White Supremacism as Meme: How Reddit is Breeding a New Generation of Violent Racism

“4chan is leaking.” This is what users of the link sharing website Reddit say when they see a certain sort of comment, typically a personal anecdote that begins plausibly but rapidly escalates into the outlandish and the perverse. It is a style characteristic of some of the message boards of 4chan, a more insular online forum whose community is drawn towards entertainment of the more shocking and/or titillating variety. To say that 4chan is leaking is to identify a Redditor as being a member of both communities, a dual citizen who carries to Reddit the distinctive discourse of 4chan.

If 4chan leaks then Reddit floods. In Facebook statuses, comment sections, and twitter streams the signifiers of Reddit abound, proliferated by its users. Sometimes it is the signature constellation of interests and topics that reveal a Redditor. She might be relaying some pithy slogan about the importance of digital freedom, the cultural significance of bacon, or the deeply flawed nature of Internet Explorer. Or she might be saying “For science!” or “tl;dr…” or “So brave!” or “I see what you did there!” or “I, for one, welcome our new _____ overlords,” or “Shut up and take my money!” or “An’ Frankly, I did Nazi that coming!” or “Faith in humanity restored!” or any of the other phrases peculiar to Reddit.

It is a strange feature of human sociality that a person’s online activity is revealed in her speech. We conceive of ourselves as free agents, yet channel the expressions and ideas of our associates to the point where our words serve as recognizable signs of group membership. In such communal expressions we see that culture is not merely an explanation for the strangeness of distant others, but, rather, is something universal, manifested in all of us.

But how does the community come to modify and inflect our behavior in this way? The answer lies in the iconography of Reddit, the pictures and bold white capital letters of the Internet meme. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an image or type of image accompanied by a caption that follows a formula particular to the meme. The classic example is the lolcat, a meme wherein text is superimposed over a picture of a cat to describe its present state from its own, half-witted perspective: “I can has prom date?” asks the kitten wearing the bow tie.

(Image source)

On Reddit, visitors will see more contemporary memes, ones particular to the site. Inarticulate cats have been replaced by a set of characters that pass on bits of Reddit conventional wisdom via macro text. Some relay explicit advice while others pick out everyday moments that are common but not often discussed, the airing of which lets viewers feel a shared sense of experience. It’s a new package on an old tradition, the latest not-so-funny reincarnation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed…” monologues. More importantly, these images embody Reddit’s close association with “memes” as understood in a more technical sense: ideas (or behavior) that replicates through non-genetic transmission.

Reddit is an ideal platform for meme transmission. According to a recent Pew Poll, six percent of all American adults who use the Internet are Reddit users. This sizable audience represents an army of potential hosts for memes—a potential that is readily converted into actualized adoption and propagation via the participatory nature of Reddit. By having the audience contribute all of its content, Reddit encourages people to not merely consume its devices and truisms but to adopt them as their own, to internalize and redisseminate them like an animal regurgitating a recent meal so as to eat it again.

 

(Image source)

 

This recursive process is powered by a democratic points system wherein Redditors are awarded “karma” for each “upvote” that their submitted content receives. Content that draws a high number of upvotes will then float to the top of the site, giving it greater visibility. Through this system, Redditors are incentivized to post the content that they believe will garner upvotes—and the surest method for achieving this end is to mimic what has been successful in the past.

 

(Image source)

The most brazen form of content mimesis is the “repost,” where a Redditor resubmits someone else’s highly-upvoted content in the hope that it will be highly-upvoted once again. Beyond this blatant duplication, however, there are countless shades of karma-seeking imitation, ranging from the repackaging of a popular idea to the use of a popular package for a new idea. Thus, while only a few users resort to exact imitation, Reddit nonetheless ends up filled with the repeated catchphrases and concepts of the meme.

The spread of such concepts beyond the parameters of Reddit reflects the platform’s unparalleled ability to incubate memes. With its millions of users, the site has a huge pool of contributing talent to generate the content from which a meme might emerge. At the same time, the voting system provides users with near-instant feedback, allowing them to refine their submissions and perfect their intuitive sense of what will go viral. And, since the most popular content also becomes the most visible, users are provided with a gold standard to mimic and draw upon for inspiration. This combination results in a site capable of churning out highly-seductive and transmissible catchphrases—ones so powerful that they have spread far beyond the boundaries of Reddit to the anglophonic culture at large.

