The Persistence of Racist Imagery in U.S.

The Christian Right has come up with a new set of imagery that conflates religious racism with politics, indicative of how leadership from Blacks and American Indians become associated with the “hostile” and the “devil” that continue old paradigms. Here is a recent Facebook message making the rounds after the last debate.


(From the Facebook Group “Christians Against Obama’s Re-Election” )

At the time of this post, the image above has 3,602 “Likes” and 4,510 “shares” on Facebook, so there are more than a few people for whom this kind of imagery resonates. (In another, related image on the same group’s page, Michelle Obama appears in – photoshopped – prison garb.)  The “Prince of Darkness” label is associated with Obama as the “King of Lies” when it is the Whitened version of U.S. history that relies on distortion and untruth, similar to how Whites coming into contact with Native spirituality, as MneWakan (spiritual waters) called it the Devil (Devil’s Lake, Devil’s Tower, etc.), as dominant icons associated with religion and being Christian, are used to depict leaders that oppose racial domination, as being evil, or the Devil (Prince of Darkness).

Within this frame, God is seen as being white or at least European, (Rev. Wright is seen as beguiling). That is why the “Prince of Darkness” imagery seems to resonate with the predominantly white readers that Romney must get to 60 percent, but without explicitly mentioning race. This is why Haiti is so instructive. I dealt with this in a photo taken in a Port-au-Prince church where Jesus is depicted as a black (thought light skinned) and John the Baptist as a darker skinned black man, on New Year’s Day, 1981, independence day there, as an example of communication discourse not only to show how God is thought to be white, but that it is sacrilegious to say otherwise. This leads to dichotomous or binary thinking in communication, showing why Black is Beautiful was contentious (it is a simple positive declarative phrase) because most whites were hearing that White is Not, or why Vine Deloria’s famous work God is Red, thrown into binary opposites, is unacceptable.

In Haiti, the notion of the racialized Other emerges along with the Papal Bull of 1493 which connects the non-Christian or heathen “Indian” as a racialized “savage” needing to be tamed, domesticated, and subordinated. The rationalization works well, extending to post-genocidal slave plantations’ “Black” of African descent, fully developed by mid-sixteenth century, as the greatest of race-based colonies, with Spanish and Portuguese (Brazil) followed by Virginia and Louisiana by the English, institutionalizing the whole racial morass into the system we know today. The underpinning is precisely the confusion about White, Christian or English (later Anglo-Saxon) which sees the lower order races, by skin-tone, associated with the Devil and anti-Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.) peoples, which the newly formed “white elite” employ to maintain dominance (Joe Feagin, The White Racial Frame).

Today, the irony is more pronounced, in the announced passing of Russell Means, an early leader of the American Indian Movement, in many ways its most famous, precisely because he came to represent all things wrong about the United States of America and its treatment of the First Nations people who preceded its colonial forebears on this continent.


(Russell Means, ca. 1987 – from here)


Imagery associated with AIM is the powerful takeover of Alcatraz prison island,  (imprisoned American Indian leaders in the past, similar to Mandela on Robbins Island) to the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington DC, the takeover of the BIA, to the retaking of Wounded Knee, by Lakota elders to resurrect knowledge of genocidal killings of Indian peoples, countering dominant history of this country, with a paradigms of social justice pointing to a deeply racist, dominant group formation benefiting from slave systems for labor and genocidal conquest for land, all the while claiming it is a “democracy” – but for which people?
The white elite needs continued conforming to these racial paradigms to maintain its dominance, especially with an increasingly diverse population as its electorate. Obama represents both a threat and potential solution to this political problem. American Indian leaders are now acknowledged, but also represent a threat to the dominant discourse. Challenging these paradigms, falls to us and many others, since Obama’s removal will mean a temporary victory for white racial forces, continued control over the Supreme Court, and distorted racist rationalizations on historical democracy of the “Founding Fathers” as an obstacle to real progress.

Cyber Racism & The Future of Free Speech (updated)

Two new cases of cyber racism – one in Moscow, the other in Denver – are both making news for the way that they highlight new forms of racism and for the way that they challenge our ideas about free speech.

In Moscow recently, A 21-year-old received a one-year suspended sentence for forming a racist group on the popular Vkontakte social network.  In Russia, forming a racist group on their equivalent of Facebook was illegal because it violated Russia’s anti-extremist laws.   This kind of action on a social networking site is not viewed as “free speech” worthy of protection.   So, what about in the U.S.?

