Are We Really So Different? The AAA Exhibit on “Race”

Did you know there’s a national exhibit that’s been traveling the US since 2007 entitled RACE: Are We So Different by the American Anthropological Association (AAA)? When I heard about it my thinking went something like this, “Oh good. A credible entity getting behind race discourse. Oh no. Why are they asking if race really makes us that different?”

National Exhibition [Source: Exhibit at Museum of Man - discovers.com]

 

As a multiracial woman often scrutinized for being “ethnically ambiguous” my experience of race is of something absolutely differentiating at the same time I find myself constantly butting up against people who deny its salience. So I felt invalidated then worried that an exhibit choosing to lead with the question, “Are we so different?” might prove unhelpful. Studies have found that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts they (a) rarely changed their minds, (b) often became even more strongly set in their beliefs , and (c) did so without recognizing how their own desires influenced them. We live in an era when undoing racism means battling avoidance, denial and the inability to understand another point of view. If people see what they want to see, might a national science exhibit questioning the salience of race run the risk of reinforcing rather than challenging the colorblind ideologies that plague us today? Here’s what I mean…

Simply Human?

As I first entered the exhibit at Seattle’s Science Center, a panel entitled Race Off offered me this, “There is no biological evidence that supports racial categories…What are we? The answer is simple – human.” This is something I run into a lot in my research and has become a trigger for me as a multiracial woman and mother. Check out what trailblazing scholar Maria P. P. Root has to say about this kind of language when it comes to our children:

If a child brings up a racial incident at school and meets with an abstract response from her parents, such as, “We’re all members of the human race,” “Race doesn’t matter,” or “We all bleed the same color,” the child gets no help from these pat answers and will be unequipped to deal with hazing, name calling, racial attacks, or other bullying…most children do not want to be confronted by their parent’s lack of competence in an area in which they need a role model (Maria P. P. Root as cited in Nakazawa, Donna Jackson. Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children. Cambridge: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2003. Print.).

134 Brazilian Alternatives

I believe to demonstrate how arbitrary our concept of race can be, a panel against the East wall pointed out that Brazilians don’t identify racially in the same way Americans do. Instead, Brazilians align with a multitude of skin-shades rather than a handful of prescribed races. To illustrate the point, the panel gives an impressive list of 134 “Brazilian Terms for Skin Color.” While I was standing there wondering if this was being presented as a solution to our problems, two white women stepped up and admiringly commented, “Wow! This is amazing. We should do this here.” Now there is certainly a point to be made about the importance of discussing skin color but this long list, while different, does not mean Brazil has transcended issues of race. In fact quite the opposite – a reality the panel only lightly alludes to. Brazil, a nation to which 4.9 million African slaves were shipped during the slave trade (versus 400,000 to the US), struggles greatly with its own form of racism/colorism. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery and did nothing to turn former slaves into citizens. According to their 2010 Census, the income of whites was slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians and more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black compared to just 7% in richer districts. Sound familiar?

Who Gets to be “Mixed”?

Wrapping up my visit I found myself in a corner dedicated specifically to Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. Fulbeck’s work has been incredibly influential in defining the multiracial experience and bringing visibility to a very underrepresented demographic. But I got the uncomfortable feeling RACE was trying to use it as a voicebox for how all mixed race peoples choose to face questions of racial identity today.

I became alarmed. Why? Because choosing to be recognized as mixed race in America is still not something all multiracial people get to do. We must always remember our insidious history of oppressing especially mixed-race Blacks and Natives for holding a few drops of said blood (e.g. shutting them out of white and its associated privileges, relegating them instead to “lesser” categories of color). And this legacy persists. Do mixed Black children want or even get to identify as multiracial now? Case in point, our very own mixed race President Obama (who is “half” white) checked “Black” as his race on the 2010 Census. Any discussion of mixed-race identity needs to include a conversation about how this idea exists differently across racial lines. I immediately hunted down the exhibit’s content expert and asked if they had a panel explicitly featuring an exploration of the “One Drop Rule” and issues of blood quantum as a juxtaposition to the Kip Fulbeck corner. Guess what the answer was.

