from Georgia): Tragic.

Frank Luntz: I listen to how you responded to Donald Trump and to the election fraud, and you were immediate — there was no pause. I asked you about George Floyd. I know you all know who he is. And yet you were very, very slow to give me just a word or phrase to describe him.

Why did you not give me a response immediately? I need to understand this.

Alex: With Trump, even though he was president, he’s much less of a controversial figure than George Floyd was.

Martha: I’m a mother and a grandmother. And just the mention of his name recalls that video. It’s one of those things, like, if you watched some of the videos of the death of Daniel Pearl and other things like that, they’re things you can’t unsee. And so you respond to it when you hear the name.

Larry: If I had a couple of sentences, it would have been a lot easier. He was a drug addict who was a criminal who resisted arrest and put himself in a position where what happened to him happened. If he didn’t resist arrest, it wouldn’t have happened.

Frank Luntz: How many — do you think that the policeman should not have been convicted at all, that he was just doing his job? Raise your hands. [No one raises a hand.]

OK, so you agree that he’s guilty of something.

James (from Arkansas): I believe the officer was probably guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He should have let George up. You know, it’s just a sad situation for George Floyd. It’s a sad situation for Chauvin, a sad situation for the nation that that happened.

Wanda: I think the policemen were doing their job, trying to get ahold of the situation, maybe. But I think it was a response to what the victim did. It makes it no less tragic. But I don’t think it qualified as murder.

Frank Luntz: By a show of hands, how many of you think that George Floyd was, in some way, responsible for what happened to him? [Thirteen of the 14 raise their hands.]

That’s really overwhelming. Why is George Floyd responsible for what happened to him?

Josh: Well, they wouldn’t have been there if the police hadn’t been called there in the first place. The reason was a counterfeit $20 bill. So I mean, he was the reason that they showed up to begin with. And then, like others have said, he didn’t comply, got a little unruly. He was high. So I mean, he definitely contributed to what happened to him.

One year since George Floyd’s death: What has changed and what comes next?

Frank Luntz: Why is the Black population so afraid of the police?

Evelyn (from Texas): I think more because of what the media has portrayed, not that some of it isn’t true, because it is. But it’s also very twisted these days, as we have seen.

Frank Luntz: How many of you blame the media for the fear that the Black community have towards the police? Ten of you.

Ann (from South Carolina, a former New York City police officer): All right, a lot of these neighborhoods that I worked in, the political agitators made a field day of coming in there to stir up trouble. They get their 15 minutes of fame. And they end up getting money donations into their organizations.

And it’s all about the Benjamins. It’s about the media selling their news stories and their papers. And it’s about the agitators collecting more money in their bank account. And if you take that out of the equation, we would have far less problems.

We don’t put our uniforms on every day thinking, “Hey, I’m going to go beat up a Black guy” or “I’m going to shoot a Black guy.” No, that’s not what we do.

Patrick Healy: How many of you, before George Floyd’s death, believed that the police officers in America did their best to treat everyone — white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, everybody — the same, professionally and fairly? [All 14 raise their hands.]

OK. After George Floyd’s death — I’d like to see a show of hands — did any of you feel differently about that, in terms of how police officers treated people by race?

Frank Luntz: Not one of you. Actually, hold on. Kathryn is the only one.

Kathryn (from Arizona): I think that was just a unique situation. I mean, that’s unfortunate. But again, the media just ran with the story for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Martha: We talk about the media. But the one thing we haven’t touched on that has caused divisiveness is social media. Prior to social media, you were able to have clearer lines about what’s right and what’s wrong. And now you can find 200 people that will agree with you on anything on social media — any kind of behavior, any kind of way. And I think that it divides us. It puts us in silos.

The one big change I’ve made in the last year is I do a lot less social media. And I don’t trust anything that I see on social media unless I’ve checked it out.

Patrick Healy: I’m going to say a phrase, and I’d like to get one word or a brief reaction. And the phrase is “Black Lives Matter.”

Jeremiah (from Michigan): Misguided.

Nancy: Political.

Josh: The idea is fine. The group itself — a bunch of losers.

Taylor (from Ohio): Corrupt and going the wrong direction for the Black community.

Alex: A tool.

James: Marxist hate group.

