Racism Flourshing Online

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has released its annual report on “digital1936541974_e6e7ba6c9f terrorism and hate” which finds that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online.  Their report asserts that there has been a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet (Creative Commons License photo credit: rosefirerising).

In assessing the extent of hate online, the SWC casts a wider net than other monitoring organization (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League) to include sites that promote “racial violence, anti-semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.”  And, the report encompasses a variety of forms of online communicatio such as  Web sites, social networking groups, portals, blogs, chat rooms, videos and games that promote hate.

While it’s hard to measure such phenomena with any precision, there are other indications that racism, and other forms of hatred, are flouring online.   For example, there’s been growing attention on the rise of racist groups on social networking sites such as Facebook, where roups with names such as ‘get all the Paki’s out of England’ with hundreds of members, are common.   People in the U.S. take racism online (and off) much less seriously than people in Europe and other industrialized Western nations for a variety of reasons that I discuss at length in Cyber Racism.  Typical of the European attitudes is indicated by a British MP (Labour) Denis MacShane, who told The Daily Telegraph recently:

“The way you defeat extremism, intolerance, prejudice and racism is to atomise it and make people feel that even if they think racist thoughts they can’t say it openly. But websites like Facebook have unfortunately allowed people to come together in one space and say, ‘there are people out there like me’. That is something that worries me greatly. For all the good social networking sites do, they also allow people to express prejudice that in a civilised society should be kept under lock and key.”

Although I certainly agree that racism online is flourishing, I take issue with the way that this typically gets reported.   For instance, this Reuters story about the SWC report that’s being widely quoted in a variety of other news sources, starts this way:

“Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members….” [emphasis added]

Calling what happens with the growth of hate online “recruiting” is to misunderstand the way the Internet works.   People are not recruited into hate groups online any more than paying customers are recruited by sex workers (aka, prostitutes) on Craigslist.    This sort of discourse (“recruit”) is often used alongside words like “lure,” and this is often used when describing the oddly coupled threat of white supremacists and child pornography online.    When reporters and others talk about using the Internet to “recruit” or “lure” unsuspecting innocents online, they misperceive a fundamental feature of the Internet: the search engine.   People go online and search for information.  The reason online racism (and other forms of hate) are flourishing is because lots of people are searching for that sort of content, and a smaller group of people is creating racist content.

If we really want to do something collectively to address the growth of racism online, then we need to address the underlying appeal of racist content by those who create it and those who seek it out.

U.N. Anti-Racism Conference

eleanorroosevelthumanrightsThe U.N. anti-racism conference in Geneva adopted a consensus resolution yesterday that demands action against racism and xenophobia.  The resolution is not without controversy, however, and this rather lengthy post is meant to serve as a review of some of the key issues surrounding the controversy that developed it.  First, a little history.

U.N. Declares Freedom from Racism a Fundamental Human Right

The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed in 1948 largely due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured here holding a copy of the declaration, image in the public domain from Wikimedia), includes in it language that reads:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Article 2).

That commitment to human rights in general, and racial equality in particular led to a series of conferences sponsored by the U.N. on racism, the third of which was the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa.   This conference is widely referred to by the shorthand “Durban,” or the “Durban Racism Conference.”  That first conference was intensely controversial for the kind of extreme antisemitism it attracted, as the Christian Science Monitor recounts in a recent article:

Some pro-­Palestinian supporters passed out fliers containing a photograph of Hitler captioned, “What if I had won? There would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed.” Thousands of NGO delegates approved a document that branded Israel guilty of genocide, apartheid, and other war crimes.Then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson found the forum recommendations so toxic she refused to “forward” them on to the governments.

Yet, as the CSM goes on to point out, often forgotten is the fact that the gathered diplomats stripped out the most incendiary anti-Israel language even though it did make reference to “the plight of the Palestinian people,” a reference which many objected to as anti-Israel if not a veiled antisemitic attack.

Antisemitism & Racism: Disaster from Disaster

Given this context of overt and extreme antisemitism at the first Durban conference, the second conference had a lot of disadvantages at the start.  The second conference, known as the Durban Review Conference (April 20-24, 2009), is still in process and yet many have already declared it a “disaster,” such as 

“There has only ever been one United Nations conference on racism before and it ended in disaster. The second begins in it.”

