Archive for popular culture
Following the post here by Sharon Chang about racism in children’s toys, there was a whole conversation about that post on Twitter. Jen Jack Gieseking was kind enough to Storify the Tweets in this conversation (Storify is just a say of gathering Tweets and putting them in an easy-to-read order – when you get to the bottom, click where it says ‘read more’). Here’s how that conversation unfolded:
About a week ago I went to see a friend and his 9 year old. My 3 year old was mesmerized by the big-kid toys. He settled on a ziplock full of figurines. From a distance, I approved. My son is currently obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.
I should have known better.
5 minutes later I sat down with him and this is what I saw:
My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. Mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino/Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street, sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, or toting a gun. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily said something about the toys being mean. I took them away, but was left with feeling gross and like the damage had already been done.
Just a cheap toy sold in a cheap store you would never go to? My zip code 98118 was the most diverse zip code in the nation according to the 2010 Census. Many educated, middle-upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. There is a neighborhood toy store very popular with the latter crowd that prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section. Surprise! Mostly White figurines. The last time I visited, these were some of the very few people of color represented:
Note the portrayal of dark people as primitive and backwards, or scary and dangerous.
When I searched for “family” on the Playmobil website, I get 6 results. Of these, 4 are “modern”: Black (with a basketball), some sort of Euro-Latin-Hispanic, Asian (with a book), and White. Then 2 “historical”: Knight and Native. Apparently Native families only dress in traditional garb, live in Teepees, and go to Powwows?
In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego’s World People Set. When it was delivered, my husband and I excitedly tore open the packaging, and then – sat there scratching our heads.
Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, “Well this is clearly the Asian family.”
“Why?” I asked.
He was stumped, “I don’t know.”
Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and a little sick to my stomach?
~ Guest Contributor Sharon Chang blogs regularly at MultiAsian Families (a private blog).
Today, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful, pro-gun lobbying organization, held a press conference in which the head of the organization, Wayne LaPierre, offered a stunningly tone-deaf set of proposals in the wake of last week’s events at a Newtown, CT in which 26 people died when an armed man opened fire in an elementary school.
LaPierre today proposed several actions as a response including: a national database of all people with diagnosed mental illness (38 states already have that) and an armed volunteer guard in every school. To say that the proposal is unrealistic, is to understate the reality. Early estimates are that the proposal to place ‘armed volunteer guards’ in all 99,000 schools in the US would cost an estimated $18 billion dollars. (No word on the estimated cost for the pernicious database.)
Mike Bloomberg, mayor of NYC and outspoken proponent of gun control, called LaPierre’s speech a “paranoid, dystopian vision” of our society. I don’t always agree with Bloomberg, but he’s right in this instance. LaPierre’s claim that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with gun,” is not only offensive in terms of gender, especially given the heroic women who died trying to save their young students in Newtown, it also belies the NRA’s racial assumptions.
Have you ever wondered to yourself while watching a college football game on a Saturday afternoon why there are so many (often times a majority) black players on the field, but an overwhelming majority of fans and coaches are white? If you have not, rest assured you are not alone. The black athlete and everything else white seems to be the norm. The problem, however, is this racial standard continues to hamper blacks’ progression throughout US society, and is even more elucidated in the very institution one would expect the most progress to be made – sport.
When considering the historical and systemic nature of racism in the US (see Feagin, 2006), much more attention has been placed on economic, political, educational, and legal institutions. The institution of sport, however, tends to be overlooked. Perhaps this is the case because of its egalitarian façade that gets displayed to the public. What is not being shown is the real racial inequality that has and continues to exist in the leadership structure of sport. Most prominent is the multi-billion dollar industry of NCAA Division I collegiate athletics. For instance, according to Lapchick, Hoff, and Kaiser’s (2011) latest Racial and Gender Report Card for college athletics, black male student-athletes are overly represented (60.9% and 45.8%) in the two most revenue generating sports (basketball and football, respectively); however, black head coaches for men’s basketball and football are represented at 21% and 5.1%, respectively, and assistant coaches at 39.5% and 17.6%, respectively. Even worse, whites dominate (81.8%) the athletic director role as well. Considering sport represents a microcosm of society, reflecting its ideals, hierarchies, and problems (see Edwards, 1973; Eitzen & Sage, 1997; Sage, 1998), it is not surprising to see whites in a position that guarantees them the most abundant financial rewards. As a result of this white hierarchy, though, blacks wishing to enter the coaching profession continue to face racial barriers.