Evelyn: Well, he took mine. I was going to say Marxist. So I’ll say communist.

Patrick Healy: In terms of your views about the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s death and the protests that started in May, were any of you any more or less put off by Black Lives Matter than you were before Floyd’s death?

And I ask because there has been polling, public opinion polling, that shows shifts in how people saw Black Lives Matter around that time among people who identified as Republicans.

Taylor: I’m a teacher in Columbus. My school’s, like, 99 percent African-Americans. So there was almost, like, a pressure on me that after that if I didn’t show some kind of sympathy towards it. It was almost kind of like, I was viewed as lesser than.

So I would have to have these conversations with my students. And I was so conflicted because I’m just like, OK, we’re focusing in on this. But we don’t even know all the details. But I’m having to have these conversations with my students that are 100 percent gung ho. And I’m like, I’m so torn.

Over the course of this past year, I have grown more and more skeptical and have been very, not paranoid but just very — skeptical is the best word of just what they really, truly stand for, how they use their funds for corrupt leaders. Their mission is not condemning violence in some areas. But then they’ll condemn it in others. It’s like, you can’t have it both ways.

Now I’m to the point where the mention of Black Lives Matter, when I read projects from my students — all the time they focus on things to do with race — I’m just like, I’m done. I’m very much over it.

Patrick Healy: But just listening to your students’ experiences, your Black students’ experiences, did that influence your thinking about the group or the idea at all?

Taylor: I mean, I think, as a teacher, you have to keep an open mind to an extent. You have to be able to at least listen. So I’ve definitely listened to my students because I’m not Black. And I don’t know what they’re going through. And I will never be able to be fully in their shoes.

They don’t see me as, like, a sympathizer with white people or with cops. They see me as, well, we’re going to talk about it with you. But you’ll never fully understand.

Louis (from Arizona): I don’t think anyone knows how anyone else feels because they can’t walk in their shoes. So Black people can’t walk in my shoes. And I can’t walk in their shoes, OK? We can only imagine what’s gone on.

Alex: To think that the events of George Floyd really changed the image of B.L.M. — I guess it became more popular. But that was always their shtick. Like, they were never nonviolent.

Patrick Healy: It is a fact that the Black Lives Matter protests last summer in American cities were overwhelmingly peaceful. Do you disagree? That is a fact. In terms of the 26 million who marched through the [early] summer, there were not 26 million rioters.

Evelyn: I just want to say, is this a joke? I mean, are you serious? Really? They were peaceful protests? You’ve got to be kidding.

Nancy: This subject gives me such anxiety just thinking about it because you watched on the news, things were burning, things were looting.

Taylor: I think overwhelmingly when you look at 26 million people, yes, probably statistically they were a majority peaceful. But what we saw and what the majority of people were led to believe was that it wasn’t.

I know my family owns restaurants in downtown Cincinnati. And the fact that even if they were peaceful, the fact that they had to close down every other day for weeks on end, not because of Covid but because of fears of getting their windows knocked in.

Jeremiah: I think this is where, Patrick, and this is not a knock on you at all, but this is where the media is able to have that platform to glorify — I think somebody said it earlier: If it bleeds, it leads. I agree with that.

Depending on where you lived, at night with these infiltrations, antifa, the radical groups would come in. They get the story. They become the story.

Frank Luntz: This is for all of you. And this is two or three sentences each. Are you afraid in America to voice your point of view about issues of race?

Ann: No.

Louis: No.

Diana: No.

Kathryn: No.

Frank Luntz: Ann, tell me why not.

Ann: I have been very vocal in my opinion about the breakdown of race relations inside the United States, especially with critical race theory being taught in our schools. And I have been an activist dealing with our school board, with our elected officials. And I am not afraid to speak my mind.

Frank Luntz: Wanda, are you nervous about speaking about race?

Wanda: Yes, I am. I feel like if you have an unpopular opinion on Black Lives Matter or whatever, that you’re discriminated against, no matter what color you are.

And I found that a lot of my liberal friends, they’re ready to pounce on anything you say that they can turn around, whether it’s about Black Lives Matter or L.G.B.T.

Frank Luntz: Josh, you’re one of the younger — Josh, how old are you?

Josh: 38. I’m Asian, man. We all look young.

Frank Luntz: Are you ever afraid to talk about issues of race?