Now before I bring the full wrath of the AAA and America’s science museums down upon me let me say there is a lot this exhibit does well. But while RACE is incredibly researched and offers important information we should all know, it ultimately struggles to reconcile its driving science-based theme that we aren’t so different with a very strong demonstration that we definitely are. And this is where the exhibit did itself a great disservice. By trying to remain neutral on a completely non-neutral issue it not only left itself vulnerable to racial messaging but also positioned itself precisely in the danger zone; a place where the race-matters camp finds plenty of fuel for their fire, but the colorblind-postracial camp does too. And everybody leaves the room possibly having discussed nothing and gotten nowhere.

 

~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.

 

Idolizing Thomas Jefferson, Brutal Slaveholder and Racist Thinker

Law professor Paul Finkelman has an important commentary piece in the New York Times on two recent books on the “democratic” icon and famous founder Thomas Jefferson. Much of what most Americans believe about Jefferson’s everyday life in regard to racial matters is fictional or distorted in the direction of our “good” founders are “great liberty and equality advocates” in both thought and everyday practice.

A leading scholar of slavery and our “founding fathers,” Finkelman has much to say about this matter, especially in regard to the very interesting new book by Henry Wiencek that presents much data on Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery and abuse of those he enslaved, including his sexual coercion of the young Black teenager Sally Hemings (see here). Finkelman argues that even Wiencek–who argues the younger and more egalitarian Jefferson becomes more of a hypocritical and money-oriented slaveholder as he ages — is too kind to Jefferson, especially in his early decades:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views . . . he tried to justify through pseudoscience. . . . when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves.

Finkelman adds that Jefferson was not the supposedly “good slaveholder,” the oxymoronic phrase often used for numerous slaveholding founders and other white slaveholders:

He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.

And Wiencek’s book provides much more evidence of Jefferson’s brutality toward those he enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson is still a top democratic icon for a great many Americans, especially white Americans — with little critical recurring or public attention being given by whites to his everyday practice of extensive and often brutal slaveholding. Jefferson is also a founder (with intellectuals like Immanuel Kant) of early Western “race” framing that aggressively celebrates the white “race’s” superiority in most areas and puts down “inferior races” such as (enslaved) black Americans. You can see this most dramatically in his famous and only major book, Notes on the State of Virgina (see my analysis of Query 14 in that aggressively white-racist-framed chapter of his book here).

Well into the 21st century few Americans, especially few white Americans, know this bloody founding history, and remarkably few seem willing to learn it and examine its implications for our contemporary and still systemically racist society. Why is the historical truth on systemic racism so hard for most whites to accept and publicly discuss in this society?

Note: Paul Finkelman has a very good book, Slavery and the Founders, that I can recommend to you if you want to know more of the hard truths of our founding, slaveholding era and about the slavery-protecting US Constitution crafted by famous founders.

Race Still Matters (But Republicans Won’t Admit It) — Part One

Among all the Republican candidates’ rhetoric about the necessity to create jobs and get people back to work, there is never a reference to racism and its impact on our society. It’s a topic they studiously avoid, but it is embedded within their ideology—an ideology that continues to have pernicious effects on our country. As a sociologist and community organizer (also disparaged occupations among some segments of society), I would like to share a few facts that I hope will cause them to reconsider their aversion to the subject and become engaged in a discussion about fairness and the quality of life here.

Although much contemporary Republican rhetoric is ostensibly designed to encompass everyone, their speeches are sprinkled with euphemisms and code words that reinforce stereotypes about people of color and the poor, e.g. dwelling on concepts of welfare, food stamps, immigrants, and miscreants who are supposedly sapping the strength of this nation. In actuality, the Republicans’ penchant for demonizing nonwhites and the poor is a calculated attempt to unify whites in a struggle to retain the power and privilege they have monopolized since the country was founded.

One of their most egregious errors is their failure to acknowledge the common origins and destiny of the people of this nation. Though they came from different places and for various reasons—some willingly, and others under duress, scientists have established through DNA research that we are all descendants from ancestors who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. There is only one human race, Homo sapiens, and there are no significant differences in intelligence or athletic ability based on the color of one’s skin or the shape of their ears, nose, lips or texture of their hair.