Indeed, the memes of Reddit are bred so strong that they easily displace locally-grown culture, filling up individuals’ cultural vocabularies at the expense of their own unique or subcultural expressions and ideas. The result is a striking homogenization of culture wherein New York Times columnists parrot the idioms of webcomics made by pre-teens, categories like the fedora-wearing “neckbeard” are widely-shared, and Reddit observations like the trite “deliciousness of bacon” meme are near-impossible to avoid. Although there are few quantitative measures that might confirm the observation, Redditisms seem ubiquitous in the broader cultural discourse to the point where they have begun to drown out localized cultural variation and diversity.

Whether this growing homogeneity seems worthy of lament will vary according to one’s taste. For those who thrive on novelty and originality, the Redditization of culture is a disaster, with cultural content devolving into an endless repetition of the same set of tired banalities. By contrast, those who enjoy familiarity and the sense of community that comes with shared expression will find comfort in a cultural world bound together by interlacing memes.

Such evenhandedness is harder to muster when it comes to Reddit’s mimetic influence on politics. Just as pictures of cats and affirmation of bacon circulate as memes, so, too, do ideology and political argument. Bits of reasoning are picked up and redeployed in debates by those who find them clarifying or whose presuppositions the arguments support. This circulation of ideas is particularly visible on Reddit where the same debates are had over and over again, each successive iteration providing participants with the opportunity to refine their arguments and try out whatever new ones they have picked up in the intervening period. The most appealing of these get then get upvoted, and the same meme-generating process that spews catch-phrases across the Internet manifests itself again, now with arguments as its object.

Were Reddit an ideologically-diverse site, the mimetic process might be understood as making dialectical progress, with different schools of thought co-evolving to the point where perhaps some reconciliation might be reached. In point of fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Redditors share a narrow set of ideological presuppositions—the result being a site that more closely resembles a crowd-sourced think tank generating ever more infectious arguments for dissemination to the masses.

Most of the ideologies promoted by Reddit are fairly benign—e.g., anti-interventionism, science-based skepticism, support for marijuana legalization, a distaste for intellectual property, and others. Reddit is not, as some have so glibly misdescribed it, a collection of “Ayn Rand Spark Notes,” but, rather, leans strongly towards economic populism, with large quantities of scorn regularly heaped on those who espouse even the slightest hint of Randianism or principled libertarianism. In more general terms, the Reddit Consensus lies somewhere on the leftward side of the Democratic Party with the average Redditor concerned about inequality, in favor of LGBT rights, and supportive of government spending and moderate redistribution.

What is troubling, though, is that such innocuous politics now coexist with a rising tide of racism that is slowly engulfing the site. Reddit has long been reactionary when it comes to the politics of race and gender, but typically that has taken the more-moderate form of the privileged person who petulantly drags his feet in resistance to the implication that he has done something wrong or is the beneficiary of injustice. Thus, while the average Redditor might have habitually bashed the /r/ShitRedditSays subreddit—a subforum whose subscribers call out problematic attitudes and speech—his attacks often seemed motivated more by a fear of one day being an ShitRedditSays target than an affirmation of sexist or racist tenets. Thus, while Redditors have disappointingly exhibited a greater ability to empathize with those who might be publicly embarrassed for holding oppressive opinions than those actually oppressed by such opinions, popular regard for the opinions themselves has always seemed limited to a few extremist subreddits.

Recently, however—and particularly on the subject of race—Reddit seems to be increasingly dominated by argument-memes that are explicitly anti-egalitarian with respect to identity. Whether it is the frequent discussions of “black crime,” KKK apologism (related: holocaust apologism), or just explicit bigotry, the comments on Reddit when race is brought up have come to resemble those found on explicitly white supremacist forums. Though difficult to quantify, it is a trend that many Redditors have noted—a proliferation of racism that appears to be less of an outside invasion than an internal mutation which, by means of mimesis, has spread like cancer throughout the body. Meanwhile, antiracists appear to have largely retreated from the most popular subreddits, abandoning the bulk of Reddit territory to their antagonists.

This process has been fueled by an active core of racist ideologues who devote significant time and attention to proselytizing on Reddit. These demagogues—who inhabit subreddits with charming names like /r/whiterights, /r/whitepride, and /r/niggers—seek to piggyback on Reddit’s anti-PC sentiment by passing off pernicious stereotypes as “I’m going to hell for this”-type jokes. And, of course, any time the white supremacist trope of “black crime” can be worked into a discussion, these extremists will be on hand to insert their propaganda.