Josh: No, because I’m not white. So I’ll say whatever.

Louis: One thing I would say is, my parents were probably more racist. My generation then saw a lot of change. And yes, there is racism in my generation.

My kids’ generation don’t see color. They don’t see gender. They really don’t. And my grandkids — I have one grandson. And I will tell you this, Frank. I highly doubt that they will ever see any type of — or very, very small, obviously you can’t say none — racism, sexism or whatever, because I just think that we all learn from each generation. And we get better at it. And that includes Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, whatever. It includes us all.

Martha: Well, look. I think it’s fair to say that most white people think we’ve gone farther than we actually have. And most Black people think we haven’t gone as far as we actually have. And somewhere in the middle is the truth.

Patrick Healy: How many of you agree with Martha’s statement?

Frank Luntz: Almost everybody.

Patrick Healy: OK. Just a show of hands, I would like to know just how many of you believe that discrimination against minority groups is a serious problem in society today. Anybody? OK, no one believes that.

Do you generally see racial diversity in the workplace as a good thing, a bad thing, or it doesn’t matter?

Frank Luntz: Almost all of you are negative. Why so negative about diversity programs at work?

Diana: I think when you start talking “diversity,” you’re talking about racism. And we keep saying we have systemic racism. OK, so I agree we have systemic racism in this country. And the reason we have systemic racism in this country is because we’re seeing it again. We’re seeing color.

Larry: A qualified person, if they’re not getting a job because of the color of their skin, is wrong, regardless of whether that person is Black or white. It’s wrong.

Patrick Healy: For a lot of the 20th century, white people got jobs, and — well, it’s true — for most of the 20th century, white people got jobs.

Martha: The first job I ever got I got because they were looking for a woman, OK? And I knew I was hired just because I was a woman. But I knew I wasn’t going to keep the job just because I was a woman. I had to be better than the men. This was in the work force in the early ’80s. I had to be better than the men to keep the job. And I’ve been successful at it.

We’ve got to find that balance between fairness and giving opportunity and reaching beyond your own group to be able to look for people in jobs. I mean, that’s what The New York Times does. That’s what big companies do.

But over the summer, recently with big corporations complaining about things, when you look at their actual corporate boards, when you look — they talk a lot about diversity. But they haven’t delivered on diversity. But yet they want to judge and criticize other people about diversity.

Patrick Healy: An open-ended question: George Floyd died about a year ago. Did his death and what followed — the protests, the trial, the discussions about race and racism — did that change anything about America for you? How you saw life in America, people in America or what’s to come in the near future?

Alex: It’s certainly changed who got elected and who’s sitting in the office right now. You’ve seen many articles since the election about how the Black turnout, clearly mobilized by all these months and months of protesting and civil engagement — I think that that definitely mobilized the African-American demographic and got them to turn out to vote, even if it was for Joe Biden.

Diana: I won’t go to downtown Denver at night. I would never go down there by myself. I think that what’s happening in this country, I think we’re going backwards. I don’t see us going forward. And it breaks my heart.

Martha: We’re resilient. We’re going to get back together again. We’re going to have a new leader come out of all this. I don’t know who it’s going to be yet. But I’m optimistic about the future.

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Evelyn: My first marriage was — I was married to a Black man. So my daughter is mixed. And we discuss these things quite often because she’s kind of torn between being white — and I shouldn’t say “torn between.” But I know it’s probably put her in a difficult position to be raised by me, but yet she’s got darker skin.

We’ve both made the comment about going to the grocery store. And if I look at a Black person the wrong way — and it’s not intentional — but how am I supposed to look at a Black person?

And she said, “Mom, I feel the same way.” She said, “I’m scared I’m going to look at somebody wrong and not mean anything. I’m just thinking about something else or whatever.”

And I thought, “That is so sad,” because she’s lived her whole life — she’ll be 40 this year — lived her whole life without that mess. And now here it is.

Nancy: My husband and I, we sit and we talk. And I’m 38. I’ve been married five years. And we have the subject of children. Do we want to bring a child into this world right now? Because it’s so crazy out there, what the future has to hold for them.

There has to be something out there that brings us together because we are so divided right now. And I’m terrified of bringing a child into this world right now.

Patrick Healy is the deputy Opinion editor at The Times.

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