Now this is a difficult pill for some Republicans to swallow since the essence of their platform resides in assumptions about the innate moral inferiority of some people who are demonized as slackers, cheats, and ne’er-do-wells. It is much easier to blame the victims of racism and dysfunctional, unresponsive institutions than to tackle the systemic causes of the problems that plague our society. If we only expel illegal immigrants, lock up all the criminals, throw the welfare cheats off the public dole, curtail unions that shield incompetents and slackers, then we could save our society. And the plans they put forward at the local, state and national level are designed to do just that without regard to a few basic facts.

Republicans’ assume that the United States is a meritocracy with level playing fields that afford everyone equal opportunities to succeed, but research indicates that there are significant differences in the way people of color are treated, especially blacks and Latinos. Today, there are more Hispanic children living in poverty than white, over 6 million, even though Latinos account for less than a quarter of the nation’s children.

High school graduation rates (the percent of students who graduate with their peers in four years) reveal that less than half of black and Latino males complete high school compared to three-quarters of white males. Even more shocking are the incredibly low graduation rates of black and Latino males in some cities, hovering under 30 percent in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, New York City and St. Petersburg. Places where the white male rates are only around 50 percent—also deplorable.

The level of education has a direct impact on one’s earnings: high school graduates bring in $8,000 more a year than dropouts, and college grads $27,000 more. The types of jobs workers obtain are also linked to their education, with the more interesting and autonomous jobs going to the higher educated.

I’ve heard the retort that things have changed. We’ve got a black man in the Office of the President. We’ve got 640 black mayors across the country—a far cry from the ‘60s when there were none. But the political power of cities has vastly declined along with their wealth. Most are on life-support.

“Well,” they say, “there are 43 black Congressmen and 25 Latinos.” Yet, political power is still wielded by whites in this nation. There are no black Senators and only two Latinos. There have only been four black Senators since reconstruction. There is only one black governor (Patrick of Massachusetts) and two Hispanics (Sandoval of Nevada and Martinez of New Mexico). Since blacks and Latinos account for over a quarter of the population, they are underrepresented in both Houses of Congress and governorships. They have not fared any better on the Supreme Court, with just 2 blacks and one Latina in its 220 year history.

Looking at the economy, there are only four blacks and five Latinos heading Fortune 500 corporations. For decades the unemployment rate of blacks and Latinos has been double that of whites, and large numbers of them are stuck in low-paying dead-end jobs. This is partly a function of their low education attainment, but research shows that blacks and Latinos earn less than whites with the same educational attainment in the same jobs. Other studies show that people with ethnic names are less successful in job hunting—less likely to be asked for interviews than whites with Anglo names.

While some blacks and Latinos have significantly improved their social and economic status over the last five decades, it is apparent from these facts that political and corporate power still resides in the hands of relatively few white men who are reluctant to share it. Our next installment will focus on other types of racial disparities and explore the Republicans’ ideological support for blaming the victims of inequality and perpetuating the myth of meritocracy.

H. Roy Kaplan was the Executive Director of The National Conference of Christians and Jews for the Tampa Bay area. His most recent book is The Myth of Post-Racial America.

Obama and Civil Rights Enforcement

Over at her “pragmatic progressive” political blog, the head of nonprofit organization in Minnesota analyzes some data collected by a right-wing group on the impressive lawyer appointees being added by Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general ever. The right-wing group is very disturbed that Holder is moving the agency away from weak or no enforcement of civil rights laws to much more aggressive enforcement. This includes the hiring of many (106 so far) new career lawyers, almost all with real-world experience in the area of civil rights and civil rights enforcement in regard to gender, racial group, and gay/lesbian groups — which experience seems to qualify them all as “leftist” as seen by the right-wing group. Take a look at their mostly impressive resumes.

It is more than odd that numerous progressive government policy changes under President Obama, such as much more aggressive enforcement of the civil rights laws, has gotten little mainstream media coverage. This is one of many Obama actions that provide a major contrast with the weak or nonexistent enforcement of civil rights and other human-protective laws under the George Bush administration.

This paradigm shift is worth much more media and scholarly analysis, right?

Racial Analyses in the Times: Deferring to Elite Whites?



