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.


  1. Joe

    Thanks PJ for the fine post. One issue is why do whites think their racist comments on facebook, other social sites, etc, are really backstage and are not in fact public? Is this a matter of not understanding cyberspace, or a lot more?

  2. PJ Rey Author


    I think the problem is that we, as a society, haven’t yet come to terms with how thin the line is between public and private (It’s so thin, in fact, that I would argue it is often illusory). The incident with the Harvard Law student is just case and point that documents are, at most, only one click away from being public. Yet, our behavior seldom reflects this new reality. Goffman spoke of audience or role segregation. I think our ability to do this has clearly been undermined by technology.


  3. Joe

    PJ, I agree. In our Two Faced Racism diaries of college students, in their thousands of accounts of racist actions, we found that they often missed the thin line you are talking about. We ended up doing chapters on how “transitional” and transitory the backstage and frontstage areas really are. In a quick moment, a student of color might walk into a dorm room where white guys are telling N-word jokes, turning the backstage to a frontstage quickly. And most of our students’ accounts of these thin lines have nothing to do with new technologies. One reason this happens so much is that most whites really do not see their blatant backstage racism as “really serious,” but more like a wart on the nose. So quick shifts do not cause huge concern for most of them. They joke or rationalize their way out, quickly, much like white media folks do.

    • PJ Rey Author

      Good point! I wouldn’t want to overstate the significance of technology. Clearly, as you illustrate, the public-private issue extends far beyond the Internet.

      Though, one unique and interesting aspect of the Internet is that, when these sorts of frontstage-backstage transgressions occur online, they often leave durable public records, which makes them far more likely to result in widespread scandal.

  4. Will

    Great points PJ and Joe. I also think that most whites don’t have an understanding of what racism is. Some whites may say or type something that is racist, and they don’t even know it. Some may know what they say or type is racist, but like Joe wrote doesn’t consider it serious enough to pay any mind. Nevertheless, when a person of color walks in, the conversation stops or is minimized on the computer until the person of color leaves.

  5. Joe

    Thanks, Will. Key point. PJ, that is a good point about the “paper” (non-paper?!) electronic trail, which is interesting in that so many whites, and others, do not seem to understand that. Another issue too is how quickly, like the Harvard student, a quick ‘error’ in judgment, or one’s true feelings, gets out. There needs to be a built-in delay key for all emails, for example. All of use have sent one we wished a few minutes later, we had not.


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