These tactics are further augmented by “brigading”—a Reddit term for when an organized group of ideological Redditors swarm a given thread and vote up the comments they agree with and downvote those that contradict their views. Though the practice is officially outlawed on Reddit, it is difficult to prevent, and is proven in its effectiveness when it comes to swaying popular opinion. One recent study has shown that that people are more likely to upvote something that has already received an upvote—particularly when the subject pertains to politics, culture, and society. The implication is that brigading influences how people perceive a comment’s quality; by upvoting arguments en masse, ideological Redditors can make their views seem popular, reasonable, and moderate. At the same time, downvoting comments makes them less visible, effectively burying opposing views under ideologically-favorable material.

 

(A variant of this meme was once highly-upvoted on Reddit. Image Source)

 

While certain subreddits brigade spontaneously in knee-jerk outrage, the racists of Reddit have explicitly embraced the tactic as a means of popularizing their message. Indeed, the Reddit administrators recently banned /r/niggers for repeatedly and unapologetically engaging in the practice, while blocking some of the more vitriolic users from the site entirely. Whether the bans have been effective in curbing the racist brigades is unclear. However, even if effective, they seem too little, too late, with racist vote manipulation having apparently already established a grassroots racism that renders the practice superfluous.

Even more concerning is the possibility that the racist ideology on Reddit will be translated into violent practice. Reddit’s tendency to spawn outrage and malicious mobs is already well-documented. The medium is conducive to such behavior, spawning outrage through decontextualization. On Reddit, interested parties can present their side of the story as though it were the whole truth—a limited framing that obscures the complexity and mitigating factors that might exonerate the accused. In this way, complex human conflicts arising from legitimate differences are too often reduced to the sort of morality plays capable of inciting self-righteous mobs to seek vengeance. Combine this tendency with engrained racism and one cannot help but worry that IRL lynch mobs might emerge once again.

 

(Image source)

If this seems alarmist, consider the recent Reddit thread with the Stormfront-worthy title “Racist black kids bully white toddler” that had to shutter the comments section due to witch-hunting and the revelation of personal information. Or, the fact that when a video circulated of a (black) security guard tossing out a belligerent (black) woman and tasering her, Redditors heavily upvoted a post stating “If someone tells me this is black culture…. it needs to be eradicated,” before donating over $23,000 to better arm and equip him. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder, a white supremacist member of neighboring 4chan’s fringe-right /pol/ board hacked into Martin’s email in an effort to discredit the slain teen and exonerate his killer. These examples are just some of the more visible incidents and, while some are more clear-cut instances of violent white supremacism than others, they all lend substantial credence to the idea that an increasingly-racist Reddit might give rise to more organized racial harassment.

Beyond this terror, there is no small disappointment in witnessing the co-optation of what is otherwise a striking technological platform. On Reddit, millions of people with wildly different backgrounds come together to exchange ideas and debate politics as equals (insofar as one’s identity is protected). In this respect, it is an impressive realization of democratic communicative potential, the logical conclusion of the process that was first sparked by the invention of the printing press or even the written word. The fact that white supremacists have managed to subvert this emerging communicative space to further racial hatred is mortifying.

Yet the struggle for the future of Reddit—and, by extension, the public sphere—is not over. The political left has devoted much time and attention to critiquing Reddit, but it now needs to embrace the forum—to upvote early and often so as to sway the undecided away from the fringe right. At the same time, the comments section on Reddit provides the unique opportunity of reaching millions of people who would never think to pick up a copy of Dissent from a newsstand. The white supremacists are already capitalizing on this captive audience. It’s time the left pushed back.

 

~ Guest blogger Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) is a research assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University. He enjoys writing about power, politics, and culture.

 

“GhettoTracker.com” : Technology, Race, and Place

Web developers created a site called “GhettoTracker.com” which PandoDaily yesterday called “the worst site on the Internet” for its thinly veiled racism.  The stockphoto of an uber-white family on the main page raised the question for at least one reporter if the site might not be satirical.

(Image originally at GhettoTracker.com – screenshot from PandoDaily)

When the site’s creator was asked whether the site was meant as satire, he gave the confusing answer:

“The only thing that’s satire is the name, and I’d classify it as more tongue-in-cheek. The functionality is very real and serious.”