It appears that racial issues are finally getting a little more attention in some parts of the mainstream media. José called my attention to these two recent and interesting New York Times articles. The first is a short book review by Brent Staples, a journalist who notes that

As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line” . . . the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate. On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger . . . .

Then he ads that candidate Obama himself sent out certain messages:

On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to ­African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing . . . .

It is a bit odd that Staples does not even note other, probably much more critical, books on race, racism, and the Obama campaigns–such as the one that Adia Harvey Wingfield and I did not long ago. Had he done so, Staples could perhaps have made even more sense out of the data on the white-racialized dimensions of both the Obama campaigns and Obama’s presidency.

There is also another interesting article in the Times by Desmond King, American government professor at Oxford University and Rogers Smith, a political science professor at Penn, that discusses the failure of both political parties to openly discuss racial matters seriously, such as the extreme unemployment rates for African Americans:

The economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

They are quite correct on this point, and their brief data on racial inequalities is highly germane to their general argument, but I kept waiting for them to discuss why there is such systemic racial inequality and who the key white decisionmakers mostly are in this regard. Not only are whites (or the dominant white racial frame) not called out as agents of discrimination, but even more seriously the elite white men whose racial and class frames and actions have mostly created the party and societal neglect (and much actual reality) of racism at issue are not specifically called out or critically discussed as elite white male agents (more than just “leaders”) shaping these structures.

As in the Staples review (and perhaps in Randall Kennedy’s book?), this white male elite remains unnoted and unmarked as such, once again. Is it still too dangerous now in this society to call them out and analyze their critical and continuing role in racial discrimination and their dominant white racial framing that shapes both our politics and our society more generally?

Race, Racism and Online News & Sports: What the Research Tells Us

Reading newspapers is, as Benedict Anderson (1991) observed, one of the primary ways that people imagine themselves part of a community, whether that’s a nation, small town or a high school.  This has not changed as the news has moved to increasingly online forms of distribution (Riley, et al., 1998, “Community or Colony: The Case of Online Newspapers and the Web,”  JCMC 4(1), page 0).   There were certainly racialized (and racist) messages in the discourse of news in traditional print (and broadcast) media.  For evidence of this, see Teun Van Dijk’s classic, Racism and the Press, Routledge 1991, and Peter Teo’s more recent “Racism in the News,” Discourse & Society January 2000 11(1): 7-49).  Alongside these old forms, the Internet has helped foster some new manifestations of race and racism in online news and sports.

Guardian.co.uk front page election coverage
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Scorpions and Centaurs)

Post Your [expletive] Comment Here. As online news has opened up the range of sources available, there’s a growing body of research that looks at online news consumption.   See, for example, this review article by Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (New Media & Society, November 2010 12(7):1085-1102).    This has had unintended consequences in terms of racism.  Around 2004, the online arms of many U.S. newspapers opened their websites for comments.  Today, some seven years into this experiment, many news sites have abandoned the practice of allowing comments because of the proliferation of offensive comments, many of them racist.  In an interview in September, 2010, Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star responded to questions about racist comments online this way:

“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families. There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”

The online arm of The Indianapolis Star employs moderators, people whose job it is to read all the comments posted online and then delete individual racist comments.  On some stories that editors expect will generate racist comments, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.

The Tragedy of the Commons. The presence, indeed the preponderance, of racist comments in the public sphere highlight a problem that Howard Rheingold has referred to as a “classic tragedy of the commons dilemma.” The tragedy of the commons dilemma (first described by Garrett Hardin in 1968) is a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.  The problem with comments online is, as Rheingold describes it, one in which “flamers, bullies, bigots, charlatans, know-nothings and nuts in online discourse take advantage of open access to other people’s attention” (Rheingold, Smart Mobs, 2002, p.121).   In other words, those who are posting the offensive, expletive-filled comments are spoiling the comments section for everyone else.

Documenting Backstage Racism Online: The “Fighting Sioux” Study. So far, few researchers have taken on the task of analyzing racist comments.   One study that has systematically looked at the way comments in online forums of news sites foster and reproduce racism (Steinfeldt, J., et al. (2010) ‘Racism in the Electronic Age: Role of Online Forums in Expressing Racial Attitudes about American Indians’, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 16(3):362-371).  In their study of over 1,000 posts related to University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo used for their athletic team, Steinfeldt and colleagues found that a critical mass of online forum comments represented disdain toward American Indians by providing misinformation, perpetuating stereotypes, and expressing overtly racist attitudes toward Native Americans.