Clavier Apple
(Creative Commons License photo credit: JeanbaptisteM )

Just last month, a former City of Denver employee Joel Pousson, 46, a former clerk at the City and County of Denver’s planning department, was arrested in August after authorities traced a racist, hate-filled e-mail to a computer in his Littleton home. Poussan, who is white, allegedly sent the email to an African American woman who works as a Human Resources Manager on the same day Pousson was notified that he was being terminated.  In the email, Pousson repeatedly called the HR Manager a “n***” and suggested that she was now being targeted by the KKK (a very brief excerpt:  “Because now the Klan has your name and address. And there are plenty of Klan members needing stroke with the klan. … Call it an initiation And the sheet-wearing ghost that takes you out, he gets a lot of rank.”)  The reason that Pousson’s email was not considered “free speech” is that both the State of Colorado and the City of Denver have laws against “Ethnic Intimidation/Threats,” and Pousson’s email was prosecuted under this law.

Whether it’s a group organizing online or an individual sending email, the promotion of racism in the public domain threatens the sense of safety and security for those who are the targets of such cyber racism.  Sometimes, it can also be the precursor to racially motivated violence.  But, even if there’s no explicit threat of violence, racial hatred promoted online runs counter to the ideals of racial equality liberals say they value.

Yet, in the U.S. there’s very little dialogue about cyber racism, in part I think because of the liberal tenet that hate speech just an unfortunate consequence of free speech, even though that’s not true in Europe and other western democracies.  And, free speech according to most of the leading intellectuals writing about the Internet, is considered the highest ideal, as in a post today by Tim Wu at The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  In the piece (which previews a new book he has from Knopf), Wu deftly connects the early crusades against Hollywood movies by Catholics to current efforts to limit speech on the Internet by pressuring technology firms:

These firms are already under strong pressure to censor from powerful governments, religious groups, political parties, and essentially any outfit with a reason to want information suppressed.  The Turkish government, for example, demands that Google take down mockery of the nation’s founder, not just in Turkey, but everywhere. The Church of Scientology has never stopped demanding of anyone who will listen to remove criticism of its practices from the Internet, usually claiming copyright infringement.

Wu’s assessment, like that of Mike Godwin and other cyberlibertarians, about the importance of free speech is flawed because it rests on an analysis of information as existing apart from political and social context.   In such an analysis, “information” on the Internet is content free and should all be treated the same. I do agree with Wu, however, when he writes about what managing speech looks like today:

This is what speech management looks like in 2010. No one elected Facebook or YouTube, and neither one is beholden to the First Amendment. Nonetheless, it is their decisions that dictate, effectively, who gets heard. What’s the answer? There is no easy answer. Monopolies like Google, Facebook, and Hollywood have certain advantages: That’s why they tend to come into existence. That means the American public needs to be aware of the dangers that private censors can pose to free speech. The American Constitution was written to control abuses of power, but it didn’t account for the heavy concentration of private power that we see today. And in the end, power is power, whether in private or public hands.

While Wu evokes “power” at the end of this passage, he doesn’t go quite far enough in his analysis of how power shapes what constitutes information.  Here, Wu is trapped within the same larger (white) frame as other scholars writing about the Internet without considering race.  Within this frame, all “information” is the same offers no mechanism for evaluating claims for racial or social justice against the protection of free speech.   Such a supposedly value-neutral frame for discussing free speech as separate from a social and political context systematically disadvantages some members of society and while it privileges others.   To go back to the two cases of cyber racism I discussed at the top of this post, seeing all speech as neutral “information” would then mean that the racist group organizing online in Moscow and the racist email sender were both entitled to have their speech protected to defend the right to free speech.

Taking a stand against cyber racism isn’t a threat to the future of free speech.   I don’t think we have to defend racist groups online in order to value free speech.  And, I don’t think we have to defend  the actions of people like the guy in Denver who sent the racist emails in order to value free speech either.

Outside the U.S., other democratic nations have taken seriously Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  This article requires countries such as Australia, NZ, the UK and Canada which are parties to the Convention to “declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred…and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities.” However, complying with this article in the global, digital era is no easy task.

