Race and Anger Online
On January 11, armed assailants entered a Nordstrom Rack store in the Los Angeles area just after closing time. The police were called and surrounded the building, and the assailants held 14 people hostage for about two hours.
Despite the heavy police presence—a SWAT team was at the scene—the assailants escaped. Police later arrested five people, three suspects and two accused as accessories for allegedly aiding the suspects.
This was a shocking event for both the victims and members of the community. The store is located in an upscale shopping area with a state-of-the-art Cineplex and many shops and restaurants in an area with a relatively low crime rate.
As details of the event trickled out, it became clear that the break-in was more than just an attempted robbery, but an extremely violent incident. One hostage was raped, another stabbed, and another pistol whipped.
Community members were understandably outraged by the brutality of the crime, reflected by comments posted online following reports in the Los Angeles Times. Many expressed wishes for retribution, support for carrying concealed weapons, and sympathy for the victims.
Other comments expressed explicitly racist beliefs about the African American suspects.
“Take these negro’s (sic) out and hang them,” one commenter said. “Get the rope,” someone added. Another sarcastically commented, “I was really surprised when I found out they were black.” Both of these comments drew angry retorts from others in response, setting off debates about race and crime in the comment section of the online Times.
Editors removed several of the comments (seen at right and below from screen shots), but later more comments appeared with ample use of the n-word. Discussion turned away from the crime reported in the story to complaints about African Americans more generally: gang activity in predominantly African American communities, the belief that African Americans are loud and ill-mannered, and the notion that others should arm themselves to protect themselves against blacks.
The point of this post is not to explore the details of these comments (although if you want to check out stats on race and arrests in the U.S. you can go to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report; also see the National Crime Victimization Survey for stats on race and victimization), but instead to explore about how people talk about race online. Exchanges like the one on the Los Angeles Times site are part of our online social landscape, and of course the internet is rife with sites that promote hatred as well.
What can we learn from racially charged debates online?
If nothing else, exchanges about race are clear examples of how and why race still matters; race is still a highly charged issue in the U.S. Comments like those posted above remind us that racism did not end with the civil rights movement or electing and re-electing an African American president.
Before the Internet became the public forum that it is now, it might have been harder to believe that racism existed to the extent that it does. If you didn’t personally know anyone who made racially charged comments, it was easy to believe that only a small, extreme group felt that way. Just a few years back, when my classes touched on issues of race, many students truly believed that racism was a problem in the past, but that most people “knew better” today than to generalize about people based on race.
What often surprises me about comments left on this and other sites is that many of them are not made anonymously. As Facebook became more widely used, many sites began to require commenters to sign in so their comment includes their name and their picture. While people have the right to express these views, open expressions of racial antipathy are still a bit shocking.
That people harbor beliefs about others based on their race is one thing, but the need to share these beliefs with others indicates that racism is not just personal, but social. If you take a look at some of the comments in the images in this post, it’s clear that the writers are trying to convince one another of their points of view and to encourage others to view African Americans as they do. Racism is more than an individual attitude; it’s a collective process.
The comments expressing racial stereotypes are not just statements of facts as they see them, but angry statements. Rather than just thinking about racism as the result of a lack of knowledge or education, consider how these remarks show a connection between race and resentment. Sometimes this anger reflects resentment about crime, about gun laws, the job market, and other broader issues that go well beyond race itself.
In order to reduce and eliminate racism, we need to understand it is the result of more than an individual’s misperception or disordered thinking: racism is a process that is social and often rooted in other social issues. Nearly 45 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it is clear that we still have a way to go before we judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.