Hawkins (2001) argues the power structure of NCAA Division I predominantly white institutions of higher education (PWIHE) “operate as colonizers who prey on the athletic prowess of young black males, recruit them from black communities, exploit their athletic talents, and discard them once they are injured or their eligibility is exhausted” (p. 1). This colonial model seems fitting, given several researchers (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003) have found that black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are entrenched in a system that exploits them politically, economically, and racially. For those black student-athletes who do survive the abuse, they continue to find their professional outlook limited.
The notion of stacking in sport, or positioning of players to central or non-central positions on the field based on race and/or ethnicity, often surfaces as an explanation as to how whites carry on their dominance in sport leadership. Whites have traditionally placed themselves in more central positions, positions associated with greater interaction, leadership, and intelligence; while blacks have been situated in more peripheral positions, which are linked to less leadership, minimal interaction, and greater athletic ability. Brooks and Althouse (2000) found there to be a correlation between those higher up in the leadership ranks (e.g., head coach, athletic director) with past playing position. In particular, prestigious sport jobs are generally acquired by those who have played more central positions (e.g., quarterback in football, pitcher in baseball); thus, because blacks more often are relegated to peripheral positions (e.g., wide-receiver in football, outfield in baseball), blacks are often framed as less qualified to enter leadership positions beyond the playing field.
Further explanations (e.g., Sagas & Cunningham, 2005; Sartore & Cunningham, 2006) demonstrate blacks’ promotional and/or hiring coaching opportunities are thwarted due to the tendency of white decision-makers choosing white candidates (qualified and unqualified) over qualified blacks. This struggle for racial equality is more troubling given those with the final hiring decision (i.e., athletic director) perceive employment opportunities to be equal for blacks (Tabron, 2004), which ultimately trickles down to those wishing to enter the coaching profession (e.g., black student-athletes), since they perceive they will have to contend with racial inequality prior to and once in the profession (e.g., Cunningham & Singer; Kamphoff & Gill, 2008). This racist sporting reality, similar to wider US society, illustrates blacks have a long way to go for racial justice.
Michael R. Regan, Jr.
Texas A&M University
One of the most-viewed topics on the white supremacist forum Stormfront—second only to a collection of the tenets of National Socialism—is a catalogue of “ethnic crime.” To anyone who has spent enough time reading online comments, the popularity of the subject will not come as a surprise. Any time that a member of a minority group appears in the media as the perpetrator of a crime, a vocal core of commenters emerges to point out the offender’s ethnicity, using the observation as a springboard for introducing a slew of canned statistics regarding minority crime rates. These talking points have become a fixation, an expression of what racists consider to be a profound truth: that non-white individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime.
(God Speed! by Edmund Leighton)
Of course, the demagogues will gleefully rebuff any accusations of racism, insisting that they are, in fact, scientists, courageously presenting facts to illuminate the social world. This is nonsense, but to see why requires shifting attention from what was mentioned to that which was omitted. While there is undeniably a correlation between ethnicity and crime, there are many such correlations that go miraculously overlooked in these discussions. Males, for example, commit an overwhelming proportion of all crime, but you will never see one of these ersatz sociologists taking the time to point out just how overrepresented men are in the criminal justice system. In other words, the move from observing criminality to discussing the perpetrator’s ethnicity is not an inevitable one, but, rather, a careful emphasis of one particular property among many. As such, the mention of race should not be mistaken for authentic sociological curiosity, as it is, in fact, a conscious ontological choice motivated by underlying racist ideology.