Part of what prompts Ms. Philp to call the Durban Review “a disaster from disaster” is the extensive boycott by many of the invited nations, led by the U.S.:

“The boycott, begun by the United States and Israel, has snowballed so far across the Western world that any official international consensus on dealing with racism and xenophobia now looks near pointless. “

It’s true that the U.S. has led the way in undermining the Durban Review conference, and to the extent that this has been about taking a stand against antisemitism this is a very good thing.

In fact, the U.S. deciding to boycott the Durban Review was responding to the 2001 Durban resolution.  Here’s the CSM article again on this issue:

“In a statement released Saturday, the US State Department cited the 2001 Durban text in explaining its withdrawal from this conference. That document “singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” it said. And since the draft document for this meeting is based on the previous meeting’s, the US could not participate.”

And, as if there needed to be any more confirmation of the overt antisemitic intentions of some of the key players involved at the Durban Review, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech that was more a hate-filled screed than a stand against racism.  Clearly, what Ahmadinejad and other hate-mongers have done is seize upon this opportunity to fight racism in order to advance their antisemitic, (not to mention homophobic – but that’s another post -) and hate-filled agenda.   You can begin to see why some would call this conference a “disaster,” but I’m not quite ready to write it off.   

Protesting & Monitoring the Geneva Conference


Fortunately, Ahmadinejad’s intolerance did not go without protest and a number of world leaders, as well as NGOs and unaffiliated citizens, walked out of his speech (image of unidentified protesters in Geneva courtesy of DurbanReview).

In addition to the protests, some people have been closely monitoring the Geneva Conference.  For example, Andre Oboler launched on a news service April 2nd 2009 about the conference called DurbanReview (http://www.durbanreview.org/).   Durban Review is a volunteer project supported by a number of NGOs with people on the ground in Geneva and Oboler coordinating information and news gathering several time zones away in Australia.

One of the useful bits at DurbanReview is the piece on the sponsoring nations, aka “string pullers,” and Gregg Rickman’s piece on what’s problematic about this roster.

Hope for a Stand Against Racism and Antisemitism?

As Matt notes,  the conference started on Hitler’s birthday – certainly a bit of inauspicious scheduling on someone’s part – and yet he writes that despite that he’s heartened by the protests to antisemitism:

If people and nations are unwilling to accept antisemitism, there might be a chance to keep it from spreading. Perhaps the antisemites of the world will be radicalized, but if enough nations are willing, we can deal with that.

I agree, I do think there’s hope in that.  And,  I think that the example of being at the conference, and thus, being able to walk out on Ahmadinejad’s speech is more powerful than not attending the conference altogether. As Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, points out:

Nations that attended this conference in good faith proved that it’s possible to reaffirm the global commitment to fight racism, despite efforts to derail the process. The adoption of this document by consensus only a day after Ahmadinejad’s divisive speech is a clear message against intolerance.

To me, part of the real disaster here is that the extremists like Ahmadinejad have given the West, and particularly the U.S., a very good excuse to stay away from the conference and to continue the pattern of not participating in the global fight to combat racism.   Perhaps foolishly, I remain ever hopeful that this can change and the U.S. can, eventually, step up and do the right thing when it comes to fighting racism not just here but around the world.  And, the Geneva Conference still provides such an opportunity.

Following the passing of the resolution, de Rivero called for the governments that boycotted the UN racism conference to now endorse the conference declaration and thereby demonstrate their commitment to fight racism.   If the U.S. wants to stand against antisemitism and racism, it will heed this call and endorse the conference declaration.

Updated: You can download the Durban Review Conference Outcome Document here (.PDF).

Racism and Antisemitism 2.0 Allowed in the U.S.

The expression “Web 2.0” is used by those in the digital-know to refer to dynamic websites where anyone can post content to the site, rather than the old (“Web 1.0”) static brochure-like websites which function more as a one-way transfer of information from “producers” to “consumers.”   Web 2.0 marks a shift away from the old one-to-many model toward a many-to-many model in which everyone is both a producer and a consumer.   Typically, the examples of Web 2.0 are participatory sites like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (“which anyone can edit”), social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, video-sharing sites such as YouTube, and resource-sharing sites like Craigslist.

Now it seems racism and antisemitism have gone 2.0, and courts in the U.S. are allowing these trends to proceed unchecked.  The response in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the response in other Western industrialized nations.    A few examples from the Amsterdam-based International Network Against CyberHate (INACH) illustrate this trend. First up, is a recent court decision involving U.S.-based Craigslist:

“Recently, the well-known online classified site Craigslist.com was the center of a suit filed by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group filed the suit, stating it violated the Fair Housing Act when real estate ads ran displaying discriminating statements like, ‘no minorities’ and ‘no children.’  A judge in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Craigslist was not responsible for the listings as they were simply a messenger and should not be liable for the content of the ad.”

