A Crisis within a Crisis: BlackLivesMatter, COVID-19, and a New Sense of Purpose

Rada Mihalcea, Ashwini Ashokkumar, James Pennebaker; The Pandemic Project, University of Michigan, University of Texas

On May 25th 2020, George Floyd, a 46-years old Minnesota resident, was killed in police custody. His horrific death has sparked worldwide outrage, with thousands of protests, vigils, and rallies across the U.S. and abroad. 

George Floyd’s death comes at a crossroads in America.  It follows a number of other killings of Black Americans: Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others. At the same time, the COVID crisis has accentuated the great racial disparity in unemployment, income, and health care, which has spurred far higher death rates from the coronavirus in American Blacks than Whites.

Although the black-white differences have been known for generations, the images of George Floyd provoked a tipping point, almost overnight. Within a week, most cities in the United States witnessed marches with occasional violent behavior. Public acknowledgements of widespread systemic racism across all areas of life were made by people across races, ages, among both Democrats and Republicans, and across the ideological spectrum. 

The Black Lives Matter tipping point came during the third month of the COVID crisis. Our research teams at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin had been collecting data on shifts in attitudes and behaviors linked to the health crisis. Our research methods allowed us to quickly begin tracking the Crisis within a Crisis.  We turned to Twitter, and analyzed several million English tweets randomly drawn from Twitter at a rate of approximately 100,000 tweets per day between March 22 and June 6. Recall that the first general shelter-in-place orders were issued starting March 13.

Rising Anger

Early on during the COVID outbreak, we noticed significant emotional shifts, with high levels of anxiety and large drops in anger. Based on earlier research associated with people’s responses to the Loma Prieta Earthquake and the Persian Gulf War, we expected to see a significant increase in anger starting several weeks after the onset of COVID in mid-March. One reason for this is that during the initial news of the outbreak, peoples’ attention was on the immediate threat and most other life problems had melted away.  However, as the days, then weeks marched on, people continued feeling anxious but they now had the freedom to start looking around and seeing other issues in their lives that were problematic or outrageous.

Indeed, starting in early April, anger language increased and remained at higher levels than the early days of COVID. Beginning in mid-April, armed protests began erupting in several states by people who wanted to stop the quarantines and to get back to work. By the end of May, the brutal murder of George Floyd was a spark to the underlying rage of an even larger segment of the population.  Did the underlying anxiety of COVID cause these protests? No. However, they were likely energized by the simmering anxiety that most of us felt.

Changes in emotions at the beginning of the COVID outbreak, with high levels of anxiety and large drops in anger.
George Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25th 2020 led to thousands of protests, vigils, and rallies across the U.S. and abroad, and a major spike in anger.

Us and Them

While emotions have shifted dramatically in the span of just three months, other things stayed constant. For instance, in the early days of COVID, we saw a major increase in “we” words (including words such as we, us, ourselves) as compared to the times before the pandemic had started, indicating that COVID increased people’s collective focus. Although the relative use of “we” words decreased during April and May reflecting an increasing sense of a “new normal,” we are now once again seeing an increase in use, which suggests a tightening up of social relations during all the protests that took place over the past few weeks. In fact, the BlackLivesMatter movement has seen a swell of support among whites, and has been bringing America together in a way that COVID has not done. 

The BlackLivesMatter movement has also resulted in a sharp increase in “they” words – with words such as they, themselves, their. Of course, the first question that comes to mind is: who’s “they”? (and for that matter: who’s “we”?) An analysis of a large number of tweets reveals no clear pattern: sometimes “they” refers to the police, other times to the “protesters”, other times to the African American communities (similarly, “we” often refers to the same groups, but in other contexts). The clear increase in the use of “they” words appears to be reflective of a heightened ongoing conversation on racism: according to Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility “race talk always implies us and them.”

While “we” and “they” words have been going up, we see a low use of “I” words (including words such as I, me, myself). We have seen a clear decrease in “I” words by as much as 47% when comparing the first few weeks of the COVID pandemic with language from the previous year; the relative percentage of “I” words got even lower after May 25th, dropping by another 42%. In other words, neither crisis is about the individual selves, and this lack of self-focus holds even more strongly for the BlackLivesMatter movement.

Changes in the relative use of “we” and “they” words during the early days of the COVID pandemic (end of March) and the BlackLivesMatter movement (end of May).

A New Sense of Purpose

Along with the increase in anger and the larger number of references to “they,” we also see a new set of values being reinforced. Using our values lexicon, we measured the changes in people’s values over the past two weeks, as compared to the earlier days of the pandemic. In addition to an increase in values that reflect a desire to help others or the role of society, we notice a large increase in the value of “order” (with words such as stability, safety, freedom) and the value of “justice” (with words such as equality, justice, equity). These amplified values are a reflection of the new concerns resurfaced by the BlackLivesMovement, and the hope for change. 

The BlackLivesMatter movement has brought an upsurge in core values of purpose, order, and justice.

Above all, the BlackLivesMatter movement has brought a new sense of purpose, as reflected by an increased use of words such as motivation, aspiration, intent, goal. The heavy thoughts and feelings of those who have been oppressed for many years by overt and covert racist behavior are now being voiced during the protest movements, which gives a sense of urgency over what will happen next, and hope for justice, order, and civic change. As a recent tweet has rightfully put it “[…] so many people are risking their lives for a very good reason, so it’s things like that that’ll motivate us more, you know!” 

This crisis within a crisis has swept us across the spectrum of human emotions from a high sense of anxiety to a surge of anger. It has brought a growing sense of togetherness, and an upsurge in core values of purpose, order, and justice. Whereas in other worlds, a shared national threat such as COVID would have united us and racial strife torn us apart, we have been witnessing just the opposite: the COVID pandemic has kept us at a distance, and the BLackLivesMatter has brought us together. 

I’m not black, but I see you.

I’m not black, but I hear you.

I’m not black, but I stand with you.

I’m not black, but I mourn with you.

I’m not black, but I will fight for you.

Anonymous author, shared on Twitter

How To Get Involved and Support Black Communities

  1. Get educated on race and racism – read books, watch movies, listen to podcasts. A starting point is here
  2. Have conversations about race with family and friends.
  3. Vote in the upcoming elections. 
  4. Shop black-owned businesses.
  5. Donate and volunteer to support the BlackLivesMatter movement and equality initiatives. A starting point is here.