The comments display a relationship between evidence and mindset analogous to psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan’s case of the jealous husband. Lacan argues that the husband who, through persistent investigation, uncovers proof that his wife is cheating on him, exhibits pathological behavior despite being vindicated by the facts. His jealousy is a pathology because the suspicion predates the evidence: the husband would be driven to hunt for evidence of infidelity regardless of whether there was any reason for him to think that his wife was having an affair. Given this disconnect from the facts, the important question for Lacan becomes investigating what it is that motivates the husband’s jealousy. What underlying psychological features give rise to an ungrounded suspicion that seeks confirmation?
The commenters who sort crime statistics by race are akin to the jealous husband in that they are not driven to a theory by the evidence, but in search of evidence to support their theory. Crime stories act as Rorschach tests, revealing latent ideology through what is perceived and emphasized. In theft, liberals will see the consequences of poverty while anarchists see its rectification; in violent crime, gender theorists will notice the masculinity while racists will emphasize the ethnicity, an ontological choice reflecting both their pre-held conviction of racial superiority and their desire to spread that belief to others.
One must then ask the same question of the white supremacist that Lacan does of the jealous husband: since the racism of the former is not derived from evidence and, instead, pathologically seeks corroboration, then what is its origin? What draws a person to racial superiority if not the facts? To answer these questions, it is necessary to turn away from the empirical to face the cultural, shifting focus from the news-based Stormfront threads to one in which members post pictures of their favorite pieces of visual art. It is a popular discussion that, while dominated by a few contributors, contains a set of clear patterns with the potential to reveal the inner workings of the racist mind. In the aesthetic preferences of the white supremacists, the attraction of their ethos becomes understandable, the posted images reflecting the psychological rewards that lead people to adopt the ideology in the first place.
The first sort of recurrent image is the depiction of white culture. Included within this category are paintings of attractive Aryan women with blonde, braided hair; Germanic parents telling stories to children or teaching them how to garden; depictions of Roman and Greek architecture; and Rockwellian images of segregation-era civic life. These paintings and photographs capture a sense of cultural value, an aesthetic of existence historically associated with white skin and, in the racist mind, necessarily so. The images have been chosen because they depict what white supremacists are proud of: an intuitively noble way of living that they wish to claim for themselves via their phenotype.
Interspersed among these images are the landscapes. While it is easy to discount these paintings as unimaginative filler, they, too, shed light on the allure of racism. Notably they depict not merely nature, but its intersection with civilization, juxtaposing the untamed dangers of the wild with the safe havens of human habitation. Repeatedly featured are small hamlets nestled among imposing mountains, wagon trains voyaging across the desolate plains, and ships battered by raging seas. In The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton proposes that an aesthetic preference for safe environments would confer a distinct evolutionary advantage on those early humans who possessed it. While their philistine counterparts wandered off into dangerous territory, the aesthetes would be lured out of harm’s way, their survival allowing them to produce offspring who shared their disposition. In the landscapes favored by white supremacists, we see this evolutionary preference manifested. They are the scenes that Dutton argued humans are predisposed to find attractive, where the evidence of human presence implies safety in the face of inhospitable wilderness.
From such an evolutionary perspective, we can see how the landscapes introduce an element of aesthetic danger into the thread, a sense of peril that can’t help but inject itself into the depictions of “white culture.” The connection between the domestic scene of a white family and the little cottage in the valley is quite literal: it is hard to not imagine the former inhabiting the latter—and from there, a more metaphorical reading follows. It is not merely that white people are aboard the ship being battered by the ocean, but that “white culture” is this ship, a small safe haven in an otherwise dangerous and barbaric world. Taken together, the landscapes and cultural images convey the unmistakable impression that “white culture” is something to be protected, a bastion of civilization in an otherwise-savage environment.
