Trayvon Martin, Racism and Social Media

Racism and the struggle for civil rights are happening online. This is a central point that I made in an earlier book and in talks I’ve given around the country.

The Trayvon Martin case illustrates two important points: 1) that the fight against racism has shifted because of social media, and 2) it demonstrates rather starkly how racism hasn’t changed. I’ll start with the second point.

(Image from @Llapen)

The murder of Trayvon Martin is an event in the embodied, material world that connects to other, similar acts in which the ‘black body,’ is marked as both threatening and worthy of killing (see Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 1997). Martin’s murder at the hands of a vigilante connects his death to that of previous victims of lynching, the archetypal form of violent white supremacy (see Koritha Mitchell, Living with Lynching, 2011). During the height of lynching, activists used the means available to them – newspapers, town halls, banners, plays, word-of-mouth – to try to sway public opinion about the vigilante killing of African Americans.

Today, the tools available to activists have changed. People have learned about the Trayvon Martin case very quickly through social media. The social media campaign began with the unlikely character of Kevin Cunningham, a white guy who describes himself as “super Irish” and who was also a Howard Law School University alum. Cunningham saw a link to the story on a email listserv called Men of Howard. Cunningham wanted to do something so he started a petition on demanding that Sanford Police charge Zimmerman with a crime. It got 100 signatures that first day, March 8, just 11 days after Trayvon Martin was killed.

Prominent bloggers began to pick up on the story, and within the next week the online petition had moved past the 100,000 mark.  On March 16, Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. As the 911 tapes were released and began to raise troubling questions about the shooter’s pursuit of Trayvon and the Sanford Police investigation. These tapes prompted Judd Legume of Think Progress on March 18 to put together a set of simple facts titled “What Everyone Should Know About Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)”; that story quickly went viral, with 147,000 likes on Facebook. The petition topped 200,000 signatures, and it seemed that everyone on social media was talking about the Trayvon Martin case.

The social media activism even resulted in some old school in-the-streets-activism, with a “Million Hoodie” march in New York City on March 21st (pictured above).

This is an extraordinary example of how social media can be used to affect awareness about an issue (if not quite change). As Kelly McBride at Poynter observes:

“This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care. Think of the Jena Six, the story of six black teenagers unjustly prosecuted in 2007 for attempted murder following a fight that erupted as a result of racial tensions. Black bloggers kept that story alive until Howard Witt, then a writer for the Chicago Tribune, brought it into the mainstream media. That took almost a year. Trayvon’s story took three weeks.”

The online petition now has 1.5 million signatures (the largest ever in’s history), although all this social media attention hasn’t resulted in an arrest in the case yet.

So, this is all very good news about the power of social media. Perhaps it really is making us better, more socially engaged and politically active,  as sociologist Keith Hampton argues.

There’s more to this story of Trayvon, racism and social media, however.  There is also an amped up, racist smear campaign that is trying to promote the idea that Trayvon was a “drug dealer” who is far more dangerous than the mainstream and left-leaning blogosphere has depicted.

While it might be easy to dismiss the people behind sites like WAGIST as right-wing nut jobs (RWNJ), that’s too easy. Dismissing them as fringe also doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening around Trayvon, racism and social media.

In fact, there’s been a convergence of extremist and mainstream media around the Trayvon Martin case that illustrates a point I made in a previous book, that the “extreme” white supremacy has a lot of similarity with the mainstream version of whiteness.

The thoroughly mainstream, if right-leaning, Business Insider has made a linkbait-cottage-industry out of news about the Trayvon Martin case, including a photo it reported was of Trayvon in a “thug” pose and used it to question the supposed bias in media reporting. Unfortunately, the photo was not of the Trayvon Martin who was killed but of someone else.  The source for the Business Insider photo: white power message board Stormfront. And Business Insider wasn’t the only one. Michelle Malkin, right-wing pundit, also reproduced the photo on her site. The fact that Business Insider and Michelle Malkin are reproducing images from Stormfront illustrates the point I made earlier about the overlap between extremist and more mainstream expressions of white supremacy.

