Race in Public Space

Racism and particularly the way racism is reflected in our society is a tough subject – something I’ve explored in my private and professional life as a member of the media, trying to ensure that I see as many points of view as possible. I helped cover the Ferguson unrest and remember the case well. I agree 100% that the issue raised critical questions about how black people and white people relate to each other and also how the people in the power structure (like police) relate to people of different races. Because Colin offered up the Ferguson example as a lens into this issue, though, I have to say that I think it is problematic. If we assume that Ferguson was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, then we have to recognize that the movement was built on a lie. Brown never said “Hands up Don’t Shoot” and even after it was exposed as a lie by the grand jury investigation, organizations continued to use it. As Jonathan Capehart (who was also quoted in the Atlantic article) wrote in March of last year, “this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger ‘Black Lives Matter.’But we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.” What does this have to do with the subject? It points out the need to remove false narratives on both sides. Anyone who has looked at the statistics would agree that this country treats blacks and whites differently in the justice system. Black people are given harsher penalties for lower-level offenses and not given the same kind of support when they are incarcerated or when they get out. But when the Brown case became national news, it feels like people with an agenda used it as a platform to discuss a real issue despite the fact that the case itself didn’t fit the narrative. That’s not to say that there haven’t been plenty of instances that I believe are =more= effective and pointing out the problem of how black people are treated in society, particularly at the hands of the police. Tamir Rice was a kid with a plastic gun. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes. Sandra Bland died under unexplained circumstances after being taken into police custody for pretty much no reason. So did Freddie Gray. Mike Brown on the other hand was reaching for a police officer’s gun when he was shot. Big difference. I’m trying to bring this back to the point about social media so I guess the point is this. When I learned what really happened with Brown, I wondered (as Jonathan Capehart did in his article), why the Black Lives Matter movement fails to treat each incident as something separate and specific.  Some opinion columnists have done the same thing. When the races exist in largely separate spaces online, it is even more incumbent for both sides to be transparent about what is being said and why it’s being said (even moreso if you are trying to convince someone of something). I have to admit that in investigating the Ferguson unrest and what has come after, I rarely go to online communities to take people’s temperatures because, too often, the temperatures are so high that no one seems to want a discussion – just a place to vent their opinion. That said, after reading this, I realize that much of our television coverage was driven by people that spent day after day on the ground in Ferguson and I =did= get to speak to them and read their posts. Many of them are African-American. The views they came away with many times supported what we saw – that the community was incensed and largely had a right to be – years of issues with police had apparently culminated in this incident. However, I also benefited from the fact that I was able to talk to those people – probing them for context and getting an idea of where their points-of-view are coming from. I find it difficult to “discuss” an issue like race through online communities simply because it is more of a he-said, she-said situation rather than a discussion. I wonder if other people, particularly younger people, feel the same way….

Interesting to read about the self-segregation of the Internet. I had no idea that your choice of Facebook or MySpace had a racial element, but to be honest, I’ve never even entertained MySpace as an option. I thought it was simply outdated as a form of social media. Like Ms. Boyd says, it’s not really surprising. We learned in our other readings that people gravitate toward online communities that reflect their interests and interests can most definitely be colored by our culture. I’m not sure about the idea that this represents “white flight” – what if kids see MySpace (as I did) as an outdated medium?  What if the determining factor was that African-American kids were less inclined to change the online media platforms than white kids were?  Boyd obviously did a ton of work in trying to identify the patterns here but I have to wonder if this was a case of evidence being used to fit a predetermined outcome. She herself says she questioned whether she could draw generalizations from the data and noted that racial and ethnic divisions looked messy. The fact that MySpace began as a site more popular in urban areas and with hip-hop kids seems itself to underscore why it remained the more popular site about minorities (who share those characteristics).  Kids that identify with subculture and urban culture were the target for MySpace. The fact that kids in that environment, who probably come from lower income homes and therefore may not have the same college opportunities, are with MySpace may not have anything to do with consciously selecting a social media site – instead it may simply be that that was the one they grew up with and were comfortable with – the nature of their demographic simply being a correlation rather than causation. That said, I’m simply playing devil’s advocate. Clearly, Boyd has a lot of information on her side. I agree that teens tend to separate each other into groups and I think it’s always been that way – jocks, geeks, metalheads (that’s where I was).  Maybe it’s just kids’ immature way of taking stock of people – a shortcut to try and get an idea of what people are about while they’re still young enough to think that people fit neatly into boxes. Yes, race and ethnicity is one of those boxes, but as Boyd points out, there are many. I remember that when I was in high school and college, I took pride in the fact that I was friends with people of all races. Instead, for me, I separated myself from others by class and, for lack of a better term, style (I was a jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and long hair kid). Kids that were in the wealthier end of the spectrum simply didn’t find their way into my group of friends and I didn’t find my way into theirs. I think that had something to do with our interests perhaps – but also that we simply didn’t live similar lifestyles. I had more in common, for instance, with the black kid that lived in the lower-middle class section of town than I did with the kid who lived in a mansion and went skiing every weekend. Or at least I felt I did.

Back to the websites. I noticed in going to MySpace that while at first blush I felt that it skewed more toward black/urban culture, it is actually varied. On the front page, I found stories/videos about a Christian Pop-fusion band, Eminem, Princess Diaries 3, Rihanna, the show “Arrested Development” and the NBA. I’m not sure who that is geared toward. I assume the answer is everyone.

I am on Facebook and have never had an account on MySpace. I guess I would say the reason is that everyone else I know is on it, underscoring what Boyd found – that going where your friends are is a significant factor in which site you use. I don’t look down on people on MySpace (although I don’t know any). I have not found a separation of races there or noticed an overload of “white” culture, although as the internet has grown, it sends me more and more ads/videos that reflect my own interests and since I’m white….  That said, I don’t know anyone at all that uses MySpace, although I seem to recall friends talking  about it in the dim recesses of my memory from maybe a decade ago. By the way, I think the age of this article may be a factor here as well. The paper was written in 2011, just two years or so after MySpace reached its peak (76 million monthly unique users according to ComScore). Now its down to about 50m. As of the fourth quarter of 2015, Facebook had nearly 1.6 billion monthly active users. In December of 2008 when MySpace hit its peak, Facebook was at about 100 million, so they were roughly on par. That’s no longer the case. What led to the demise of MySpace? It could be an interesting point of research elsewhere…  According to this article, it was the mass advertising (including unpleasant weight loss ads and the like) and the site’s owners attempt to innovate everything themselves and essentially going too fast and not checking to see what was resonating with their audience. The article =does= point out the safety issue (as Boyd does) as a problem that hurt the site – but does not specifically mention its inability to expand its cultural identity. I wonder if that was a factor….

I appreciate that Boyd includes the last piece of the paper in which she attempts to draw parallels between white flight in reality and white flight online. I’m still not convinced that race was the driving factor of the move from one site to the other, but I agree with what she points out – that access that was initially only for the educated, that one site seemed to exemplify safety while the other represented a kind of danger does have parallels between the suburbs and urban decay of a few generations ago. As she points out, the metaphor “only partially works”.

All this is not to say that this paper is invalid in the way that it describes racial segregation online. There is no question in my mind that people of various races tend to favor certain sites over others – specifically ones that appeal to their particular interests. However, I will conclude with this. While Boyd does a lot of work to describe how the sites are different, I would have been interested in more research about what whites and blacks discuss when they are on the same social sites – what aspects of it are universally appreciated or tend to be favored by people of both races. Such information could help other sites – particularly social media sites – be more culturally inclusive.


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