Cyber Racism in High School

Cyber racism, and panic about these threats, spread across a high school in Louisiana last week.  Facebook messages threatening violence against black students at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, Louisiana led to increased campus security, hundreds of parents taking children out of school early and concerns that the situation could strain race relations among the school’s students.  The threats, which contained racial slurs, references to lynchings and some names of potential targets, were posted on a Facebook page belonging to “Colins John” according to reports from students. Word quickly spread among students, parents, school administrators and authorities late Tuesday night about posts made by, whose profile picture featured a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.  The threats also caused about half of the 1,200 students to leave before the end of the school day Wednesday. Another 200 did not go to school at all.

But the racist threats were not posted by any member of the KKK, nor by any member of a white supremacist organization.   The next day, a 17-year-old student at the high school, who is also black, confessed to creating the threatening Facebook page.  The student is now charged with terrorizing, cyber stalking, hate crime and theft of utility service. He is being held in jail without bond.

Individual Acts of Cyber Racism.  This is not the first time that an individual young person, not affiliated with any kind of a hate group, has engaged in an individual act of cyber racism.  In my book, I talk about the case of Richard Machado, then a student at UC-Irvine, who used the student directory’s pull-down menu of names to select emails of students he designated as having “Asian-sounding” names.  He then sent an email to a list of students saying that he was going to kill all of them.  Machado’s crime was newsworthy because he used the Internet to send threatening hate messages and there were unique technological features of this crime.  And, there are lessons from the Machado case for the Louisiana case.

The fact that the student accused in the Louisiana case is African American and that Machado (a recently naturalized American citizen from El Salvador) suggests some important elements about how race and racial identity figure into cyber racism.  Machado was not, according to published accounts, involved in an organized white supremacist group, nor was he known to have visited white supremacist sites online.    Similarly, the young student in Louisiana was not a member of any organized hate group and is African American.  Yet, the language of Machado’s email and the high school student’s Facebook page clearly contained quite literally worded hate speech.

White Racial Frame. One explanation for this type of action is that both these young men, no less than most other people in the U.S., have adopted the dominant white racial frame.  Part of what’s useful about this theoretical framework is that it situates individual racist actions, like these, within a larger system of racial oppression rather than in either individual identity (not only whites adopt the white racial frame) or individual pathology of racial prejudice tied to a personality disorder.  Neither of these young men needed to have been white to engage in individual acts of white supremacy online.   Nor, did either need to be mentally ill to engage in such acts, and there is no indication from the published accounts that either is mentally unstable.  Instead, they merely needed to grow up in the U.S.  and adapt to the dominant culture’s white racial frame.

Emails, and Facebook Pages, that Wound.
Placing the victims’ story at the center of an analysis of hate speech via email or Facebook, as critical race theorists suggest,  is difficult because of the way this story and others like it are reported in the mainstream news accounts.  Press accounts mainly leave out the perspective of those who are the targets of hate speech.  In the Louisiana case, we get some limited reports that students (and their parents) were frightened and left school (or didn’t attend), but there aren’t interviews with any of these students.    In the Machado case, the the UC-Irvine students included on his list of recipients for the hate-filled email messages appear nowhere in the public record of reporting about the story.  So, mainstream press accounts are also written from within the white racial frame and thus leave out the systemic pattern of virulent racism that might offer more context and understanding about the impact of such online speech.   In California, Asian students on UC campuses have been targets of virulent anti-Asian telephone calls, graffiti and e-mail at the time of Machado’s attacks.  In Louisiana, anti-black racism has a long history, much of it interwoven with Klan history, and that might be enough for some parents to keep their children home from school upon hearing about KKK-themed threats on Facebook.

The Myth of Online Anonymity. Many people believe that when you’re online, you’re completely anonymous.   There’s a rather famous (in computer-geeky-circles) New Yorker cartoon from the early Internet era that shows a dog, sitting at a computer keyboard, the caption reads, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In many ways, that notion of anonymity on the Internet – that “nobody knows you’re a dog” – is a myth.  And, it’s a myth that fuels these sorts of individual acts of cyber racism because people think that they can’t be identified when they’re online.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.   The casual Internet user is completely track-able online.  Covering your digital footprints takes pretty high level skills that most of us don’t possess.