The “very real and serious” function of the site can only be understood within the context of the (imagined) white family who would be threatened by a “ghetto.” Yet, the site’s supposed “ghettos” aren’t identified based on actual crime statistics, or any data, but rather they are determined by the site’s users and delineated by their prejudices. Yet, when people responded negatively to the site, the creator was reportedly “surprised.” 

In some ways, the developer shouldn’t have been surprised given the flop of the racist “Avoid Ghetto” app last year. Although, as Gawker points out, such a worldview would not be out-of-place in Silicon Valley, which has turned its disrupting gaze towards weeding out less fortunate members of society.

In the day or so since then, the URL has been redirected to “Good Part of Town,” and the stockphoto of the white family replaced with one of a black family.

 

(screenshot from Gawker)

The shift from “GhettoTracker” to “Good Part of Town,” along with the shifting iconography of white to black family, suggests a shift from race to class as the main signifier but is no less offensive for this shift.

As with the “Avoid Ghetto” app debacle of last year, this current eruption of racism disturbs the usual ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology. For a time, many leading scholars of technology assumed we were entering a colorblind techno-future.  That turned out not to be the case.

Rather than using Internet technology to “escape” racialized embodiment and spaces, human beings have continually invented new ways to reinscribe race on place and bodies.

Internet technologies like “GhettoTracker” are also revealing for what they tell us about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them, most often poor people, not the more affluent people who are driving through them. To the extent that race and class are mapped onto each other, technologies such as “GhettoTracker” will continue to appeal to their intended audience.

Selling Trayvon, Selling (and Denying) Racism

The trial of George Zimmerman for the tragic murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin has yielded some excellent journalism and critical commentary, and it’s also been an opportunity for some to profit from selling images of Trayvon that trade in racism.

Anjali Mullany, a reporter at Fast Company, pointed out the “Angry Trayvon” game for sale at the Google App store (h/t Christina Sharpe).  The game, as David J. Leonard notes, is another form of profiling that reflects the core of racism.  In the game, the “Trayvon” character is described this way:

“Trayvon is angry and nobody can stop him from completing his world tour of revenge on the bad guy who terrorize cities everyday.”

The notion that “Trayvon” here is “angry” and “on a world tour of revenge” speaks to the pervasive representation of black men as inherently, ontologically violent, aggressive and intent on attacking putatively innocent white people.

 

(Screen shot just before 3pmET on 7/9/13)

There was some pretty vigorous pushback against the game, much of it on Twitter and Facebook and a Change.org petition, as people let the game developers, Trade Digital.  While it was first reported that the game app was removed, it then re-appeared and was still for sale as late as 3pmET yesterday, but appears to be down now. It bears paying attention to see if it comes back again.  Well done, Interwebs, I say.  From my perspective, this is precisely how racism online should be handled.


(Screen shot after 3pmET on 7/9/13)

For its’ part, Trade Digital, said it planned to purge “Angry Trayvon” entirely from the web, according to CNET. I’m not sure why they feel the need to do this bit of web washing, given that in a statement they claim the game wasn’t racist.  According to a statement on the company’s Facebook page (since removed but quoted in Fast Company):

The people spoke out therefore this game was removed from the app stores. Sorry for the inconvenience as this was just an action game for entertainment. This was by no means a racist game. Nonetheless, it was removed as will this page and anything associated with the game will be removed.

This denial of the obvious racism in the “Angry Trayvon” game is rather stunning, really, and I suspect a bit disingenuous.  It’s not that the game developers didn’t realize they were trading on racism in creating this, they were just surprised that it was unpopular.  It’s the only thing that makes this nonsensical statement make any sense. It’s one of those “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody,” non-apologies for racism that is so popular among white people when they (/we) get called out for racism.  What the game developers at Trade Digital expected, and perhaps well within reason, is that their game would be as popular as any of the other racist games on the market.  The way neoliberal, colorblind racism works you can develop and sell, buy and play racist games, you just can’t call it that. The Trade Digital game developers actually had good reason to anticipate brisk sales for their app, based on previous efforts to profit from racism that focused on Trayvon.

Back in May, 2012 an anonymous online seller offered these images as gun range targets and did a brisk business in them.