The researchers explained their findings through the framework of two-faced racism (Picca & Feagin, 2007).   Drawing on Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the presentation of “front stage” and “back stage” performances of the self, Picca and Feagin developed the concept of two-faced racism to explain the hundreds of thousands of diary entries from white college students in which they document the ways that whites perform tolerance in public, mixed-race settings and explicit racism in private, white-only spaces.

The concept of two-faced racism seems especially useful for explaining the tragedy of the commons dilemma created by racist comments online.  Those who post these comments may be used to thinking of the “back stage” as a fairly welcoming space for such remarks.  The apparent anonymity of online commenting tends to blur the public and private, giving those who post comments the allure of “back stage” comfort and familiarity when, in fact, they are presenting their self in the “front stage” by posting online.

Online Reputation: Tainted by Racism? One of the hot button topics among people writing and thinking about the Internet is “online reputation.”   Online reputation systems, like those used on eBay where users rate each other on basic trustworthiness within the terms of the site, are a central feature of how online business is able to operate efficiently.   It’s a way of countering the corrosive effects of online anonymity.   In reality, we know that online anonymity is an illusion in many ways, as increasingly sophisticated software keeps track of our identity and our preferences as we move between websites.

There’s a fairly new site that offers a clever twist on online reputation.  The site is called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.”    Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile.

The site is problematic in various ways (e.g. it routinely uses language like “retard” and engages in fat-shaming) but it’s an interesting strategy for interrupting the unchecked flow of “back stage” racism flowing onto the “front stage” of public profiles.    It’s still too early for any sort of systematic research on what sort of effect this might have on one’s reputation online, but I suspect that research is just around the next corner.

Race, Racism and Online Housing: What the Research Tells Us

In the pre-Internet era, people used analog methods like word-of-mouth referrals, printed newspaper ads and bulletin boards notices attached with pushpins to find housing and roommates.  With the Internet, people increasingly turn to sites like Craigslist (a free bulletin board service) or Roommates.com (a fee-based roommate-matching service).  The question is: do roommate matching sites facilitate racial discrimination in housing?  The harder question is: if users on the sites engage in racial discrimination, what is the responsibility of the sites’ owners?

Isn’t that illegal? Yep.  Housing discrimination based on race is illegal in the U.S.  Racial discrimination in housing in the United States was officially made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1968. That law is currently referred to as the Fair Housing Act.     Yet, housing discrimination based on race continues to exist.

There’s some excellent research and activism on this type of racism in what are called “housing discrimination audits.”  These are tests by those seeking to enforce Fair Housing laws.  These kinds of audits take a couple of different forms, but basically they involve sending matched pairs of people (or couples) with identical credentials but different by race to rent or buy housing.  If people are treated differently based on race in these audits, then action can be taken against them.  There’s an excellent (if a bit dated, from 1993) video from ABC News’ show 20/20, “True Colors,” where a white guy and a black guy both try to rent an apartment (and get a job) in St. Louis, Missouri and lots of covert racial discrimination gets captured on hidden camera.

Why is Housing Such a Big Deal? Racial discrimination continues to be a serious problem with far-reaching consequences.   Housing discrimination remains key mechanism for maintaining racial segregation, and along with it, a host of other deleterious social ills (Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, Harvard UP, 1993). This is not simply the legacy of historical discrimination, but a current and persistent issue in the contemporary U.S. with far-reaching consequences.  For evidence of this, see John Yinger’s  Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination (Sage, 1995).   In lots of really significant ways, the racial inequality in education, jobs, and health have their roots in racially segregated housing.  So, if we could address housing discrimination and segregation, lots of other dimensions of inequality might be ameliorated.

So… is the Internet Helping or Hurting? In a lot of ways, the Internet can help combat racial discrimination in housing.  There’s a lot of information online that helps people understand their rights to fair housing, like this site by La Raza Centro Legal.  Now, you can even go online and file a complaint if you were discriminated against in trying to find housing.   That’s the good news and an instance in which the Internet is helping.

