Digital Movements: Panel Discusses Racial Justice and Social Media

I attended a panel and performance tonight called “Digital Movements: Black Publics, Black Discourse,” that featured Jasiri X, Jamilah Lemieux, and Alondra Nelson. Hosted by Charlton McIlwain. The panel took up the issue of racial justice and social media in considering questions like: do moments like #BlackLivesMatter constitute a new civil rights movement? This is a storify of some of the live Tweets from the event.

I’m still thinking about the complicated relationship between technology and racial justice that this event surfaced and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it at some point soon, but for now I wanted to collect these initial notes and reactions for pondering further.

This is the New Civil Rights Movement and It Will be Digital

I’ve been going to racial justice marches in New York City for nearly 20 years (for Abner Louima, for Amadou Diallo, for Sean Bell, for Ramarley Graham) and I’ve never seen anything like the mass protests in response to Eric Garner. This gives me hope.

This is one view of what the movement looked like last night in New York City:

Protests like this one happened all over the U.S. With respect to Gil Scott Heron (who told us that The Revolution Will Not be Televised), this movement is and will be digital. More precisely, this new civil rights movement is spreading quickly because it is digitally augmented through Twitter, Vine, Instagram and other social media platforms. The movement is also, simultaneously, in the streets. It is both/and – both digital and material – at the same time. And this, too, gives me hope.

The both/and, digital/material feature of the new civil rights movement means several hopeful things.

It means that it’s both youth-led movement, and it is intergenerational. It means that it’s both youth-led and leaderless, in the traditional sense. It also means that it both circumvents and subverts legacy civil rights organizations that are now mostly corporate-funded or corporate-affiliated. It means that it is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement.

The both/and quality of the new civil rights movement means that while much of the organizing is happening online – through websites like Ferguson Action, and email newsletters like thisisthemovement published by DeRay McKesson (@deray) and through Twitter hashtags #EricGarner #BlackLivesMatter #ShutItDown – people have been showing up in the streets for 118 days now.

The demands of the new civil rights movement are, of course, both posted online and demand real, concrete action in the material world.

Today is a day for hope.

Race, Racism & the Internet: 10 Things Sociologists Should Be Researching

There was exactly one session on “Race and New Media” among the hundreds of panels at the recent American Sociological Association meetings last week in Atlanta.  The panel was interesting, thought-provoking and presented by a diverse group of sociologists, and I’m not just saying that because I organized it.   I think there should be lots more research like this.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: atxryan

One of the main points I make in my book Cyber Racism is that white supremacy has entered the digital era, and that means it’s changing, morphing into new forms.  Some of those centuries-old components continue to exist, but now they exist alongside new forms of racism, such as cloaked websites.   This is true not only of the extremist groups I’ve studied, it’s also true of lots of other dimensions of race and racism.   This seems like an arena ripe for sociological investigation, yet I continue to be puzzled by the fact that there’s not more research in this area.

Within sociology there’s a gap between researchers who critically study race and those who study the Internet.  I talked with several prominent sociologists who study Internet and society at the meetings, and they concurred with my assessment of the field.  As one scholar told me when I mentioned the few submissions I received for the “Race and New Media” panel: “That’s because no one studies that.”    Another prominent scholar suggested that the problem is that the critical race folks just don’t know the Internet research and vice versa.  I tend to agree. I talk to people who know the Internet and the research about it, and they generally don’t know much about critical race scholarship.  And, the people I talk to who are critical race scholars, generally don’t know much about the Internet.