 

(Image from here)

The accompanying text in the ad (since removed) for the gun range targets read:

Everyone knows the story of Zimmerman and Martin. Obviously we support Zimmerman and believe he is innocent and that he shot a thug. Each target is printed on thick, high quality poster paper with a matte finish! The dimensions are 12″x18″ ( The same as Darkotic Zombie Targets) This is a Ten Pack of Targets.

The unidentified seller based in Florida told a WKMG news team over e-mail:  “The response is overwhelming. I sold out in two days.” WKMG did not identify the seller, and said it found the ad on a popular firearms auctioning website.

 

The reality is that there is profit in selling racism, as there has been for centuries, the forms have changed so that some are selling Trayvon.

Mapping Racism Through Digital Media

With the re-election of President Obama, white people who rooted for the other guy took to various forms of digital media and unleashed their disappointment. Some white folks went a good deal farther than disappointment into overt racism, like this white woman from California who posted her racism on Facebook.  Jezebel pulled together a rogues’ gallery of racist tweets.

The gallery at Jezebel prompted some geographers to create a map of all the racist tweets.

The enterprising folks at Floating Sheep used software they created called DOLLY to collect geocoded tweets for the week beginning November 1. In other words, it’s possible to search Twitter by both location and key word (some other examples here). If I understand it correctly, the DOLLY software allows this search process to be further refined to get data at a more granular level.

What they came up with is a map that allows us to understand, at a glance, how these everyday acts of overt racism are spatially distributed in the U.S.

(Map from Floating Sheep; Interactive Map here.)

This is valuable work and just the kind of thing that I’d think sociologists would be interested in doing (but I digress, slightly). The methodology here, buried in the footnotes on the original post, is a worth exploring a little further.

The research questions they pose are: “Are racist tweets relatively evenly distributed?  Or, do some states have higher specializations in racist tweets?”

To answer these questions, they sampled the universe of tweets.  Specifically, they: “collected tweets that contained the text ‘monkey’ or ‘nigger’ AND also contain the text ‘Obama’ OR ‘reelected’ OR ‘won.’ A quick, and very unsettling, examination of the search results revealed that this indeed was a good match for our target of election-related hate speech. We end up with a total of 395 of some of the nastiest tweets you might possibly imagine.  And given that we’re talking about the Internet, that is really saying something.”

Following that, they took the number of “hate tweets” by state and divided by the total number in the U.S., that became the numerator. Then, they got their denominator by doing the same for all the tweets in the state, divided by all the tweets in the U.S., which is easier to understand expressed as a formula:

(# of Hate Tweets in State / # of Hate Tweets in USA)
————————————————————

(# of ALL Tweets in State / # of ALL Tweets in USA)

Based on this, they assign a number, or a Location Quotient (LQ), for “Post Election Racist Tweets.”  They then rank order states based on their LQ’s.

The results they end up with (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia end up with 3 highest LQ scores) are less interesting than their map and clever methodology. In their analysis, the writers do well to note that the “prevalence of post-election racist tweets is not strictly a southern phenomenon,” but the ranking of the LQ scores by states makes the opposite case.

I want to suggest here that the problem is two-fold: 1) the way the research question is posed and 2) the state-level of analysis.

The researchers here frame their question in terms of state boundaries and posit something of a false dichotomy between “even distribution” of racist tweets on the one hand, and, “states that specialize” in racist tweets on the other hand.  As anyone who has taken an undergraduate methods class can tell you, this research question shapes the kind of data collection you do, and the analysis you come up with at the end.

The state-level of analysis here is something of a distraction. I understand that since we just went through a presidential election, people are thinking in terms of “states” – swing states, blue states, red states, who carried the state – but here, it makes less sense.

What I see when I look at this map are population centers. Take my home state, of Texas.  The red dots there are clustered around places where there’s population density – Houston, Dallas, and more along the I-35 corridor.  And, compare that to where I live now, on the East Coast. There are red dots all along the Northeast corridor of I-95. At a glance, it looks like racist tweets are not evenly distributed across the U.S. but are concentrated where white people live.

Again, let me say, I appreciate this work immensely, but I think that the state-level questions are the least interesting, and ultimately least revealing set of questions for mapping racism through digital media. Instead, I’d be interested in seeing some other basic demographic info about percentage of white people in the population and the proportion of racist tweets. My guess is that the LQ is highest where there is the highest proportion of white people, but that, as academics are so fond of saying, is an empirical question worth investigating.

More in posts to come on calling out racism in digital media, and the growing backlash against it.