GAFFTA (Grey Area Foundation for the Arts) - Tenderloin Dynamic
(Creative Commons License photo credit: anitakhart )

The bad news is that there’s growing evidence that people are using the Internet to perpetuate racial discrimination in housing.  For example, ads for housing on Craigslist rather routinely include language about race, a seeming violation of the Fair Housing Act.  Some civil rights lawyers in Chicago sued Craigslist for allowing this practice (they flagged over 200 ads that were problematic under the Fair Housing Act).  In March, 2008, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Craigslist in that case, basically arguing that if an ad appeared in the Chicago Tribune that said “No Minorities” it would be illegal and the Tribune would be held accountable for it, but if that same ad appears online, Craigslist faces no liability.  Instead, Judge Easterbrook ruled that Craigslist was protected under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.   This is clearly a way in which the Internet is hurting the cause of fair housing by giving Craigslist a blank check to undermine the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

FHA vs. CDA: Housing Discrimination Collides with Free Speech. The leaders in the emerging field of research about housing discrimination online are primarily legal scholars grappling with the often contradictory implications of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Communications Decency Act (CDA).  The CDA is relevant because of the part of that law referred to as Section 230, which has been interpreted to say that operators of Internet services (ISP’s) are not to be construed as publishers (and thus not legally liable for the words of third parties who use their services).

An important test case in all this is the lawsuit brought by the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley against Roommates.com, LLC,.  The Fair Housing Council alleged that the popular roommate-matching site was engaging in racial discrimination. Unlike the ruling in the Craigslist case, the Ninth Circuit has according to one scholar “put out the welcome mat for fair housing suits against roommate-matching websites.” The authors of this law review article, Diane Klein and Charles Doskow, write that the judge in this case found that:

“the Communications Decency Act does not provide immunity to housing websites under § 3604(c) of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). [And] housing websites should be held to the same standard as other advertisers of residential real estate under the FHA, and that Roommates.com is a “content provider” and hence liable for violating the FHA by disseminating advertisements that demonstrate discriminatory preferences on the basis of race, age, religion, disability, etc. “

The key idea here is that the ruling found that Roommates.com was providing “content,” meaning that it’s not covered under the CDA’s Section 230 which just applies to “service” providers.  This distinction between providing “content” and providing “service” means, in the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling, that there’s a different standard that applies and so Roommates.com should have to comply with the FHA.

Other scholars in this area disagree with the ruling in the San Fernando Valley case and argue that it’s rulings like the one in the Craigslist case that should hold sway.  For example, Kevin Wilemon in his law review article, “Fair Housing Act, the Communications Decency Act, and the Right of Roommate Seekers to Discriminate Online,” 29 Wash. U. J. L. & Pol’y 375 (2009), argues that speech posted online should be protected as free speech, even if that language includes an intent to racially discriminate in housing.

Where does this leave us? We’re still in the midst of what some have called a slow, painful Internet revolution that is, eventually, going to dramatically change the way we organize social life, the way we do business, the way society is governed.  When it comes to housing, as Doug Massey has pointed out, racial discrimination in housing is a constantly moving target (Social Problems 52:148, 2005).   As housing choices and roommate services have emerged online, the target of eliminating racial discrimination from housing has shifted yet again.

Race, Racism and Online Dating: What the Research Tells Us

According to some estimates, more than 20 million people per month use online dating services.  Sociologist Andrea Baker has looked at the phenomenon of online dating in a number of publications, including two books, Double Click, and Online Matchmaking (edited with Monica T. Whitty and James A. Inman).  Baker points to four factors that indicate what makes for a successful relationship online: (1) meeting place, where they first encountered each other online; (2) obstacles, barriers to getting together overcome by the couples, such as distance and previous relationships; (3) timing, period spent writing or talking before meeting offline, and how intimate they became before meeting offline; and (4) conflict resolution, ability of the people to resolve problems in communication (Baker, CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2002, 5(4): 363-375). None of the factors Baker identified point to race, nor is this the focus of her research.   More recently, however, studies are beginning to emerge that examine the phenomenon of interracial dating in the context of online dating sites.