The judge in this case felt that it was an “impractical expectation” to suppose that Craigslist-staff could monitor ads at close watch, due to the “complexity of the task.” And, indeed, the model that founder Craig Newmark has developed, relies on an extremly small staff of people to run the site (fewer than 20 people) while users throughout the world do the bulk of the work of posting and responding to ads.   While other users on any Craigslist can “flag” a post as inappropriate, this is not the same as the owners of the site taking action to eliminate racist ads that are in clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.   In effect, the judge in this case has given Craigslist a free pass on racial discrimination because taking action would be “impractical” and “complex.”   In other words, it’s just easier to allow racial discrimination to continue than to figure out some way to address it.

Second, INACH cites examples of antisemitism from Facebook and YouTube:

More than 35,000 people have joined the Facebook group “Israel is not a country! … Delist it from Facebook as a country!” Type “Jew” into the search function on YouTube, and you’ll discover a host of anti-Semitic videos, including “911 Jew Spy Scandal 3” and a video clip in which National Polish Party’s Leszek Bubel declares himself a “proud anti-Semite.”

The article (re-posted from The Daily Titan) includes an interview with Andre Oboler, a post-doctoral fellow studying online public diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University, who says:

“This phenomena is spreading anti-Semitism and acceptability of anti-Semitism in new and increasingly effective ways.  Now in the Web 2.0 world, the social acceptability of anti-Semitism can be spread, public resistance lowered and hate networks rapidly established.”

And, perhaps just as troubling, those who might be most politically inclined to protest such actions are among the least likely to be engaged in Web 2.0 sites in meaningful ways.   As the article mentions, most of those heading progressive organizations have yet to sign up for a Facebook account, don’t spend much time on YouTube and aren’t all that sure what Google Earth is.  Oboler again:

“Community leaders tend to be the sort of people who are too busy to spend time looking at YouTube videos.  They are very, very focused on old media, which is a bit strange, since a lot of people their age are online.”

The attachment to (fetishization, even) of old media among progressives, whether community leaders or academics, does seem to be the prevailing norm and it is puzzling (and, perhaps the subject of another post).    The emergence of racism and antisemitism in the Web 2.0 era is perhaps not surprising given the prevalence of systemic racism that we talk about here often.  And, as defenders of an absolutist interpretation of free speech would be quick to argue, these sorts of racist, antisemitic expressions are regarded as “protected speech” here in the U.S.   But, I concur with the growing number of scholars who argue that hate speech causes harm and the defense of it as “protected speech” is one that values speech rights over human rights.

The acceptance of and tacit approval given these sorts of expressions within the U.S. stand in rather startling juxtaposition to the response by other Western industrialized nations, such as Germany.   Again, a recent (2/28/08) case from  INACH:

“Police in eight German states raided the homes of 23 suspects on Thursday as part of a lengthy probe into the illegal sale of right-wing extremist literature and audio material, the Federal Crime Office (BKA) said. A further 70 suspects had been identified in the investigation, which began in August 2006 after the German unit of U.S. online auction company eBay Inc. reported the sale via the Internet of far-right material, the BKA said. Twenty-four computers, around 50 memory devices and some 3,500 right-wing extremist CDs and LPs had been seized in Thursday’s raids, it added. ‘The measures are a continuation of … the fight against right-wing extremism on the Internet,’ the BKA said. ‘They show that the Internet is not a law-free zone and that online auctions are also checked from incriminating content.’ German laws ban Nazi emblems like the swastika but grant public funds to the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), whose followers implicitly back racist and some Nazi ideas.”

According to the report (originally from Reuters), the German government follows a so-called “four pillar” strategy against right-wing extremism established in 2002.  The “four pillars” include:  1) educate all citizens on human rights, 2) strengthen civil society and promote civil courage, 3) help integrate foreigners and 4) target suspected far-right extremists.  This kind of “four pillar” approach implies an acknowledgment of a connection between the values of a democratic, civil society and the protection of human rights of all citizens.  This approach also acknowledges the threat implicit in racist, antisemitic propaganda and attempts to subvert it before it results in real harm to real people.