The high school student in Louisiana confessed to creating the hate-filled Facebook page, but not before law enforcement found him.    They did this through a coordinated effort. The local sheriff’s office in this case worked with the state Attorney General’s Office and the Louisiana State Police during the investigation.  They requested information from Facebook’s corporate offices, as well as from Yahoo and Charter Communications (an Internet Service Provider) to determine the identity of the Facebook poster and make an arrest.  So, just as this form of hate speech can be facilitated through the Internet, it can also be countered through the same technologies.

The way that Machado was ultimately caught also reflects some of the possibilities of the Internet for addressing cyber racism.   Upon receiving the racist hate email, several students responded with email of their own to the Office of Academic Computing (OAC).   The staff at the OAC was able to identify Machado as the sender by tracing the emails he sent using SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol).  Then, they identified the lab and located the individual computer from which they were being sent.   When staffers went to this machine, they found Machado still sitting at that particular computer in the lab, and asked him to leave. Surveillance cameras in the computer lab later confirmed that Machado was in fact the person responsible for the threatening email messages.    Part of what this technological hate-crime-busting story suggests is that there are ways to address such individual acts of cyber racism, if there is a will and an effort to do so.  Mostly, in the U.S., there isn’t a will to do anything about such acts.

The Usual Suspects. Machado was the first person convicted of a federal hate crime via the Internet in the United States. The fact that Machado was convicted of a hate crime involving the Internet reveals some features of the law and the Internet in the U.S.    Within the U.S., the only time speech online loses its First Amendment (“speech”) protection is when it is joined with conduct that threatens, harasses, or incites illegality.   Yet, this case suggests that the law does not appear to be consistently applied to all people in the U.S.  The fact that prosecutors vigorously pursued the Machado case, and seem to be pursuing the Louisiana high school student, is consistent with the rest of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in which minority men are viewed as inherently suspect and differentially arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.  So, even when it comes to cyber racism, it’s black and brown men who are regarded as the usual suspects.

Cyber Racism on College Campuses

Racism on college campuses these days often spreads through email or via popular social networking sites, such as Facebook.  This new medium for racist expression is forcing universities to reconsider what it means to provide a safe space on campus for all students.  My research on cyber racism indicates that this is a growing problem in the U.S., and a recent incident at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UM-D) illustrates a few of the relevant issues.


Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Chris Campbell

Here’s what happened at UM-D.  Two first year students, self-described white girls, began a Facebook wall conversation after an African-American classmate entered the room where they were studying.  More on what they typed to each other via the local news in Duluth:

One of the posts read, “ewww a obabacare (sic) is in the room, i feel dirty, and unsafe. keep a eye on all of your valuables and dont make direct eye contact….i just threw up in my mouth right now …”

In another post, one of the women wrote, “were two white girls..she already has her (N-word) instinct to kill us and use us to her pleasure …”

In the past, this sort of conversation between two white students might have happened in handwritten notes passed in class.   While some may view such overt expressions of racism a thing of the past, overtly racist comments often occur – even today – in the “backstage” (white-only space), as research by Leslie Pouts-Hicca and Joe Feagin demonstrates.  Social media has changed all that now.   As more white people spend time online, they forget that the comments they think they’re making in the “backstage” (white-only spaces) are easily made public and shared in the “frontstage” by people who do not share their views (or, have other agendas).   As more of these expressions of overt racism come to light, it forces all of us to decide again and again what is socially acceptable and what isn’t, especially on college campuses.  The question for colleges and universities is also what can and should be done about incidents like this one?

Many people, like the young man quoted in this article, think that:  “If you really do believe in free speech, they shouldn’t be punished.” But “free speech” is not that simple.  There are a couple of issues here.

First, the UM-D  has an “anti-hate” policy which the white girls clearly violated.

Second, the framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t have Facebook in mind when they were drafting the First Amendment to protect free speech.   No one has a constitutionally protected right to be on Facebook.   If you use Facebook, you have to abide by their Terms of Service (TOS) agreement which prohibits overtly racist speech (although it’s only sporadically enforced).   If ‘we’ – all of us, users of Facebook – allow it there, we’re condoning a return to overt racism of Jim Crow.

In my view, the white girls at UM-D who racially harassed their African American classmate deserve some kind of punishment from the university.  To address this sort of behavior, I want to suggest that ‘human rights’ is a better, more useful frame for dealing with cyber racism than ‘censorship’ and ‘free speech.’

