It Started with a Knee: How BLM Swept the Nation

Release time: 2020-06-11 12:15

It Started with a Knee: How BLM Swept the Nation

The science of minority influence explains the growth in Black Lives Matter.

The slow build

Way back in August 2016, before a meaningless NFL preseason game, Colin Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback, did something bold – he took a knee during the National Anthem. Kap’s move was a peaceful protest in response to what seemed, even four years ago, to be a never-ending spiral of police brutality against unarmed black men. 

At the time, reactions to Kaepernick’s efforts were both swift and varied. Some players supported Kap, joining him in kneeling, sitting on the bench, or even leaving the field during the Anthem. Yet the vitriol that Kap received was, perhaps, even more telling: President Trump, for one, said that his response to kneeling players would be to, “Get that son of a b**** off the field right now.” Vice President Mike Pence shared a similar sentiment, leaving a game between the 49ers and the Indianapolis Colts when players knelt during the Anthem.

For Kaepernick, standing up (well, taking a knee) for what he believed in was no small potatoes – since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in 2017, the former Pro Bowler has remained unsigned despite being considerably more accomplished than a host of employed quarterbacks. Many have conjectured that the NFL is, at least in part, blackballing Kap because of the undue attention his signing would bring to their team and franchise. 

Things are getting warmer

Despite Kap’s continued efforts, police brutality against unarmed black men has continued, hitting a new crescendo with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. The horrifying video of a white officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck quickly went viral; all four officers involved have now been arrested. 

Floyd’s gruesome and untimely death prompted a renewed round of largely peaceful protests across the world against police brutality. Unlike four years ago, when Kap first knelt during the National Anthem, a groundswell of support has come to the surface. A host of players, activists, executives, and companies – both black and white – have come out in strong support of the movement. 

It has been one helluva circuitous route, but the through-line from Kap’s first kneel down to what feels, to many, like a paradigm-shifting cultural moment is clear. In fact, this all seems like a textbook example of the social psychology of minority influence.

Four steps for influence

Most of the time, cultural change comes from the top down – what the majority of people think, what is considered “normative”, is the law of the land. Sometimes, though, a numerical or power minority can cause change to come from the bottom up. The science of minority influence suggests that this change occurs in four steps.

Step 1. Black Lives Matter starts as the minority – for a while

A minority group is a subgroup that is both numerically smaller and possesses less power than an opposed majority [1]. In the context of Black Lives Matter (BLM), self-identified supporters began, in 2016, as a clear minority: Data from Pew Research Center showed that only 29% of people considered themselves supporters of BLM. Even though most Americans likely opposed police brutality, the Pew data show that 71% also opposed BLM – clearly, at that point, BLM did not yet possess enough power to create the systemic change it seeks.

Step 2. The minority has the upper hand

Popularized by Serge Moscovici, a French social psychologist, in the late 1960s, conversion theory describes the process by which a numerical or power minority can influence the majority [2]. At the broadest level, influence from a majority causes people to focus on the relationship between themselves and the members of the majority: fear of retribution causes people to publicly accept the majority’s position. 

Influence originating from a minority group, on the other hand, focuses on the message itself. Interestingly, research has shown that focusing on the message often has a greater influence than focusing on the group – people actually come to privately accept the minority’s position. In the end, the message will win.

So perhaps conversion theory can explain why opposition to Kap’s kneel-downs may have had an effect: many of those who are against him focus on the method, not on the message. Indeed, people have stated that they’re in support of the movement against racial injustice, but that they object to Kap kneeling during the National Anthem. 

Step 3. Fortune favors the bold and consistent

Minority influence stands a better chance with brave and consistent leadership. Research shows that perceived courage stemming from the minority helps create systematic change. Minority leaders who assertively and repeatedly state their opinions publicly, with full knowledge that they’re in the minority group, that they’ll have to publicly defend themselves, often stand the greatest chance of creating change [3].

In the case of Kap and the entire BLM movement, there has certainly been consistency – the message and method have remained unchanged since the beginning. Leaders of the movement have also been assertive, making clearer and clearer statements about their beliefs. And, as you might have noticed, other players across the professional sports landscape are taking up the cause on an unprecedented level.

Step 4. The minority becomes the majority

According to conversion theory, the minority movement eventually reaches critical mass, where it becomes the majority. The process has then come full circle, where people conform to the new majority opinion. This terminal part of minority influence can take time, but can also result in clear, systemic change. 

Perhaps we are seeing early evidence that this stage is coming. A Monmouth University poll, released this week, showed that 76% of Americans view racism as a “big problem” in the United States. What’s more, the current round of protests in response to George Floyd’s death are more widespread and diverse than ever. 

Maybe, as Sam Cooke famously sang, “a change is gonna come” – unless, thanks to the minority influence exerted by Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s already arrived. 


Benjamin D. Rosenberg, Ph.D. is a social-health psychologist with expertise in research methods and statistics. Bret Levine, Ph.D., is a behavioral psychologist who specializes in user experience research and team cohesion.

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