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It started not as a global rallying cry but as a simple plea on Facebook. On July 13, 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of unarmed Black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, activist Alicia Garza wrote a post urging Black people to come together to ensure that “Black lives matter.”

The phrase quietly gathered momentum for a year, finally becoming a high-profile movement in its own right when an unarmed Black 18-year-old named Michael Brown was killed the following year. 

The founders of Black Lives Matter (BLM) held the radical idea that African Americans should no longer be deprived of basic human rights at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some conservatives opportunistically used Black Lives Matter to stoke racial tensions and increase the partisan divide, calling its founders and supporters unpatriotic at best and terrorists at worst. 

President Donald Trump made no attempt to mince words when he called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate” and its supporters “thugs,” “terrorists,” and “anarchists.” Unsurprisingly, opinion polls found a significant racial and partisan gap on questions related to Black Lives Matter, police violence, and judicial reforms. For example, an academic study by Graham et al., (2020) found that Black respondents were over five times more worried about experiencing police brutality than white respondents. Scholars and pollsters are once again paying attention to the attitudes that diverse groups of Americans have toward Black Lives Matter, police violence, and other pressing civil rights issues. 

My focus here is on an often overlooked but growing segment of the U.S. public—people who are secular.

Secularism is on the rise in the United States, and there’s growing interest in exploring the political beliefs and values of secular voters. In the last 50 years, Americans identifying as nonreligious or “nones” has grown from five percent to 23 percent, leading Professor Susan Hansen to argue that “long term demographic trends favor secular viewpoints.” Sociologist Phil Zuckerman and political scientist Ryan Burge find that secular voters hold more politically liberal positions on a wide range of issues and skew toward the Democratic Party. 

Yet there’s been much less discussion of the ways race and ethnicity intersect with secular identities. My goal here is to fill this gap by analyzing the attitudes of secular and religious Latinos, Blacks and non-Hispanic Whites toward the Black Lives Matter movement and policing.

Respondents in the 2020 Pew Research Center American Trends survey[1] were asked, “From what you’ve read and heard, how do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?” The results show a high degree of racial polarization, with a 40-point gap dividing Black and white respondents. 

Latinos straddle the racial divide, though their level of support is closer to non-Hispanic whites than to Black respondents. Of course, these racial identities intersect with other social identities, including secular and religious.

What I mean by “secular”

Scholars don’t always agree on what secularism is and how to measure it, but there’s a growing consensus that it is a distinct belief system that affirms objective humanism, freethinking, and evidence as a basis for understanding the world. 

Unfortunately, surveys don’t always ask the exact question you need for a given purpose, such as “Do you consider yourself secular?” So I used the question, “What is your religion, if any?” and classified respondents as secular if they answered,  “Nothing in particular,” “Atheist,” or “Agnostic.” These are all distinct identities worthy of separate analysis, and I agree with scholars who note that secularism is not simply the opposite of being religious. 

But as a pragmatic shorthand, I will use “non-secular” and “religious” interchangeably here. Most public opinion polls include the religious affiliation question, and the categories I’m using are common stand-ins for secularism. Based on this question, 28.3% of non-Hispanic whites, 27.5% of Latinos, and 21.2% of Blacks are secular.

When you combine secular and religious identities with race and ethnicity, dramatic differences in support for the Black Lives Matter movement emerge (Table 2). Among non-Hispanic white respondents, a 25-point gap separates secular and religious respondents, with the secular being very supportive. A difference of 20 points separates secular and religious Latinos. The gap between secular and religious Black respondents is more modest at eight points—but again, the seculars were more supportive.

So what accounts for the greater BLM support among seculars in these groups? In the case of non-Hispanic whites, the findings are consistent with research showing that religiously-oriented persons hold more conservative positions on a wide range of issues. Secular whites, on the other hand, tend to possess more progressive social and political values, including civil rights social movements. 

