Talking about racism is hard when people – in particular, white people – don’t think it exists.
But in the space of a year, many white Americans seem to have changed their mind. According to a series of polls released this week, a majority of whites say that more change is needed to “give blacks equal rights with whites.” This is a drastic change from last year, when a Pew Research Center poll suggested that most believed that America had already done enough.
Of course, it’s easy to challenge racism in a poll, but not so easy to undertake the fundamental shifts in culture, policy and law that really move the needle. Poll shifts did not save the lives of Sandra Bland or Tony Robinson.
Instead, it may be more helpful to take these polls as evidence that more of America is paying attention to race – and maybe events of the past year have forced people to do so.
As we approach the Aug 9 anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, let’s remember the degree to which social media was part of what forced America to recognize racism – the indelible cultural moments that suddenly made us look in the mirror.
These aren’t the only times, and certainly none of them were so effective as to actually end racism – if that were the case, arguably, several victims of apparent police brutality might still be alive. Some of these may not have been important for your social circle (and in that case, we’d like to know what was transformative for you).
1. When the NBA invaded our living rooms with “political” T-shirts
In early December 2014, Kobe Bryant appeared on our television sets wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, referencing the last words of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in what looked to be a police chokehold on New York’s Staten Island. Bryant wasn’t alone – everyone from LeBron James to Jeremy Lin were sporting the shirts during pregame warmups.
This launched a national conversation about the place of racial “politics” in our daily lives. Street protesters across the country were intent on disrupting “business as usual” in America, and athletes were beginning to join in, interrupting our evening entertainment with a show of solidarity for a political movement.
------------ FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article referred to Orioles executive John Angelos as Peter Angelos. ------------
Many people were angry with this intrusion, and when unrest spread in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody – forcing the Orioles to play the White Sox to an empty stadium because of security concerns, the conversation began anew. This time, team officials responded more seriously: Orioles executive John Angelos wrote an extended essay on Twitter in support of the protestors, arguing that “inconvenience at a ballgame [is] irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.”
2. When #IfTheyGunnedMeDown blasted the media
After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. last August, socially active members of Twitter began to notice that the images of Brown that the media used were generally ones that made him look scary. In response, black users of social media asked: if I were killed by police, which photo of me would the media use?
#BlackLivesMatter was a force on social media long before this, but #IfTheyGunnedMeDown turned the focus back around to the media. It was a moment in which Black Twitter began to accuse the media of not only ignoring African Americans, but of actively harming them. Even for non-black audiences, the side-by-side juxtapositions were too compelling to ignore.
Since then, Twitter users have become even more vigilant, pointing out images that could sway the public’s opinion against shooting victims. A recent example, from the case of Sam DuBose, shot to death during a traffic stop in Cincinnati in July:
Citizen journalists urging mainstream media to “do better” has become commonplace.
3. When almost nobody read “The Case for Reparations”
Credit: The Atlantic
There’s a popular saying about proto-punk band The Velvet Underground: They may have only sold a few thousand copies in their early years, but every person who bought their record started a band. Under-appreciated by fans at the time, they turned out to be highly influential.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations may well be the political equivalent of that in the Internet age. Coates shifted the conversation from the time-worn topics of slavery and affirmative action to a methodical exposition of how blacks in America were stripped of their land assets in the century after the Civil War and categorically excluded, through housing policy, bank regulations and forced segregation, from the explosion of middle-class wealth-building that occurred after World War II.
At 16,000 words, the landmark piece might have been too long for the average millennial to digest in between sips of Starbucks and right (or left) swipes on Tinder. In fact, some thinkers suspect that most of the people arguing about it on the Internet haven’t even read it. But it made a deep impression on the news media, and may well have influenced a generation of policy makers. As NYMag.com put it, “the figure of the lonely radical writer is a common one. A writer who radicalizes the Establishment is more rare.”