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(Creative Commons License photo credit: irina slutsky)

Psychologist Gerald Mendelsohn (Emeritus, UC-Berkeley) is leading some of this research, which is as yet unpublished in peer-review.  In an interview with TIME Magazine, he said:

“The Internet has changed things. There is no segregation on the Internet. So the question then becomes, When you have a free situation where people can contact whom they please, what will happen?”

Mendelsohn is right in framing this question, I think.  If we’re really as post-racial as many claim, then race shouldn’t be a factor in dating or mate selection.  It’s a question that needs to be put to the test, and online dating sites are an excellent way to do that, in part because of the user profiles, where race is an issue.
Mendelsohn’s study involved evaluating the user profiles on an (unnamed) online dating site, and looking at the ones that indicated some sort of racial preference. Some profiles to reflect a desire to date people only of the same race, others indicate the subscriber is open to dating someone of another race or of any race. Using these user-generated profiles, researchers compared their stated racial preferences with the races of the people they ended up contacting.  The results indicate a strong preference on the part of whites for dating other whites.   Here’s the summary from TIME:

Taken as a group, whites, women and older people were choosiest about sticking with others of their color. More than four of five whites contacted other whites, while just 3% reached out to blacks. The ratios stayed the same for young and older people, too — 80% chose not to contact others from outside their race. And only 5% of white subscribers responded to inquiries from someone from another race.

What about people who said they were indifferent? For whites who claimed to be, about 80% still contacted whites. Blacks who said they were color-blind when it comes to Cupid were more likely to contact a white than to contact a black.

So, what’s the deal? Are online daters racist? Are they hypocrites? Another news report on the study quotes Mendelsohn again to address this question.   He theorizes that the pattern of black people online being more willing to date whites “simply reflects how upward mobility”  and an effort to assimilate.  On the other hand, dating outside of whiteness may present “more of a hassle for a white person in America” and that dating choice may be viewed  “as a social downgrade.” According to Mendelsohn, for whites the calculation is simple:

“You will have trouble with family, with friends, and every time you go to a restaurant people will be looking at you. So you think, Why bother?”

This study suggests a deep-seated white racial frame, that both privileges whiteness and marks black people as “less desirable” dating partners.   This online pattern also reflects offline trends.   The U.S. Census data from 2000 shows that only one percent of American marriages take place between a black and white person.

Future Research. Clearly, there’s lots of room for future research in this area since the one study I was able to find about this isn’t even published yet.   I’d expect that there will be rich research opportunities to explore online dating sites that are specifically targeting people seeking interracial relationships (like the ad pictured above).     This is something that enraged the avowed white supremacists I studied in Cyber Racism, but there’s obviously more to be said about these sites.

I’d also be curious about how these patterns of race overlap and intersect with sexuality.  The research I’ve seen so far has looked almost exclusively at patterns among heterosexuals at online dating sites.  While straight people are clearly the heaviest users of such sites, given recent lawsuits against eHarmony, there is a desire on the part of some gays to participate in the sites.   And, contrary to the dating patterns of heterosexuals, LGBT folks are much more likely to be in interracial relationships (updated: e.g., see this discussion – noted by Brandon in comments – and this one), so online dating for this group may reflect these offline patterns as well.

Once more, the research indicates that the Internet is changing our social world, in this instance how people meet potential dating partners.  Woven into these new technologies, however, are old patterns of race and racism.

Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites: What the Research Tells Us

I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet.    The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.

(Creative Commons License Image source)

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230).    According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month.  Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month.  These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites.    But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?

(Source: Complete Pulse, 02/09/09)

White Flight? Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook.  Researcher danah boyd’s  ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace.  There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research.    This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).   From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97).  Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).  Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).

There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).

Race, Identity & Community.  The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines.  In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is BlackPlanet.com.   Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at Blackplanet.com (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on BlackPlanet.com.” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).

African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community.  For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.  In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos.   Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.

Here again, like with BlackPlanet.com, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity.   In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).   Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).

Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall.  They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identification with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the profiles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identification or racial themes, reflecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’

Racism & Social Networking Sites. Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community.  These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears.   Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes.  Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond.  They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness.  Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.   White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers.  Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).