Free Speech for Anti-Semites and Other Racist Folks: Debates in Europe

There are some important and interesting debates on hate speech in Europe, with critics of new and old hate-speech laws often parroting “first amendment” arguments one often hears in the US.

The useful e-zine called Eurozine has several interesting article now on various sides of this debate. Check it out here and here.

And there seem to be more interesting websites debating “free speech,” such as this one, Free Speech Debate.

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 Change.org 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 Change.org’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.

Microsoft’s “Avoid Ghetto” App: Racism Built into Technology

Microsoft has developed and filed a patent for a new “Avoid Ghetto” GPS app. The app connects to your smartphone (or dashboard GPS) and let’s you know when you’re getting close to a neighborhood with high rates of (street) crime.

A story about this dreadful new technology appeared in this piece by Ross Kenneth Urken, who talked to a CUNY colleague of mine, Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism. Chinn observes:

“It’s pretty appalling. Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”

Of course, Sarah’s absolutely right about this. (Strangely, The Root mentions her book, uses the same quote, but totally mangles attribution.)

Here’s the way this app is supposed to work, according to the white-fearful-of-crime-imagination (again from Urken):

On the other hand, consider how this app could potentially help wayward drivers in some cities. In Detroit, for example, the city has a central downtown from General Motors headquarters up Woodward Avenue to Ford Field and Comerica Park where comparatively little crime happens. But just a few blocks outside that area, and a driver can find himself amidst streets of abandoned buildings and street-gang territory.

Although this is speculation, I’m sure this is just what the app developers had envisioned when they created this bit of software.  It’s all very Bonfire of the Vanities, really.  Why if Sherman McCoy had this app, he’d have never gotten into all that trouble in the Bronx. But that’s just it, the app doesn’t track the kind of crimes that are really damaging to society as a whole, say, like bank fraud or subprime mortgage scams by “Masters of the Universe” like McCoy.  No, in this app, crime only happens one way: between dangerous street thugs (read: black and brown people) and drivers (read: white people).

This Way
(Creative Commons License photo credit: dblstripe )

Urken goes on to downplay the racial implications of the “Avoid Ghetto” app, by turning to Roger C. Lanctot, a senior analyst at someplace called “Strategy Analytics,” who views the “Avoid Ghetto” app as potentially useful.  Lanctot asserts that “drivers” should have a right to know when they are passing “high-risk” areas.  Here’s what Lanctot had to say:

“We’ve all had that experience when you take the wrong exit and go, ‘Oh shoot,’ because you end up in a neighborhood you shouldn’t be in. Should you look down at the GPS and have a red flag with an exclamation point, ‘Get out!’? I hate to say it because of the racial implication element, but what father wouldn’t want such a capability for their daughter. I’ve seen plenty of dads having their daughters call them every half-hour: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ They would have more piece of mind if they knew their daughters had an app to avoid driving through bad areas.” [emphasis added]

This quote is an interesting rupture in the usually ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology, yet the element of race is so clear, Lanctot wants to distance himself from the implications of what he’s saying.  It some ways it’s also a revealing moment about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods as always black or Latino. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them (that is, predominantly black and brown people), not the white people who are driving through them.

White Nationalism and the Tea Party

The NAACP recently released a Special Report on Tea Party Nationalism, which addresses the overlap and interconnectedness between white nationalist hate groups and the various Tea Party groups that are sprouting like bad weeds across the U.S. As if to highlight this connection, David Duke, former KKK leader, early Internet adopter for the cause of white supremacy, and one-time candidate for Louisiana governor, has released a video addressing the Tea Party.

The report, written by Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, is just 80 pages, 9 chapters and includes 17 figures and maps. It’s in Chapter 8, “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Militia Impulse,” that the authors address the link to overt racists such as Duke, a connection that many Tea Partiers vigorously deny. In this chapter, the authors write:

“In preparation for Tea Party protests held on July 4, 2009, national socialists and other white supremacists created a discussion thread on Stormfront.org, the largest and most widely accessed of the many white nationalist websites.216 While highlighting the distinction between themselves and the majority of Tea Partiers who were not self-conscious about their own racism, one person argued, ‘We need a relevant transitional envelop-pushing flyer for the masses. Take these Tea Party Americans by the hand and help them go from crawling to standing independently and then walking towards racialism.’ “(p.60)

This quote highlights the use of the Internet by white nationalists who see the Tea Party as an opportunity for “walking Tea Party Americans…towards racialism.” And, this seems to be the general take in the report, that the Tea Party includes some white nationalists, but is mainly seen as an opportunity for those in the white nationalist movement. The authors take this stance with regard to Duke, as well. The video linked to above appears to have been around awhile, as the authors refer to it in the NAACP report.