The racist smear campaign against Trayvon Martin continues.  Today, it’s reported that a white supremacist hacker that goes by the name “Klanklannon” has broken into the private Facebook account of Trayvon Martin and published the contents on the message board 4chan—called “/pol/.”The messages were posted on four slides, designed to back up the racist argument Trayvon was “dangerous” (and therefore deserved to be killed).  A slide titled “Trayvon Martin Used Marijuana Habitually,” features an exchange between Trayvon and a friend about getting high. Another slide, “Trayvon Martin was a Drug Dealer,” features Facebook messages and photos that supposedly prove Martin dealt drugs, including a picture of Martin posing “aggressively with a large amount of cash in his hand.”  The hacker also grabbed Trayvon’s @gmail account that found nothing more sinister than a high school student searching for colleges and selecting the best day to take his SAT exam.

As Adrian Chen at Gawker points out, it’s impossible to verify the hacked messages’ authenticity—like other anti-Trayvon Martin propaganda, they’re probably a mix of real and fake content— and they are now being passed around on message boards like the neo-Nazi hive Stormfront.

The central point about Trayvon Martin, racism and social media here is that the struggle for civil rights is happening online as well as offline. Sometimes, these new forms of social media can be used to work expose racial injustice at record speed and amplify calls for action. At the same time, old forms of racism – lynching and vigilantism, stereotypes of young black men as ‘menacing drug dealers’ – exist alongside these new forms of activism. Meanwhile, white supremacists and mainstream pundits use the same tools as racial justice activists to spread racist propaganda that confuse and bespoil the public sphere.

Sociologists and other scholars are just beginning to come to terms with what all this means. One thing we do understand is that we cannot disentangle the online and the offline. The digital and the material are imbricated, as Saskia Sassen argues. That is, the “online” forms of racism and struggle against overlap and are intertwined with the “offline” and material forms of racial inequality.  In other language, our material reality is augmented by digital, social media as Nathan Jurgenson contends. When it comes to race, that means we have to see the face-to-face racism that took Trayvon’s life as connected to the online forms of social protest meant to redress that harm and the smear campaigns intended to assassinate his character after his death.

Finally, for activists who would fight for racial equality and civil rights today, the message seems to be clear: learn to use social media or be left behind in the fight against racism.


  1. Here’s what I don’t get – how can they say the incident has nothing to do with race but continue to resort to racial stereotypes in depicting Trayvon? And why aren’t they local as assiduously into George Zimmerman’s past?

    Also, what difference does it make what pictures Trayvon put up on Facebook? Even if he were a drug dealer, not only did he not have any drugs on him at the time, there’s no way Zimmerman could’ve known?

    And what do we make of his father calling Pres Obama, the CBC, and the NAACP and others’ response “hateful?” Obama was absolutely silent on the issue of race. And seeing as that the father is a judge, shouldn’t he be able to see things from other’s perspective? Or at the very least, be able to distinguish hate towards individuals from anger and frustration with a system? Even if he’s just a father defending his son, to accuse people questioning Zimmerman’s (ever-changing) version of events, “hateful” is extreme, isn’t it?

    Which reminds me of Gingrich’s response to Obama’s thoughts on the issue – if they don’t see race playing a part in the incident, how can they see race playing a part in Obama’s comments? If everyone wants justice, and race plays no role, why aren’t they as passionate about finding the truth? Why are they so invested in digging up Trayvon’s drug-dealing past rather than Zimmerman’s past? Did George not have a FB page? In their determined argument that the whole situation had nothing to do with race, they’ve turned the situation into a partisan one. I’m pretty sure folks on the right see some advantage in their own race-baiting, but do they really not see how race plays a role in all this? Do they really not understand why the CBC and the NAACP and others are so upset?

  2. cordoba blue

    Just read yesterday that Zimmerman was arrested with a second degree murder charge. The police stated they were basing the arrest on the facts only, and not out of sympathy for Trayvon’s parents. That’s great!
    Soon we will all really know what happened that night. But I believe we’ll see a change in the concept of people acting as vigilantes. Against the law. And most people certainly cannot determine was is or is not “suspicious” looking behavior. Plus, some soul searching on whether “walking while black” should arouse anxiety on the part of whites. Hopefully, Trayvon will not have died in vain.


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