At any rate, the public can no longer feign ignorance. Coates’ work is the elephant in the room. If we want to know the truth about the history of discrimination in the U.S., it’s right there waiting for us.
4. When the tanks rolled into Ferguson
Michael Brown was not the first young black man to be killed under questionable circumstances by a police officer, and he wasn’t the last. But when protesters arrived, the military might with which the Ferguson police department responded was unprecedented. As the U.S. Justice Department concluded, it was a failure.
For some, the protests were proof that activists were getting out of hand, and needed to be controlled. For others, the armed response was a chilling example of the state brutally oppressing its own people.
But no matter where you stood on racism, the sight of heavily armed troops with high-powered rifles and armored cars facing off against ordinary protestors was a clear sign that something was wrong. The conversation about race in America would never be the same.
5. When Obama said “Trayvon could have been me”
During his first term, Obama was relatively quiet on the topic of race. But when the Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Florida who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted, that reticence began to crumble. In the same speech that followed George Zimmerman’s acquittal, the President got personal, and talked about his own experience of being followed in a department store because of his race. This angered some on the right, who accused him of being divisive, or “playing the race card.” But it encouraged others. Since then, Obama has progressively let his guard down, commenting more proactively on race, and other social justice issues. So by the time Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., it seemed completely natural.
6. When we found Dylann Roof’s website
When Dylann Roof was charged with the murder of nine black people at a black church in South Carolina, mainstream America began to wonder if he shouldn’t be labeled a “terrorist” – a word that often seems to be reserved for Muslims.
Roof’s Internet presence forced many Americans to begin to question the very foundations of our country’s heritage, especially in the South. Before the shooting, Roof had taken pictures of himself posing with the Confederate flag, a symbol many white Southerners insisted had nothing to do with racism. That argument got turned on its head overnight, and not long after, in a moment many thought they’d never see, the Stars and Bars was pulled down from the South Carolina capitol grounds.
7. When America asked if cameras are enough.
Before the release of the video showing Eric Garner’s fatal struggle with police, many who had followed the events in Ferguson believed that surveillance of the police via dash cam, body cam and citizen cell phone would bring about change.
They may have been partially right. After a grand jury decided against indicting the officer involved in Garner’s death, a federal investigation was opened, with former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder citing the video specifically. For some people, this was proof that video was leading the push for change.
But for others, the fact that the officers were not indicted despite the video was proof that things were not changing. Since then, we’ve seen video of Walter Scott in South Carolina being shot as he ran, unarmed, from a police officer – who then dropped what looked like a Taser near his dead body, in what many believe was an attempt to make it look like Scott had grabbed the officer’s weapon. We’ve also seen body cam footage of an officer shooting Sam DuBose in the face during the traffic stop in Cincinnati. For some, the discrepancies between the police’s stories and the video evidence point to a deeper question – do we need something more than cameras to combat police brutality?
In the meantime, the Internet is watching, and the names of the deceased have been added to a list that has been circulating for some time:
The events of Ferguson were brought home to Los Angeles with the death of Ezell Ford, an unarmed, mentally ill man who was shot by LAPD. This occurred only days after Michael Brown was shot, and brought a sense of urgency to the community.
9. Just about every time Iggy Azalea opened her mouth
The question of white appropriation of black music is even older than Elvis, but a public feud between two rappers – the white Australian Iggy Azalea and black Harlem-raised Azealia Banks brought the conversation to a younger generation, and showed America once again that everything is political, even pop music.
Unlike Macklemore, who awkwardly apologized to Kendrick Lamar for “robbing” him of a Grammy, Iggy Azalea never really addressed black hip-hop fans who wondered why she was so involved in black pop culture, but not black political issues. Protesters staged a “die-in” at an Iggy concert at USC, and countless think pieces on white privilege were aimed at Iggy’s ability to affect a “black” accent in her raps but distance herself from black protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
This year, Iggy’s stock has plummeted, and a tradition of social media users holding artists accountable for perceived racism, sexism, or other bias has become even stronger.
Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.