David Duke’s embrace of the Tea Parties reveals less about the Tea Parties than it serves as a reminder of the former Klansmen’s never-ending opportunism. He used the Internet to broadcast a ten minute video speech, “Message to the Tea Party.” Duke began the “message” by paying homage to the Tea Parties and the “Founding Fathers,” and ended with his usual roundhouse attack on “the Zionists” (meaning Jews). Over the decades Duke has switched organizational allegiances as new openings emerged for him, but he never abandoned his core national socialist ideology.
“Most recently, Duke had spent time flitting across the globe: In France, Duke had his picture taken with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant Front National. In Russia, he turned a 1995 meeting with Zhirinovsky into a spot at a 2002 “anti-Zionist” conference in Moscow. In November of that year, he spoke at a meeting in Bahrain. He reappeared in Iran in 2006 for a Holocaust denial conference where he thanked President Ahmadinejad for his “courage” and “foresight.” And in 2009, the once and future Republican, David Duke, was unceremoniously expelled from the Czech Republic (although the charges were later dropped.)
Duke’s announcement that he will use a year-long speaking tour to gauge potential support for another campaign in the Republican presidential primaries (in 2012) should not be understood as anything more than a declaration of his perennial search for contributions from new followers. He is quite unlikely to repeat anything near the successes he has had in the past, when he won a majority of white voters in two statewide Louisiana elections. It is, however, one more sign that hardcore white nationalists regard the Tea Party movement as a reservoir of racists, and as potential supporters of a more ideologically defined white nationalism.
The actions of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the Stormfront.org posters and other white nationalists need be understood, in aggregate, as one measure, among many, of the Tea Party movement’s political characteristics. Together they point to a truth many Tea Party leaders will not want to acknowledge.” (p.62)

This is the cautious tone of analysis taken throughout the report. The Tea Party is dangerous for the way that it appeals to white nationalists and for what it could become, but less so for what it is now. Here’s is another passage from the report which illustrates this point:

“Despite the fact that Tea Partiers sometimes dress in the costumes of 18th century Americans, wave the Gadsden flag and claim that the United States Constitution should be the divining rod of all legislative policies, theirs is an American nationalism that does not always include all Americans. It is a nationalism that excludes those deemed not to be “real Americans;” including the native-born children of undocumented immigrants (often despised as “anchor babies”), socialists, Moslems, and those not deemed to fit within a “Christian nation.” The “common welfare” of the constitution’s preamble does not complicate their ideas about individual liberty. This form of nationalism harkens back to the America first ideology of Father Coughlin. As the Confederate battle flags, witch doctor caricatures and demeaning discourse suggest, a bright white line of racism threads through this nationalism. Yet, it is not a full-fledged variety of white nationalism. It is as inchoate as it is super-patriotic. It is possibly an embryo of what it might yet become.” (p.11)

The rise of the Tea Party, with its embryonic white nationalism and the racism, antisemitism and xenophobia of videos like David Duke’s, are political trends that people committed to racial justice should watch closely.

~ This is re-posted from the archive. It was originally posted on October 24, 2010.

Racist Video Goes Viral at UCLA

Racism online takes new forms, as I’ve written here before, and it gets joined with centuries-old forms of racism. The latest example of cyber racism on a college campus is playing out right now at UCLA. Alexandra Wallace, a white female student, posted a video online that made fun of her Asian classmates, and the video has gone viral. Here’s a short video (1:38) from MSNBC / The Grio explaining the story:

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Clearly, this is the kind of thing that Ms. Wallace felt comfortable saying in the “backstage” to an audience that she imagined to be filled with like-minded, white friends. Remarkably, what she failed to consider is that other people in the “frontstage” would hear, see and be appalled at her clueless display of racism.

Now, the many students are calling for Ms. Wallace’s expulsion from UCLA and administrators at that institution will have to decide what kinds of repercussions, if any, she should have to deal with. What do you think? Should Ms. Wallace be expelled? Punished in some other way? Or, is this just a function of living in the U.S. and she should be able to say what she thinks?