Future Research. There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS.   One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter.  Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.   Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems.   To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.

For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.

Race, Digital Divides & Mobile Technology: What the Research Tells Us

In the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about “access” to technology.  Alongside that was a lot of concern that only people who are white and rich had access to technology, while people who were poor and/or black or brown (and sometimes women) didn’t have access to technology.  This concern about who had technology and who didn’t got called “the digital divide” and lots of research got done on it.

World Connection
Creative Commons License photo credit: Digitalnative

Digital Divide(s)? In an initial study conducted by the Census Bureau under the direction of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, African-Americans were found to have lower rates than whites in both computer equipment ownership and telephone service (“Falling Through the Net,” NTIA, 1995).  Even though the original report was subtitled, “A Survey of ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” the findings about race are what made headlines.  The finding about differences in computer ownership between whites and blacks was widely reported and quickly became known as ‘the digital divide.’  It also sparked an entire subfield of research within Internet studies relating to race.  The initial focus on computer ownership shifted in subsequent versions of the study to Internet access and the second report included “digital divide” in the title (“Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide,” NTIA, 1998).  These initial “divides” in ownership and access have largely vanished now (for example: Leggon, 2006, ““Gender, Race/Ethnicity and the Digital Divide,” in edited by Mary Frank Fox, Deborah G. Johnson, and Sue V. Rosser, (eds.) Women, Gender and Technology, University of Illinois Press, 2006).   Still some researchers subsequently identified “second level divides” that focused on the relationship between skills, “Internet literacy” and Internet usage (Hargittai, “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills,” First Monday 7(4), 2002).

he rhetoric of “digital divides” has also been heavily critiqued by some scholars as a “disabling rhetoric” that marginalizes people of color as technological innovators (e.g., Anna Everett, (2004) ‘On Cyberfeminism and Cyberwomanism:  High-Tech Mediations of Feminism’s Discontents’, Signs 30(1):1278-86; Michelle Wright, (2005) ‘Finding a Place in Cyberspace:  Black Women, Technology and Identity,’ Frontiers 26(1):48-59).

Selwyn (“Apart from technology: Understanding people’s non-use of information and communication technologies in everyday life,” Technology in Society, 25 (1), 99-116.) contends that digital divide formulations rely on the assumption that Internet access and usage is desirable for everyone, when in fact, people might not be using the Internet because they don’t see a social benefit in doing so.  Brock (2006) extends this argument to race and explains that slower Internet adoption rates among Blacks may have more to do with the lack of culturally relevant content online for Blacks rather than any lack of “Internet literacy.”

Then came Mobile Technology. Much has changed since the mid-1990s when ‘digital divide’ research began and computer ownership and Internet access meant sitting before a desktop machine with a wire plugged into a wall.  Today, being connected to the Internet often means having a “smart phone” (e.g., a phone that enables users to access the Internet).

Samsung Star 3G S5603
Creative Commons License photo credit: liewcf

Ten years ago, Howard Rheingold (2002) accurately predicted the ‘next social revolution’ in computing would be the advent of mobile technologies, and this development has had important implications for race, racism and Internet studies.

Mobile phones enabled with Internet access are approaching ubiquity and with that, bridging some of the divides noted in an earlier era.  According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (a rich resource of data), cell phone and wireless laptop Internet use have each grown more prevalent between 2009-2010.  African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos continue to be among the most active users of the mobile web, for example:

  • Mobile phone ownership is higher among African-Americans and Latinos (87%) than among whites (80%)
  • African-American and Latino mobile phone owners take advantage of a much greater range of their phones’ features compared with white mobile phone users
  • Among Latinos, 29% of mobile-phone users surf the Internet on their device, compared to 12% of mobile-phone-owning whites.

So what does all this research tell us about race and technology?   It’s still way too early to know how these patterns might shift again, but it seems clear that early predictions about “digital divides” between technological “haves” and “have nots” – especially along stark racial lines – were overstating what the evidence suggested.  It also seems very likely that many of those dire early reports about “minorities left behind” were engaging in the disabling rhetoric of racism’s low expectations.  As African Americans and Latinos lead the adoption of mobile technology here in the U.S. is among the more fascinating developments as it over turns those expectations.