This narrative finds its completion in the images of mythic heroism that permeate the thread. It is a category comprised of paintings featuring subjects risking personal annihilation in order to defend their way of life against foreign invaders: knights wish maidens farewell before riding off into battle, American colonists bravely fire shots at the British, and, most significantly, one army after the next charges into battle to slay the conspicuously dark hordes who threaten them. Here the danger facing those little ships and villages is made tangible, the destructive power of the ocean embodied in these evil armies who would raze every remnant of civilization if given the chance. The brave soldiers depicted are all that stands between the mindless violence of these savages and the safety and virtuosity of “white culture.”
That these images appeal to white supremacists does much to explain their radical politics. Here we see a group of people who have a strong attraction to the motif of the hero, the protector who defends a community from the forces of darkness and evil. For those seeking a sense of purpose and meaning, these white knights offers a particular vision of what it means to be a protagonist, one that easily overlays onto the contours of contemporary political life. One must merely identify a culture that seems besieged and position oneself in opposition to whatever is perceived as threatening. The only question is which group to affiliate with—a lacuna that, for the unimaginative, is most easily filled by the white supremacist narrative. It is the facile choice, one obvious in both its historical prominence and its childishly literal reading of metaphorical struggles between light and darkness. Rather than develop novel or sophisticated views of group conflict, white supremacy allows would-be heroes to follow the path of least mental resistance to the clash of civilizations already formulated in the pages of Mein Kampf or The Lord of the Rings.
This proposition—that hero envy underlies a significant portion of racist thought—is supported not merely by the far Right’s obsession with “ethnic crime,” but also its general preoccupation with victimhood. That a dominant and heavily privileged group would take so seriously the minor incursions of “reverse racism” seems bizarre until it becomes clear that such “threats” are essential to sustaining the perception that white people are in danger and, thus, in need of heroes to boldly protect them. Absent such encroaching peril, white supremacists are at risk of being revealed for what they truly are: self-important shills who oppress others to advance the interests of an arbitrary phenotype.
To confront racism, then, we must pass over the endless empirical debates and, instead, lay siege to the mythos. We should contest that race is a significant category—why fight for one’s race rather than one’s socioeconomic class?—or even a stable one: who exactly counts as “white?” Watching white supremacists debate these questions gives the distinct impression of adversaries tugging at the threads that threaten to unravel an uneasy truce. More challenging, however, is creating alternative conceptions of heroism that are not built upon zero-sum conflict between different groups. At their best, antifa movements act as just such an outlet, allowing young people to channel their heroic aggression towards universalist causes. Unfortunately, for those vulnerable to the temptation of racism, the far Left probably holds little appeal. If we are to divert these individuals, we must develop something new, an alternative aesthetic that provides a sense of purpose without necessitating the subjugation of others. While this is a daunting challenge, it is perhaps the best chance we have to undermine ideologies of hate. As tempting as it is to try to dissuade racists by presenting them with statistics and evidence, to do so is to merely grapple with the fringes of their racist paranoia. Only through art can we eliminate the pathology at its source.
~ Jesse Elias Spafford, BA, is a recent graduate of Pomona College, and currently works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and so I’m used to hurricanes. Hurricane Celia was the Big One I lived through as a kid, and still have vivid memories of an entire rooftop of a house, floating down the street in front our house, a street which had become a river of debris. Today, I live in New York City where we’re all bracing for “Hurricane Sandy” and this has me pondering the politics of hurricane naming. At one time, we thought hurricane naming could be sexist ~ can names convey racial politics as well?
The practice of naming hurricanes has a long and complex history, once bringing in Greek letters, another round of numbering them, a couple hundred years of using Christian saints’ names, then the recent 40 years of sexism. It’s actually tropical storms that get named, and they retain their names once they reach hurricane strength. Naming storms, rather than, say, calling them by longitudinal and latitudinal numbers, serves a couple of functions: it’s a way to help people remember storms and it raises awareness about storm preparedness. Through most of my childhood, hurricanes were given female names, beginning with the letter “A” and running through the alphabet. That ended in 1978 when some feminists argued it was sexist to only use female names to designate storms. Since then, the World Meteorological Association has adopted the practice of alternating between male and female names. What does it mean that this storm has been designated “Sandy,” a name that spawns Internet memes that revolve around Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in “Grease” (as in this image below).
