Social Media and America’s Conversation on Race

Recently, a furor erupted when a private email by a Harvard law student (and editor of the Harvard Law Review) was made public by the recipient.  The gist of her argument is captured in the following quote:

“I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African-Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.’’

While this revival of the early 20th century discourses which notoriously legitimated eugenics projects has undoubtedly outraged all who have experienced or are aware of institutional racism, it is not the specific content of these emails that I want to focus on.  Instead, I want to consider how this event is representative of the historical moment in which our culture finds itself.

We are witnessing the unfolding of two largely interrelated processes: 1.) an implosion of the private sphere into the public sphere and 2.) the emergence of a new dialectic between the top-down racial discourses of the mass media and a wide breadth of localized racial discourses that have only recently been amplified or made visible through the power of the Internet (specifically, social media).  Put simply, the Internet is a powerful tool that, for the first time, has provided (at least some) everyday people with the ability to project their voices loud enough to compete with all the machinery of the  media industry.

In recent decades, the mass media has worked tirelessly to rebrand America as “de-segregated,”  “tolerant,” “post-Civil Rights era,” and now “post-racial” (for example, see  Crockett, Marketing blackness: How advertisers use race to sell products, Journal of Consumer Culture, July 1, 2008, Vol. 8(2): 245 – 268).    Empirically speaking, of course, none of these descriptions are tenable, but the dominance of such vocabulary has had a two-fold effect on our society: On the one hand, these discourses have obscured very real and persistent structural inequalities, leading to a new form of “color-blind” racism.  On the other hand, they have established a new pattern for normative behavior, purging the most overt and outrageous forms of racism from the public sphere – at least until recently.

The Internet is a game-changer for racial discourse in America.  It has enabled many people to scale the walls barring entry to the public sphere.  No longer is overt racism confined to conversations held behind closed doors or even to websites owned and operated by racist organizations.  Today, racist discourses are flourishing in blogs, on users’ public profiles for social-networking sites, and in the comment sections of even the most mundane websites.  Moreover, supposedly private communications are only a click away from becoming public – as the previously mentioned Harvard law student discovered.

The most significant consequence of the proliferation of public and overtly racist discourses through social media (“cyber-racism 2.0” ?) is that the facade of a color-blind society is rapidly deteriorating.  Like a pair of stage curtains, the superficial media-fabricated discourse of a post-racial America is splitting apart to reveal something far more complex in the backstage.

This new world where overtly racist language is again part of our everyday lives is, of course, no Utopia.  However, it does offer an opportunity for scholars and activists alike.  The reemergence of overtly racist discourses means that race can no longer be blithely ignored in the public sphere.  Just as the Internet has amplified the voices of the racists over the silence of the mass media, it also provides an opportunity for progressives to project a racial discourse that is neither racist nor blind, but, instead, seriously addresses the problem of systemic racial inequality.

~ PJ Rey, PhD Candidate, Sociology Department, University of Maryland, College Park.