There are no reports that I’ve been able to find (interesting fact in itself) about what the African American student who was the target of this racism has to say.    I’ll bet that her experience of college life (+ life in general) has been damaged in some way by this run-in with her two white ‘friends.’   At the very least, she has a new awareness of that her college campus is just a little less ‘safe’ from racism than it was before.  In some ways, it’s not surprising that this African American student’s story is not being reported.  As critical race scholars have pointed out, the ‘victims’ story is almost never told. Our understanding of “free speech” shifts when we listen to these stories.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that a burning cross is *NOT* protected speech (Virginia v. Black). Part of that ruling declared that a “burning cross has no value in a democracy” because it is not meant to be a discussion, but it’s a symbol meant to racially terrorize a group of people.  (Today, 14 states have anti-cross burning laws.)   So, not all speech counts as “protected speech,” and the Supreme Court has already ruled that racist speech in the form of a burning cross, can be ruled illegal.   Given the rise of social media, the question becomes: what constitutes a burning cross in the digital era?

I think what those white girls did on FB was akin to cross burning in the digital era.   That kind of speech is harmful and it has no value for democracy.

There are real, material consequences from racism.  Children who experience racial discrimination feel psychological stress that may lead to depression.   Likewise, there are real, material consequences from  actions that seem to be exclusively digital. The tragic case of Phoebe Prince, who was harassed online and offline (and called an “Irish slut”) and then took her own life is a case in point.  Perhaps not surprisingly, minority college students report more experiences of online bias than do whites.

Yet, whites like these two white college students at UM-D, say overtly racist online and very few step up to challenge them because of misplaced belief in what kind of speech the First Amendment protects.  Americans are quick to say “free speech” (1st amendment) is an ideal that trumps equal protection under the law (14th amendment), but most other democracies see “speech” and “equal protection” as two values that always need to be balanced against each other.   I discuss this argument at length in my book Cyber Racism – which I wrote in many ways as challenge to (white) liberal friends who often seem hamstrung by misunderstandings of the first amendment and free speech.  The solution is not to abandon free speech as principle, but to shift the discussion to a consideration for how we balance the 1st and 14th amendments, balance between free speech and equal protection.

Given this re-framing of “free speech,” it seems clear to me that a college campus should be a place where we want to protect all of our students from the intentional infliction of emotional distress at the same time we encourage a lively exchange of ideas.

Colorblindness Linked to Racism Online and Off

An important and path breaking new study links colorblind racial ideology to racism online and off.  The study, 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.

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.

To conduct the study, Tynes and Markoe showed 217 ethnically diverse college students images from racially themed parties and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s Facebook or MySpace page.   Fifty-eight percent of African-Americans were unequivocally bothered by the images, compared with only 21 percent of whites. The majority of white respondents (41 percent) were in the bothered-ambivalent group, and 24 percent were in the not bothered-ambivalent group. n the written response portion of the study, the responses ranged from approval and nonchalance (“OMG!! I can’t believe you guys would think of that!!! Horrible … but kinda funny not gonna lie”) to mild outrage (“This is obscenely offensive”).

The students also were asked questions about their attitudes toward racial privilege, institutional discrimination and racial issues. Those who scored higher on the measure were more likely to hold color-blind racial attitudes, and were more likely to be ambivalent or not bothered by the race party photos.  Respondents low in racial color-blindness were much more vocal in expressing their displeasure and opposition to these images, and would even go so far as to “de-friend” someone over posting those images.

Tynes’ research also revealed an incongruence of reactions among white students that she’s dubbed “Facebook face,” which she explains in an interview:

“To their friends, they would express mild approval of the party photos or just not discuss race,” Tynes said. “But in private, in a reaction that they thought their friends wouldn’t see, some students would let us know that they thought the image was racist or that it angered them. We think that it’s because whites have been socialized not to talk about race.”

According to Tynes, a color-blind racial attitude is the prevailing racial ideology of the post-Civil Rights era, and is the view that seeing race is inherently wrong:

“If you subscribe to a color-blind racial ideology, you don’t think that race or racism exists, or that it should exist. You are more likely to think that people who talk about race and racism are the ones who perpetuate it. You think that racial problems are just isolated incidents and that people need to get over it and move on. You’re also not very likely to support affirmative action, and probably have a lower multi-cultural competence.”

Since a color-blind racial ideology is associated with endorsement of the racial theme party photos, Tynes says that mandatory courses on issues of racism and multicultural competence are necessary for students from elementary school through college.

Tynes, who recently was awarded a $1.4 million grant to study the effects of online racial discrimination by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said that along with the role children and adolescents play in producing online hate, her inspiration for the study was the numerous racially themed parties that occurred on college campuses across the country in 2007 and the resultant blowback when images from the parties were posted on Facebook and MySpace.

