Even Our Online Activism Is Affected by Race

In early February, two police officers in Madison, Alabama, stopped 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel while he was taking a walk. When Patel couldn’t answer their questions because he didn’t speak English, one officer slammed him to the ground, leaving him paralyzed. Early morning on February 10, a young African-American trans woman named Penny Proud was shot and killed in New Orleans. Later the same day, three Muslim students—Deah Shaddy Barakat; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and Yusor's sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha—were executed at their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

It’s tempting to view these as independent, disconnected incidents, orbiting in separate solar systems. The victims shared neither culture nor religion nor geography. Patel had traveled from India to visit his son’s young family and help take care of his grandchild. Though little is known about Proud, she was, shockingly, the fifth trans woman of color killed this year in the United States. Syrian-born Barakat, his Palestinian wife Abu-Salha and her sister Razan were young students and philanthropists.

But these tragedies have one thing in common. The religious, cultural and ethnic demographics of the victims’ supporters in social media largely reflect the demographics of the victims.

Algorithms influence much of the information we receive online. Our online biographies and histories curate our Google search results and our Facebook newsfeeds. Twitter now also uses algorithms for specific purposes, but according to its website, “anyone who does a search for [a] hashtag may find your Tweet.” In other words, if a Twitter user clicks on a hashtag, all tweets identified with that hashtag will appear.

Given this, Twitter hashtags offer a fairly accurate and relatively unfiltered snapshot of who is talking about what. And though it can be challenging to identify people’s cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds on Twitter solely via profiles, it’s possible to approximate what types of individuals are speaking out for what causes. 

People of color, particularly Muslims, tweet and retweet about the deaths of Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters. Of the 50 most recent tweets on March 10 under the #ChapelHillShooting (excluding news media and organizations), approximately three-quarters derived from individuals with traditionally Muslim names or who identify as Muslim in their profiles. Eight percent of the tweets come from other individuals of color (identified primarily by their profile photos), with 16 percent either from people who are white or whose background is unidentifiable.

People of color, particularly South Asians, rally for #SureshbhaiPatel and express disgust at police retaliation for #walkingwhilebrown. Of the 50 most recent tweets on March 10 under #SureshbhaiPatel, 64 percent have traditional South Asian names, 14 percent represent other people of color (identified by profile photo) and the remaining 22 percent are from people who are white or whose backgrounds are unidentifiable. Though it’s difficult to gauge individuals who identify as trans on Twitter (unless it’s explicitly stated in their profiles) approximately 56 percent of the 50 most recent tweets on March 10 under #blacktranslivesmatter are tweeted by African Americans, 8 percent are from other people of color, and the remaining tweets are by people who are white or whose backgrounds are unidentifiable.

And the trend continues. In court documents filed earlier this month, the city of Cleveland declared that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was to blame for his own death last November. Rice was shot and killed while holding a pellet gun by police officer Timothy Loehmann. The vast majority of recent outraged tweets falling under #BlackLivesMatter and #TamirRice are composed by people of color, particularly African Americans.

It should come as no surprise that exchanges in social media, the virtual water cooler for breaking news, are often divided along racial lines. According to a Pew study, “Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown ‘raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.’”

And though many compassionate individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, ally themselves with marginalized populations and protest against injustices, at least on Twitter, empathy often appears to resemble an act of separatism. Our anger, our devastation and our grief remain as segregated as the South during Jim Crow. We may theoretically agree with the words of anti-Nazi Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist…Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

But our actions fail to follow through.

Why do we reserve our loudest voices for victims who resemble the people who belong to our own communities? And why do these delineations persist when so many people have access to online platforms, eliminating geographic barriers to come together? (There are 288 million monthly active Twitter users and over one billion monthly active Facebook users.)

Our instincts to protect our own may reflect Derrick Bell’s “interest convergence dilemma” which argued, in a comment about Brown v. Board of Education, that whites would only protect blacks if whites could also benefit in some way. Perhaps this desire to profit off of protest drives all identity groups, so much so that we don’t feel it’s worth the time or energy to condemn violence, if somewhere down the line, the exposure of injustice won’t advance our own safety, security or status in the world.

Dawn Belkin Martinez is a lecturer at the school of social work at Boston University and the author of the book, Social Justice in Clinical Practice. She examines how dominant worldview messaging influences how people perceive information. “Even though social media has done a wonderful job of facilitating the process of organizing marches and protests, we’re still victims of individualism. We think in terms of ‘I’m on my own. What happens to the Muslims doesn’t affect me.’ It’s a powerful message that’s internalized by the mass culture.”

Martinez is optimistic, though, that social media is beginning to break down these barriers and will play an important role in the future. Though she adds, “It’s going to take a lot of time before more people begin to advocate beyond their subgroup.”

Celina Su agrees. As the Gittell Chair in Urban Studies at City University of New York, she examines political participation and engagement. “Unless incidents [of bigotry or hate] are thoroughly covered in different forms in the mainstream press,” algorithms of websites like Google and Facebook, which reflect our own communities, “will continue to constrain our segregated landscapes and our segregated social networks.”

According to Su, right now social media primarily offers safe spaces within communities. We don’t yet organize with allies through “thoughtful deliberation” between communities, she says. “If we want to build solidarity with people who don’t immediately look like ourselves, we need to begin highlighting notions of intersectionality and similarities,” like envisioning a person as a grandfather, mother or brother. Su says the website Humans of New York succeeds in this, by portraying individuals who may superficially seem different, but who represent parts of our communities. “We need to humanize people and be able to relate to them,” she says. A second, important step, she adds, is to tie these individual stories to larger social structural problems and solutions.

Perhaps it’s time to hurry this process along, to transcend our physical, spiritual or economic characteristics when it comes to social media social justice. An African-American trans woman, three young Muslims and an Indian man probably have more in common with each other, and with us, than it seems on the surface. And the best, most just way to honor them is to grieve for their suffering, collectively, with one unified breath.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.