Among African Americans, religion is a generally progressive social force. Not surprisingly, the Black church and its leaders have been at the forefront of civil rights movements. That may help explain why Black religious respondents are much closer to their secular counterparts in BLM support.

Latino policy attitudes often fall between the Black-white racial divide. There is considerable debate among scholars as to whether Latino political attitudes will mirror those of non-Hispanic whites as they assimilate into the dominant group, or whether those attitudes will mirror or come closer to those held by Blacks because Hispanics too are a racialized and stigmatized group. Of course, it may be that Latinos will occupy a middle ground on this and other policy issues for the foreseeable future. 

Religion also plays a distinct role in the lives of Latinos. At times it is seen as a force for social conservatism; at other times it is a radical force. The role that secular values play in shaping Latino attitudes and behaviors is less known. Like non-Hispanic whites, secular Latinos hold more politically liberal values (Table 2). And contrary to the Black church, religiosity for US Latinos seems to be a conservative social force.

Black Lives Matter became a movement focused on reforming the criminal justice system broadly and police violence specifically. The Pew survey includes a question asking respondents which of the following three statements comes closest to their views about law enforcement: 

1) Black people are treated less fairly than white people

2) White people are treated less fairly than Black people; or 

3) Both are treated about equally.

Most respondents believe Black people are treated less fairly by police (Table 3). Yet among non-Hispanic whites and Latinos, it is the secular respondents who are more likely to agree with that. Among non-Hispanic whites, a 20-point gap separates secular and religious respondents. Among Latinos, that gap is 14 points. Religious Black respondents are more likely to agree that Black people are treated less fairly by the police, but those differences are within the margin of error.

The fact that white and Latino seculars possess values aligned with Black respondents broadly points to the powerful potential of secularism as an avenue for forging multiracial coalitions.

Again, it’s worth recalling that religion is a progressive social force in the lives of African Americans, which may explain the marginal differences between secular and religious Black respondents, at least on issues pertaining to racial discrimination.

The evidence suggests that secularism is associated with support for the Black Lives Matter movement among non-Hispanic whites and Latinos. It is also associated with a belief that Black folk are treated unequally by law enforcement. For African Americans, secularism does not have the same effects. This pattern may simply be a function of the measure I use to differentiate secular from religious respondents. My secular measure is in relation to a religious denomination, so it may be that I am merely capturing the relative progressivism or conservatism of religion across the three groups in the sample. Yet, even if my measure is not a complete representation of secularism, it does indicate that non-Hispanic whites and Latinos who are “nones,” “atheists,” or “agnostics” are more racially progressive. 

As these segments of the U.S. population increase, the fact that white and Latino seculars possess values aligned with African American respondents broadly points to the powerful potential of secularism as an avenue for forging multiracial coalitions.

Barack Obama’s election was initially seen as a symbol of America’s entry into a post-racial era. It seemed that racism and prejudice were finally thrown into the ash heap of history. Yet throughout his presidency and beyond, African Americans routinely experienced racialized violence at the hands of law enforcement and so-called “citizens on patrol.” While the death of Trayvon Martin came at the tail-end of Obama’s presidency, it was one of the sparks that lit the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, some Americans aligned themselves with African Americans, while others distanced themselves from them. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement comes at a time when secularism is on the ascendance. Thus, we have an opportunity to explore whether secular Americans are likely to take on racially progressive causes, remain on the sidelines, or take a reactive position. 

The evidence shown here is that secular Americans will politically align themselves with African Americans in their efforts to counter police brutality and vigilante violence. While progressive religious leaders played a significant role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in the century ahead, secular Americans will be pivotal allies in the fight for racial justice.

[1] The sample size from the 2020 Pew Research Center: American Trends Panel Wave 74 is 10,093 adults. The analysis is based on the weighted data.

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Dr. Adrian Pantoja is a Professor in Political Studies and Chicano Studies at Pitzer College. In addition to academic research, he has offered commentary on Latino politics to outlets including The New...