Certainly, the value of freedom of speech should be protected.  The freedom of speech in the U.S. constitution (First Amendment) is intended to protect dissent from governmental oppression, and that surely is under attack by the current political regime.     Yet, freedom of speech must always be balanced against the need for equality and human rights protection (Fourteenth Amendment).  The U.S case law developing around expressions of racism and antisemitism in the Web 2.0 era seems to only consider be concerned with a rather narrowly absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment, while placing little or no value on the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law.   In my view, the “four pillar” approach that the Germans have adopted comes closer to balancing both the right to free speech and human rights.   As Web 2.0 becomes more and more pervasive, and with it, more expressions of racism and antisemitism, we are going to have to think in more complex and nuanced ways about how to respond to these challenges.

When Antisemitic “Pseudo-Science” Gets Tenured and Promoted to Full

There’s quite a controversy brewing within academic circles about a tenured full professor of psychology at Cal State U. Long Beach, Kevin McDonald, that raises important questions about the creation of knowledge, the academic enterprise and race. McDonald, who is an evolutionary psychologist, contends that Jews are a separate race driven by genetics and evolution to band together, both for “group survival” and to undercut white, Western culture. Further, he asserts that the Third Reich’s Nazi movement developed specifically to counter “Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy.” He claims to be “agnostic” about whether or not the Holocaust happened, and yet, testified on behalf of infamous Holocaust-denier, David Irving. Not coincidentally, McDonald says that he testified in support of Irving because he was motivated by a desire to defend academic freedom, not deny the Holocaust. Although McDonald includes a disavowal on his website that he does not “condone white racial superiority, genocide, Nazism or Holocaust denial,” his actions – and his research – suggest otherwise, as Scott Jaschik demonstrates in his piece in Inside Higher Ed (Feb.14). Jaschik points out that a favorable story about McDonald’s work appears on Vanguard News Network, a white supremacist website. And, in Heidi Beirich’s thoroughly devastating piece on McDonald for SPLC’s Intelligence Report, she notes that his work is more popular than Mein Kampf with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In fact, David Duke draws heavily on McDonald’s work for his own antisemitic and racist autobiography, My Awakening, and the condensed version, Jewish Supremacism. McDonald and AbernethyAnd, according to Beirich’s report, in 2004 white supremacists David Duke (former Klansman and Louisiana legislator), Don Black, Jamie Kelso (of Stormfront, the main online portal for white supremacy) and Kevin Alfred Strom (of the neo-Nazi National Vanguard) all attended a ceremony in which McDonald was honored by The Occidental Quarterly, a white supremacist journal. McDonald is pictured here receiving the award, alongside Virginia Abernethy, a self-described “white separatist.”

As you might expect, the controversy is widely being framed as an issue that tests the bounds of academic freedom. This is both an obvious, and a deeply problematic, way to frame this particular case. On the one hand, McDonald is an academic with tenure (and a promotion by his peers to full professorship) who has controversial and unpopular views and should, within the rules of the academy, be allowed to express those views.

On the other hand, framing McDonald’s vile “scholarship” as within the bounds of what is acceptable and even protected within the academy is deeply problematic given the context of his position within a public university with a commitment to human rights, diversity, and to offering an equal educational environment for all who enroll there. I’m generally quite critical of absolutist defenses of “free speech,” and am persuaded by critiques of the first amendment grounded in critical race theory.

Yet, I find this particular case vexing Continue reading…

Canada Skips UN Racism Conference Over Antisemitism

A couple of days ago, Matt commented on a post from back in September about antisemitism. His comment had me thinking about the relationship between antisemitism and racism, then this news comes from our neighbors to the north:

“Canada will not take part in a major United Nations conference on racism next year because the event is likely to descend into ‘regrettable anti-Semitism’, a top official said on Wednesday.”

Of course, this is all tied up with support of, and criticism for, Israel. I don’t know of any scholarly work that looks on these connections: between antisemitism and racism in the current political context of heated debates about what it means to support or criticize Israel. I’d love to learn something new about this. Matt mentioned a new book by Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton UP, 2007). I wonder if there are other titles to add to this reading list? Drop a reference in the comments, if you have one.

Bias and Redemption on the Q Train

I admit it. Trolling for news about racism can be a bit of a downer. And, when I first heard what happened on the Q train on the local television news last night, I was braced for the usual ka-thud of ‘bummer’ that runs through my head when hearing yet another news item about racism, hate crimes and anti-Semitism. I know, not very intellectually sophisticated, but there you have it.