Over on the Twitter machine, I posed the question: “Is Sandy a white name?” A couple of folks (@KatyPearce) disagreed with me there, including Dr. Cherie Ann Turpin (@drturpin) who pointed out that black OR white are not mutually exclusive categories when it comes to names.
She makes an excellent point, but the Internet memes of white-Sandy-from-Grease churn on like the storm.
So, it begs the question: does it matter what name a storm gets called?
I think looking at storm-names, and the storm-naming process, can give us some insight into racial (and gender) politics. The fact is that naming storms is a process that’s steeped in both racism and sexism. Even though the names are (supposedly) approaching gender parity now, the sexism that still permeates the discussion prompts this guidance from the AP style tips page for reporters writing about storms:
- Hurricanes don’t have sexes, no matter what the name. They should be referred to as it, not he or she.
- Avoid bad and sexist puns when using hurricane names. AP’s hurricane entry in the stylebook is worth quoting in full: “And do not use the presence of a woman’s name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women’s behavior to a storm. Avoid, for example, such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.”
It’s this that gives me pause about calls like the one by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) for more racial diversity in the naming of storms. Meteorology as an industry has been historically (pdf) marked by racial exclusion, yet when someone like Rep. Jackson Lee points out the results of this, she gets pilloried by right-wingers for arguing for “affirmative action” for hurricanes. That said, I fear the mindless racism that would be unleashed by naming a storm something that might be deemed identifiably African American.
Still, there’s some irony in the juxtaposition between the images of women featured on the front page of the World Meteorological Organization’s website - the organization that’s responsible for naming storms – and the image collectively conjured at the name “Sandy.” Perhaps it’s time for another change in storm-naming, maybe drawing on Mayan gods or supernatural beings, rather than reifying U.S. pop culture constructions of white femininity.
Randy Newman, the musician and satirist, has a new song that pretty much nails one of the racial dynamics of this election. The song has the refrain “I’m dreaming of a white president” and is written from the point of the view of a voter who casts his ballot solely on the basis of race. According to The New York Times, Newman said he felt the passionate opposition to President Obama over issues that generally put the public to sleep – the budget deficit and health care policy, for instance – belie a deep strain of racism in the electorate. Here’s the short video (3:17) for the song:
There’s a cake that’s creating quite a stir around the world and around the Internet. The controversial cake was prepared to mark the 75th anniversary of the National Organization of Swedish artists, attended by culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. The cake was designed by artist, Makunde Linde, an Afro-Swede, known in Sweden for provocative work that aims to challenge racial stereotypes. Whether or not his art does, in fact, challenge racial stereotypes – or simply reproduce them – is the subject of some debate.
It’s the picture of the event – the cutting of the cake and the culture minister (pictured) feeding the cake to the artist (that’s him, in blackface, posing as the head) is really what created the big stir. At the centerpiece of this piece of performance art is the degradation and mutilation of (if symbolically) of a black woman’s body, for the entertainment and enjoyment of a group of white people. And, this as readers here well know, has a long history in Western culture.
After people reacted to the picture and called it racist (which seems self-evident), the events followed a rather predictable course: 1) the Swedish culture minister apologized 2) the artist gave interviews and explained that his “intention” was not to create racism (and sexism) but rather to expose it, 3) lots of people came out defending the artist and 4) lots of other people, including the National Afro-Swedish Association called for the Culture Minister’s resignation.
