Identity, Mobilization and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

September 27, 2021
Headshot of Tabitha Bonilla

 

How does identity framing, including frames centering Black women and Black LGBTQ people, affect Black people’s engagement with BLM?

 
Written by Merrit Stueven, MPP ’22
Edited by Anisha Asundi, WAPPP Research Fellow, and
Moira Notarstefano, WAPPP Communications Manager

 

Professor Tabitha Bonilla of Northwestern University presented her research on identity framing and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement during the second installment of WAPPP’s fall seminar series, which is focused on intersectional approaches to gender equity. To start her discussion, Dr. Bonilla offered up a quote from Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, on the movement’s intersectional approach: “Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes... Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”
 
Still from Dr. Bonilla's presentation.
 
In their study, Dr. Bonilla and co-author Alvin Tillery Jr. investigated how Black people’s perception of BLM is shaped by the movement’s framing, including by frames of BLM as an intersectional movement. Through a survey of 849 Black U.S. residents, the authors randomly assigned participants one of four statements about the movement and its work to read before asking a series of questions about their support of BLM.
 
The four statements applied four different lenses to BLM to understand how identity frames impact respondents’ reactions. The first statement acted as a control for the other three statements, providing a neutral description of BLM, its founding, and general purpose. The second statement employed a Black nationalist frame, emphasizing reparations and addressing the ongoing harm of colonialism and slavery and the struggle for self-determination. Finally, the third and fourth frames took intersectional lenses to the movement. The third statement centered the experiences of Black women, and the fourth did the same for Black LGBTQ people, each highlighting these groups as among the most marginalized members of Black communities. Both the third and fourth frames mentioned addressing gendered violence as a focus of BLM.
 
Overall, the survey showed high trust in, and knowledge of the Black Lives Matter movement among survey takers. Most respondents said they understood the movement and trusted it very much. When looking at the overall data, the different frames of the four statements had no effect on perceptions of BLM. These effects only appeared when disaggregating by gender—in this case, the authors disaggregated by male and female respondents because there were not enough nonbinary participants to conduct meaningful analysis, though, Dr. Bonilla expressed the importance of considering nonbinary participants when doing intersectional research.
 
The researchers expected the different identity frames to have varying impacts on segments of the Black population—while the expectation was that the Black nationalist frame would mobilize all Black participants, the authors hypothesized that the intersectional frames centering women and LGBTQ people would mobilize the people in the groups being centered but may decrease support among other groups, especially men.
 
The survey results, however, did not clearly match the researchers’ expectations. For example, members of the groups centered in the intersectional identity frames, Black women and Black LGBTQ people, are not mobilized to a greater extent when they read these identity frames versus the control frame or the Black nationalism frame. However, Black men were less likely to support BLM if given the frames centering women and LGBTQ people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these frames decreased support since there is no baseline collected, but could indicate that these frames are less effective in mobilizing support among Black men.
 
Dr. Bonilla emphasized that these findings—while disappointing to her as a researcher and person invested in building an understanding of intersectionality—do not mean that intersectional frames should not be used. She emphasized that, overall, support for the movement is notably high among the survey participants and that it is more difficult to increase engagement among people who are already highly mobilized, which especially the case for Black women.
 
The findings also raised an important question for the authors’ future research, which could shape our understanding of intersectionality in social movements: how meaningful is the concept of intersectionality to the general public? Do they understand the term, and do they agree with it? Understanding this relationship could tell us more about the effectiveness of intersectional identity frames for Black Lives Matter and other social movements.