Facebook Racism Reaches New Low with Assassination Poll

I’ve written here before about the various permutations of Facebook racism. Over the weekend, it appears that Facebook racism reached a new low with a poll asking “should obama be killed?” Here’s the screen grab from TPM:


The response categories available for those who clicked on the poll to take it were: “yes, maybe, if he cuts my health care, no.”     The good news, if one were looking for it in this story, is that the poll has been removed from Facebook and, according to Greg Sargent at WhoRunsGov, the U.S. Secret Service is investigating.

So much for social media offering a new path to world peace and an end to racism.

The fact this sort of thing appeared on Facebook is connected to the rise in death threats against President Obama (up 400%) and the kind of vitriolic hate speech spewed by radio and tv-talk show hosts such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly.   This sort of speech creates an environment in which extremists are emboldened to act and ‘lone wolf’ assassins feel empowered by the collective hatred of the president.  This kind of speech is rooted in racism and clearly threatens the life of the president.  There can be no first amendment defense for such speech and legal action should be taken against those who created and published this poll.

More Facebook Racism

I’ve written here before about Facebook Racism, the rise of various forms of racism at the incredibly popular social networking site (SNS).  According to a report from 2008, Facebook currently has something like 120 million active users and is an established feature of the youth culture.   While some have touted social media in hyperbolic terms like providing a “new path to world peace and end racism,” there are some stark realities about Facebook that run counter to that sort of exuberance.

In terms of demographics, people are just not “mixing” or intermingling across racial lines in significantly different ways than they do offline.  Recently, danah boyd gave a talk that highlighted the sociodemographic divisions between Facebook and rival SNS, MySpace, noting that those on Facebook are “part of what we’d call hegemonic society, [and] primarily white, but not exclusively” while those on MySpace are more often Latino/Hispanic.

Whites who are on Facebook — which was created at Harvard (and once, a Harvard-only space) — often have the illusion that they are talking in the “backstage” in a private, whites-only space.   Take for example, a woman named Lee Landor who, until very recently, worked as the deputy press (!!) aide to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (kind of like a mini-mayor).  Landon resigned her job due to a series of Facebook posts and comments she made related to the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (written about here elsewhere extensively).  Landor on Facebook said some things that are not that different from some of the comments we’ve seen here at this blog, for instance:

“You know what, I am really getting SICK of hearing about how white people are evil racists. Black people, Hispanic people, Indian people, Asian people, whoever, are being over-the-top racists in recent weeks, as highlighted in the media since the Sotomayor-New Haven issue.”(Screenshots of her comment available here.)

Landon also called President Obama “O-Dumb-a” while saying that Gates was the racist (h/t @Gothamist via Twitter).

And, of course, there are the racist and antisemitic groups that sponsor ‘group pages’ on Facebook, that the owner/administrators seem reluctant to address.

Perhaps more disturbing than all this (and, it’s plenty disturbing), is the way that racism is being built into the interface at Facebook with the help of Microsoft.  A few days ago, I received an email from a blog reader.  He said that while searching for a friend’s using a last-name-search (the last name was close to the word “RACE”), a racist ad showed up that is powered by the new Microsoft’s new search enging Bing. The reader sent a screen grab, and here it is:


Here, in case you can’t see the circled text, is an advertisement within the Facebook interface to a site that offers visitors “Ni**er” jokes.  Here’s the closeup of that ad:


Now, the way these ads on Facebook work is that Bing (product of Microsoft) pays Facebook for the space on the right there.  Then, Bing has a collection of advertisers that they will place on Facebook.  The software at Facebook runs an algorithm (computer program) to match the ads on the right with whatever terms you type into the little search window space.

The point is, the racist text there is not just something that Facebook and/or Bing accidently “turned up.” This ad was payed for (by the people that run the “Ni**er” jokes site), and the companies of Bing and Facebook profit from that. Bing actually gets money when someone clicks on that ad, and they have a clear responsibility there.   Someone at Bing (or Facebook) either approved or, at the very least, failed to block the ad (thanks to David Brake for this point).

The reader who sent this to me is diligently trying to track down someone at Bing and/or Facebook to take responsibility and take action, but that turns out to be a daunting task.  So, here’s my bit to help out – posting this here.  You can help by linking to this post, sharing it with friends, and spreading the word.