Writing about the Australian context on today’s JWire, Peter Wertheim has a smart column in which he notes the difficulties of battling cyber racism across national boundaries when the U.S. acts as a haven and Internet companies (ISP’s) are recalcitrant, even proud, of hosting racist content.  Wertheim writes:

ISP’s lack the knowledge and insight into racism to enable them to make an informed decision about whether a particular publication has crossed the line into racial vilification or harassment.  More to the point, web-sites often generate advertising revenue for their owners, and the owners pay the ISPs. In social media platforms, the more viewers and discussion, the more advertising revenue can be created, and this advertising revenue usually goes directly to the platform provider. ISP’s and platform providers have a clear commercial interest against any form of regulation, and in being as permissive as possible.  The final decision about whether or not to allow an allegedly racist publication to remain on the net should not rest with them.

Ultimately, even though the law is not the whole answer to cyber racism, it must be a critical part of the answer.  Without the ultimate sanction of the law, the scourge of cyber racism will continue to grow unchecked.  Like other contemporary scourges, such as terrorism and environmental degradation, cyber racism operates across national boundaries and governments acting individually cannot deal with it effectively.

Wertheim’s observation that Internet companies “lack the knowledge and insight into racism” to enable them to know what to do when faced with racist content is an astute one.  I’ve worked in the Internet industry and I don’t think that the people there are evil, but have never learned to think critically about race or racism.   Unlike that MCI commercial from the 1990s, the advent of the Internet has not meant “here – there is no race.” In fact, the advent of the Internet means that we need to be smarter about the new forms of racial hatred – like cyber racism – rather than dismissing them as just the price we pay for free speech.

As Werthiem points out, the law can’t be the whole answer but it “must be a critical part of the answer” is spot on, I think.   And, as Wu notes, these decisions are already being made by those at the helm of Facebook and YouTube.

Cyber racism is a real problem of the Internet era but we shouldn’t confuse taking action against it as a threat to the future of free speech.   In fact, it’s quite possible to balance free speech and concerns about cyber racism.  Indeed, we must in this global, digital era.

Updated 11/16/10 @ 5:18PM ET: Just saw this on Twitter via @hopenothate:  The BBC reports that in the UK, a man has been jailed 15 months for uploading racist video clips calling for a “racial holy war” on YouTube.   Local law enforcement officials are quoted in the piece as saying: “Publishing something that is abusive and insulting and that is likely to stir racial hatred is against the law and [law enforcement] will work with the police to prosecute robustly anyone who does so.” This is not a threat to free speech, but rather recognizes that free speech has to be weighed in the balance with protecting the rights of those who are targeted by racist speech.

Cyber Racism in High School

Cyber racism, and panic about these threats, spread across a high school in Louisiana last week.  Facebook messages threatening violence against black students at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, Louisiana led to increased campus security, hundreds of parents taking children out of school early and concerns that the situation could strain race relations among the school’s students.  The threats, which contained racial slurs, references to lynchings and some names of potential targets, were posted on a Facebook page belonging to “Colins John” according to reports from students. Word quickly spread among students, parents, school administrators and authorities late Tuesday night about posts made by, whose profile picture featured a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.  The threats also caused about half of the 1,200 students to leave before the end of the school day Wednesday. Another 200 did not go to school at all.

But the racist threats were not posted by any member of the KKK, nor by any member of a white supremacist organization.   The next day, a 17-year-old student at the high school, who is also black, confessed to creating the threatening Facebook page.  The student is now charged with terrorizing, cyber stalking, hate crime and theft of utility service. He is being held in jail without bond.

Individual Acts of Cyber Racism.  This is not the first time that an individual young person, not affiliated with any kind of a hate group, has engaged in an individual act of cyber racism.  In my book, I talk about the case of Richard Machado, then a student at UC-Irvine, who used the student directory’s pull-down menu of names to select emails of students he designated as having “Asian-sounding” names.  He then sent an email to a list of students saying that he was going to kill all of them.  Machado’s crime was newsworthy because he used the Internet to send threatening hate messages and there were unique technological features of this crime.  And, there are lessons from the Machado case for the Louisiana case.

The fact that the student accused in the Louisiana case is African American and that Machado (a recently naturalized American citizen from El Salvador) suggests some important elements about how race and racial identity figure into cyber racism.  Machado was not, according to published accounts, involved in an organized white supremacist group, nor was he known to have visited white supremacist sites online.    Similarly, the young student in Louisiana was not a member of any organized hate group and is African American.  Yet, the language of Machado’s email and the high school student’s Facebook page clearly contained quite literally worded hate speech.