In many ways, the study of race and the Internet has been ceded by sociologists to scholars working in other fields such as history, psychology, communications, cultural studies, and political science.   There’s good work going on in those fields, most notably Lisa Nakamura’s work, which I admire and have mentioned here before.     One of the things I enjoy about the growing field of Internet-related research is that it’s interdisciplinary, so maybe it’s not worth raising these intra-sociology disciplinary issues, but it strikes me as a missed opportunity for the field.   Part of the problem here is that the Internet changes quickly, and sociology is just slow. One of my graduate professors used to refer to sociology as “slow journalism”.  If journalism is the first draft of history, sociology is the re-draft of history in many ways. I think that sociologists have something valuable to offer in terms of our understanding of how the Internet is transforming patterns of human social behavior.   While lots of sociologists who study race are using the Internet as a tool for their research (everything from Google Scholar to analyzing messages on email listservs), only a very few are considering the Internet as an object of study, and exploring the ways it’s changing the production of and resistance to race and racism.

So, in an attempt to suggest ways to bridge this gap, I’ve sketched out 10 areas I think sociologists should be researching:

  1. infrastructure / design – How computers and the “graphic user interface” (GUI) – like web browsers are designed affects how people use the Internet.  In 2008, I wrote about the development of a custom browser, Blackbird, designed for use by African Americans, that cause some uproar.  How does the way that interfaces are designed affect the way people use the Internet and how is race implicated in this?  There’s terrific research on user-centered design being done by sociologist Nalini Kotamraju and some on open source software by Jon Smajda which highlight the useful bridge between a deep knowledge of infrastructure and software design.  Michelle White (cultural studies) has done some interesting work on this (why is that little hand always white?), and of course, Nakamura’s relevant here again.   I don’t know of any one in sociology doing research like this on race and interface design.
  2. industry –   The leading tech firms in Silicon Valley are dominated by white men and a few white women, yet the manual labor of putting together circuit boards that run computers is largely done by immigrant and global south women.  How does the predominantly white tech industry located in the global north and the immigrant / global south labor that powers the Internet say about race and technology?  (See, J. Shih, Circumventing Discrimination: Gender and Ethnic Strategies in Silicon Valley, Gender & Society, 2006, 20; (2): 177-206).
  3. gaming – Literally millions of people are playing online games, and meeting in person at gaming conferences, yet this social phenomenon is going largely unremarked upon by sociologists.    Lori Kendall’s Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub (UCPress, 2002) looks at the reproduction of race and gender in one of these game spaces, but I see little other work on this important topic by sociologists.
  4. popular culture / fandom – There are huge – again in the millions – of online groups for everything from tennis to celebrities to popular fiction.   How is being a “fan” shaped by race, and how is online “fandom” in popular culture shaped by race and racism?   Sociologist Sarah Gatson has explored some of this in her work and is seeking papers [pdf] for a special issue of a journal about this.
  5. mobile technology – It’s been a few years since Howard Rheingold (whom I think of as an honorary sociologist) wrote his groundbreaking book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, and I’ve yet to see anyone extend that work to look at mobile technology and race.   There’s research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project documenting that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to access the Internet through mobile devices.  What does this suggest for all that talk of the “digital divide” among sociologists a few years ago?
  6. identity +  community –  In the early days of the Internet, lots of people thought that we would go online to “experiment” with identity, to engage in “identity tourism” to use Nakamura’s phrase.   Yet, that’s not turned out to be the case.  In fact, the way people use the Internet most often is to reaffirm their offline identities.  Sociologist Emily Ignacio’s excellent book Building Diaspora: Filipino Community Formation on the Internet (Rutgers UP, 2005) is an example of this type of work and there should be more.
  7. social movements :  I mentioned my book on racist social movements, and I’d like to see more done on progressive social movements around race, such as the march organized around the Jena6, which was mobilized primarily through young, African American bloggers. One of the strategies I used in my research was to examine movement discourse pre-Internet and post-Internet, and this is another angle that could be pursued by those interested in race and the offline mobilization of social movements around race.
  8. racist framing in Facebook, MySpace, Twitter – Social media is framed by racist language, and within a larger white racial frame, yet there’s very little sociology that looks at this.  Stephanie Laudone (graduate student at Fordham) is at work on a dissertation that takes up some of these issues in Facebook.
  9. health/science – Internet users increasingly look for health and scientific knowledge online.    Victoria Pitts (a CUNY colleague) has written about these issues as they relate to gender, (see Illness and Internet empowerment: writing and reading breast cancer in cyberspace, Health, 2004, Vol 8 (1):33-60), but I don’t know of any similar research that looks critically at race and health.
  10. surveillance culture – We live in what some have called a ‘surveillance culture.’   Sociologist Simone Brown is writing about some of these surveillance technologies as they relate to border crossings (fascinating work), and there are implications of this surveillance culture for understanding race and the Internet.    As just one example, given the millions of Black and Latino men locked up in the U.S., what are the implications of the “inmate locator” websites run by state and federal governments?  How do systems of incarceration work together with online registries and databases of Black/Latino men to shape racial inequality in the digital era?