And then, the story took an unexpected, Capra-esque, turn.

Short clips (2:40) from local tv affiliates are already up on YouTube. It’s definitely worth watching to the end for the redemption:

For those who’d rather skim than watch and listen, a young Jewish couple, Walter Adler and Maria Parsheva, got on the Q train and said “Happy Hanukkah” to the folks on the train. A group of white christians took exception, started getting aggressive, and one guy lifted up his shirt sleeve to reveal a tatoo of Jesus and said, “you killed him.” Very original. Then, the “Caucasians” (as they’re referred to throughout) started beating the crap out of the Jewish couple and no one did anything….until a Muslim guy from Bangladesh, Hassan Askari, stepped in, stopped the fight, and took a beating for his trouble. And, now Adler and Askari are friends (or, at least friendly); Askari attended a Hanukkah celebration with Adler. There are a number of memorable quotes, but this one, from the NYPost, sort of tickles me:

“A random Muslim guy jumped in and helped a Jewish guy on Hanukkah – that’s a miracle,” said Adler, an honors student at Hunter College.

There was no information included in the report about whether or not Adler had ever taken a sociology course. The other favorite quote from the clip is when Adler says that this is a “tragic step for New York City because we’re like the Mecca or the Jerusalem of multiculturalism.” I don’t know whether or not it’s a miracle, but it’s certainly an example of some pretty powerful individual agency to confront a decidedly nasty situation. As an act of resistance, it reminds me of the response in Billings, MT. to anti-Semitism, or, more recently, the pink t-Shirt response to homophobia from Nova Scotia. There are lots of lessons to be taken from this incident on the Q Train. And, since it’s finals week and the holiday season, I hope you’ll indulge me a little Capra-esque analysis and say that the lesson I’ll be taking away is this: it just takes one person, standing up and saying, no, not here, not in my town, not on this subway car, to make a difference.

Anti-Semitism Uptown

More nastiness coming out of Columbia University. Earlier this week, the noose, and now this reported in the New York Sun today:

Anti-Semitic vandalism was found in a bathroom at a Columbia University building yesterday, two days after a noose was found hanging on a black professor’s office, university and police officials said.

Peter Awn, a comparative religion scholar and Dean of General Studies at Columbia “distressing” in an e-mail to students yesterday.

“These kinds of hateful crimes directed against the Jewish community or any other individuals or groups will not be tolerated.”

I couldn’t agree more with Professor Awn’s statement. And, yet, can’t resist the opportunity to point out what a problematic word “tolerated” is. If we follow the semantic path set out here, we end up arguing for “no tolerance for intolerance.” We need new ways of talking about what it means to be “against” racism and anti-Semitism.

Neo-Nazis Arrested in Israel

And, as if to illustrate the previous post I made about the rise of anti-semitism globally, neo-Nazis have been arrested in Israel, the New York Times is reporting.

Eight young men, ages 16 to 21, were arrested between July 23 and Sept. 6 on charges of attacking “religious Jews, homosexuals, Asians and other foreigners.” All are immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

One police official quoted in the story speaks to the incredulity many of us feel at this story when he says: “It’s difficult to believe that Nazi-ideology sympathizers can exist in Israel, but it’s a fact,” Revital Almog, the police official who directed the investigation, told Israel Radio.

Police also reported that these neo-Nazis “had contacts with neo-Nazi groups abroad” but they don’t say how. I think it’s safe to assume that they were in contact via the Internet with these other groups. And, the police also found videos of the youths attacking their victims, which raises some interesting questions about hate crimes and spectatorship. Perhaps the original hate crime (attacking a victim based on identity) is only satisfying for the perpetrators if they can watch themselves enacting this violent display, or, more probably, watch others watching them in this position of power.

Anti-Semitism on the Rise Globally

Writing in the Washington Post today, Denis McShane reports that hatred of Jews has reached new heights in Europe and many points south and east of the old continent.

McShane headed up a blue-ribbon panel that issued a report which showed: “a pattern of fear among a small number of British citizens — there are around 300,000 Jews in Britain, of whom about a third are observant — that is not acceptable in a modern democracy. Synagogues attacked. Jewish schoolboys jostled on public transportation. Rabbis punched and knifed. British Jews feeling compelled to raise millions to provide private security for their weddings and community events. On campuses, militant anti-Jewish students fueled by Islamist or far-left hate seeking to prevent Jewish students from expressing their opinions.”