White Racial Frame. One explanation for this type of action is that both these young men, no less than most other people in the U.S., have adopted the dominant white racial frame.  Part of what’s useful about this theoretical framework is that it situates individual racist actions, like these, within a larger system of racial oppression rather than in either individual identity (not only whites adopt the white racial frame) or individual pathology of racial prejudice tied to a personality disorder.  Neither of these young men needed to have been white to engage in individual acts of white supremacy online.   Nor, did either need to be mentally ill to engage in such acts, and there is no indication from the published accounts that either is mentally unstable.  Instead, they merely needed to grow up in the U.S.  and adapt to the dominant culture’s white racial frame.

Emails, and Facebook Pages, that Wound.
Placing the victims’ story at the center of an analysis of hate speech via email or Facebook, as critical race theorists suggest,  is difficult because of the way this story and others like it are reported in the mainstream news accounts.  Press accounts mainly leave out the perspective of those who are the targets of hate speech.  In the Louisiana case, we get some limited reports that students (and their parents) were frightened and left school (or didn’t attend), but there aren’t interviews with any of these students.    In the Machado case, the the UC-Irvine students included on his list of recipients for the hate-filled email messages appear nowhere in the public record of reporting about the story.  So, mainstream press accounts are also written from within the white racial frame and thus leave out the systemic pattern of virulent racism that might offer more context and understanding about the impact of such online speech.   In California, Asian students on UC campuses have been targets of virulent anti-Asian telephone calls, graffiti and e-mail at the time of Machado’s attacks.  In Louisiana, anti-black racism has a long history, much of it interwoven with Klan history, and that might be enough for some parents to keep their children home from school upon hearing about KKK-themed threats on Facebook.

The Myth of Online Anonymity. Many people believe that when you’re online, you’re completely anonymous.   There’s a rather famous (in computer-geeky-circles) New Yorker cartoon from the early Internet era that shows a dog, sitting at a computer keyboard, the caption reads, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In many ways, that notion of anonymity on the Internet – that “nobody knows you’re a dog” – is a myth.  And, it’s a myth that fuels these sorts of individual acts of cyber racism because people think that they can’t be identified when they’re online.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.   The casual Internet user is completely track-able online.  Covering your digital footprints takes pretty high level skills that most of us don’t possess.

The high school student in Louisiana confessed to creating the hate-filled Facebook page, but not before law enforcement found him.    They did this through a coordinated effort. The local sheriff’s office in this case worked with the state Attorney General’s Office and the Louisiana State Police during the investigation.  They requested information from Facebook’s corporate offices, as well as from Yahoo and Charter Communications (an Internet Service Provider) to determine the identity of the Facebook poster and make an arrest.  So, just as this form of hate speech can be facilitated through the Internet, it can also be countered through the same technologies.

The way that Machado was ultimately caught also reflects some of the possibilities of the Internet for addressing cyber racism.   Upon receiving the racist hate email, several students responded with email of their own to the Office of Academic Computing (OAC).   The staff at the OAC was able to identify Machado as the sender by tracing the emails he sent using SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol).  Then, they identified the lab and located the individual computer from which they were being sent.   When staffers went to this machine, they found Machado still sitting at that particular computer in the lab, and asked him to leave. Surveillance cameras in the computer lab later confirmed that Machado was in fact the person responsible for the threatening email messages.    Part of what this technological hate-crime-busting story suggests is that there are ways to address such individual acts of cyber racism, if there is a will and an effort to do so.  Mostly, in the U.S., there isn’t a will to do anything about such acts.

The Usual Suspects. Machado was the first person convicted of a federal hate crime via the Internet in the United States. The fact that Machado was convicted of a hate crime involving the Internet reveals some features of the law and the Internet in the U.S.    Within the U.S., the only time speech online loses its First Amendment (“speech”) protection is when it is joined with conduct that threatens, harasses, or incites illegality.   Yet, this case suggests that the law does not appear to be consistently applied to all people in the U.S.  The fact that prosecutors vigorously pursued the Machado case, and seem to be pursuing the Louisiana high school student, is consistent with the rest of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in which minority men are viewed as inherently suspect and differentially arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.  So, even when it comes to cyber racism, it’s black and brown men who are regarded as the usual suspects.

Cyber Racism on College Campuses

Racism on college campuses these days often spreads through email or via popular social networking sites, such as Facebook.  This new medium for racist expression is forcing universities to reconsider what it means to provide a safe space on campus for all students.  My research on cyber racism indicates that this is a growing problem in the U.S., and a recent incident at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UM-D) illustrates a few of the relevant issues.


Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Chris Campbell

Here’s what happened at UM-D.  Two first year students, self-described white girls, began a Facebook wall conversation after an African-American classmate entered the room where they were studying.  More on what they typed to each other via the local news in Duluth:

One of the posts read, “ewww a obabacare (sic) is in the room, i feel dirty, and unsafe. keep a eye on all of your valuables and dont make direct eye contact….i just threw up in my mouth right now …”

In another post, one of the women wrote, “were two white girls..she already has her (N-word) instinct to kill us and use us to her pleasure …”

In the past, this sort of conversation between two white students might have happened in handwritten notes passed in class.   While some may view such overt expressions of racism a thing of the past, overtly racist comments often occur – even today – in the “backstage” (white-only space), as research by Leslie Pouts-Hicca and Joe Feagin demonstrates.  Social media has changed all that now.   As more white people spend time online, they forget that the comments they think they’re making in the “backstage” (white-only spaces) are easily made public and shared in the “frontstage” by people who do not share their views (or, have other agendas).   As more of these expressions of overt racism come to light, it forces all of us to decide again and again what is socially acceptable and what isn’t, especially on college campuses.  The question for colleges and universities is also what can and should be done about incidents like this one?

Many people, like the young man quoted in this article, think that:  “If you really do believe in free speech, they shouldn’t be punished.” But “free speech” is not that simple.  There are a couple of issues here.

First, the UM-D  has an “anti-hate” policy which the white girls clearly violated.

Second, the framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t have Facebook in mind when they were drafting the First Amendment to protect free speech.   No one has a constitutionally protected right to be on Facebook.   If you use Facebook, you have to abide by their Terms of Service (TOS) agreement which prohibits overtly racist speech (although it’s only sporadically enforced).   If ‘we’ – all of us, users of Facebook – allow it there, we’re condoning a return to overt racism of Jim Crow.

In my view, the white girls at UM-D who racially harassed their African American classmate deserve some kind of punishment from the university.  To address this sort of behavior, I want to suggest that ‘human rights’ is a better, more useful frame for dealing with cyber racism than ‘censorship’ and ‘free speech.’

There are no reports that I’ve been able to find (interesting fact in itself) about what the African American student who was the target of this racism has to say.    I’ll bet that her experience of college life (+ life in general) has been damaged in some way by this run-in with her two white ‘friends.’   At the very least, she has a new awareness of that her college campus is just a little less ‘safe’ from racism than it was before.  In some ways, it’s not surprising that this African American student’s story is not being reported.  As critical race scholars have pointed out, the ‘victims’ story is almost never told. Our understanding of “free speech” shifts when we listen to these stories.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that a burning cross is *NOT* protected speech (Virginia v. Black). Part of that ruling declared that a “burning cross has no value in a democracy” because it is not meant to be a discussion, but it’s a symbol meant to racially terrorize a group of people.  (Today, 14 states have anti-cross burning laws.)   So, not all speech counts as “protected speech,” and the Supreme Court has already ruled that racist speech in the form of a burning cross, can be ruled illegal.   Given the rise of social media, the question becomes: what constitutes a burning cross in the digital era?

I think what those white girls did on FB was akin to cross burning in the digital era.   That kind of speech is harmful and it has no value for democracy.

There are real, material consequences from racism.  Children who experience racial discrimination feel psychological stress that may lead to depression.   Likewise, there are real, material consequences from  actions that seem to be exclusively digital. The tragic case of Phoebe Prince, who was harassed online and offline (and called an “Irish slut”) and then took her own life is a case in point.  Perhaps not surprisingly, minority college students report more experiences of online bias than do whites.

Yet, whites like these two white college students at UM-D, say overtly racist online and very few step up to challenge them because of misplaced belief in what kind of speech the First Amendment protects.  Americans are quick to say “free speech” (1st amendment) is an ideal that trumps equal protection under the law (14th amendment), but most other democracies see “speech” and “equal protection” as two values that always need to be balanced against each other.   I discuss this argument at length in my book Cyber Racism – which I wrote in many ways as challenge to (white) liberal friends who often seem hamstrung by misunderstandings of the first amendment and free speech.  The solution is not to abandon free speech as principle, but to shift the discussion to a consideration for how we balance the 1st and 14th amendments, balance between free speech and equal protection.

Given this re-framing of “free speech,” it seems clear to me that a college campus should be a place where we want to protect all of our students from the intentional infliction of emotional distress at the same time we encourage a lively exchange of ideas.