Of course, this is just a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what I think are the promising areas of investigation for sociologists.    Where I know about people’s work in these areas, I’ve included it (let me know if I left your work out and i’ll add it).  So, what did I miss?  What are some other areas of research?

Can Social Media End Racism?

One of the preoccupations of this blog is thinking and writing about anti-racism and effective strategies for dismantling systems of racial inequality (image from here).    So, I was especially interested to learn about a panel just the other day at SXSWi in Austin, called ‘Can Social Media End Racism?’

The panelists were: Kety Esquivel, New Media Mgr, National Council of La Raza and CrossLeft; Jay Smooth, Ill Doctrine; Phil Yu,  Angry Asian Man; Latoya Peterson  Racialicious.com.

I couldn’t attend but thanks to the interwebs, and some fast typing, there’s a partial transcript of the session up at Liz Henry’s blog, Composite.    The lively panel discussion to transcript translation can sometimes leave you wondering what happened, but this one is very good and gives a sense of what went on.   Parts of the transcript made me reflect a bit on our corner of the blogosphere.  Here are a few of the relevant bits:

Latoya: This discussion is intermediate level, not Racism101 We don’t want to talk about whether racism exists. not interested in that. It’s about our experiences with social media.

So, Latoya starts out saying that this is not a “Racism101” discussion, that is, debating whether racism exists or not.    More emphasis on experiences with social media.  Fair enough.

Then, the Kety offers that the project bloggers working against racism are engaged in involves these elements: 1) spreading knowledge 2) creating refuge 3) mobilizing to action.  And, one of the interesting examples of mobilizing using the web is NCLR’s Stop the Hate campaign.

Several times, the discussion returns to the theme of racist (even violently racist) comments at these various online spaces.     And then, danah boyd asks what I think is one of the key questions, which is (paraphrased): given the history of racism online, [and given that] racism has different roots in different countries… how you get people talking, [when] they don’t know the history?

Indeed, how do you get people talking?     I see that as a struggle that gets played out here, at this blog, all the time.  I know that (possibly) conservative commentors who come by here, such as Robby – who asked recently about my reaction to Heather McDonald’s writing – see me (and others here) as engaging in “the same ol’ agit prop BS couched in impenetrable race jargon,” when what I thought I was doing was making a earnest effort to respond to what I thought was a sincere query.    And, the level of name-calling here, even by people who are supposedly supporters of anti-racism, sometimes makes me sigh.    And, that’s just among the people that bother to drop a comment.  Blogs notoriously suffer from “participation inequality” in which 90% of readers remain “lurkers” and never post a comment.   This blog is no different in that regard. So, how do you get people talking seems to me to be the central question.

I wonder about the space between #1 and #2 and #3 in Kety’s list (above) and about what we’re doing, those of us who blog against racism.   Is it possible to “spread knowledge” and “create refuge” at the same time?  And, can you do both those things while you’re “mobilizing for action”?   I don’t know, but it seems to me that a lot of what we do — here at least —  is not so much “spread” knowledge as engage in a politically-contested struggle over knowledge about race and racism.    And, if we’re “creating refuge” are we just talking to ourselves and people who agree with us?

To my mind,  talking about the basics of racism (e.g., “Racism 101”) and the empirical research that demonstrably shows that racism persists, both individually and institutionally, is necessary, if not sufficient, first step.