Perhaps most predictably of all, a blogger at The New York Times framed the issue in the quintessentially American frame of “free speech.” At the same time, the piece completely ignores any connection to racism in the U.S. by comparing the racist-Swedish-cake incident to another European incident where there was debate about use of the n-word (and variations on the word) in French. The New York Times’ account is a terrific example of the ‘white racial frame’ - of looking at something through a white interpretive lens that comes out of the perspective of white elites and resonates broadly with people beyond the elite stratum.
I think that the cake and the cake-cutting and the controversy surrounding it are about something slightly different that I haven’t seen elsewhere. he fact that it’s performance art, “that must be allowed to provoke,” is being treated as an end-point to the discussion about what’s so disturbing in this image.
But there’s more to this.
In my view, what’s happening here is that this picture exposes transnational whiteness and implicates these individual people in this interaction that’s imbued with racism.
Let me explain.
Les Back uses the term ‘translocal whiteness,’ to refer to the way neo-Nazis and others are organizing and connecting online, across national boundaries (Les Back, “The New Technologies of Racism,” in D.T. Goldberg and J. Solomos (eds.) A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002): 365-377). This is an idea that I expanded on in the Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) book. (Here, I’m using the term ‘transnational’ as a synonym for ‘translocal’ because I think it makes more sense intuitively.)Part of what’s happening in this photo is that we recognize whiteness as decidedly noticeable, and it’s recognizable across national boundaries.
Even though whiteness studies has been around almost 20 years now, most white people are still shocked when they’re noticed because of their race. The aim of most studies of whiteness has been to make visible and to problematize whiteness which has largely remained invisible, unremarked and ‘normal’. Yet, whiteness studies remains incredibly insular and almost excessively focused on whites in the U.S. (on this point, see the work of Alastair Bonnett, particularly, “White studies revisited.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2008, 31(1), 185-196). The Swedish cake incident calls attention to the need for a more transnational framework for whiteness studies.
We’re also disturbed by in this image is the way that these individual people in the image are implicated in racism by delighting in the cake-cutting ritual. This is part of why people are calling on the culture minister to resign, because she participated fully – in looking like a racist. And, in fact, there’s no other way to be in that position. To not “be racist,” she would have had to disrupt the entire event (which many have pointed out would have been a good idea).
And, yet ‘whiteness’ is not just about white people – it’s about white practices. Raka Shome explains this a little further when she writes:
” [w]hiteness…is not a phenomenon that is enacted only where white bodies exist. Whiteness is not just about bodies and skin color, but rather more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain the global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews (‘Whiteness and the politics of location’, in T. Nakayama and J. Martin (Eds), Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity, 1999, pp. 107–128, Thousand Oaks: Sage).”
So, part of what we recognize and what disturbs us is whiteness and the colonialism, neocolonialism, privilege and global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews that are so perfectly summed up in the act of the white culture minister devouring the cake and then “feeding” it to her “subject.”
Further, whiteness is tied to the twin legacies of European colonial power and American delusions of “manifest destiny.” These legacies are rooted in racist acts of physical or verbal violence. In the photograph, the white people in the crowd, smiling, laughing, cameras raised, taking pictures as the cake and symbolic woman are cut, evoke the lynch mob. This picture is the essence of colonialism and neocolonialism, and of a privileged Eurocentric view, and that is part of what is repulsive in this image. Such representations circulate very widely through social media, yet often with little or no critique or analysis, only reproducing (in every sense) the image and its unintended consequences.
For its part, a spokesperson for the museum where the cake appeared had this to say:
“Moderna Museet understands and respects that people find the pictures and video clips from World Art Day upsetting, especially when they are shown out of context. The intention of KRO and Makode Linde was to draw attention to and discuss today’s racism, not to reinforce it.”
I actually don’t object to the performance art aspect of this piece, I just don’t think it went far enough in exposing the racism it wanted to subvert. The racism that the pictures and video clips of the event were not “upsetting” because they were “shown out of context.” It’s the context and the racism embedded in it that is disturbing. That the artist, the museum and the culture minister failed to understand that speaks to the complicated ways that art, transnational whiteness and racism are intertwined.
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.