After President Obama was re-elected last Tuesday, there was the predictable racist apoplexy from the knuckle-draggers on Twitter who wanted to voice their disgust. It was vile and stupid, but it’s hard to argue that spitting “nigger!” into Twitter’s river of digitized id has any real-world consequence. All you could really do is laugh at the horrible spelling and twisted logic and K.I.M.
But the day after the election, Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey decided to put some of those offenders on blast in a slideshow, in what was presumably an attempt to shame the tweeters. (Morrisey left their names and Twitter handles unobscured.) There was something about both the execution and tone of that post and the comments section that felt both cynical and self-congratulatory — look at how not-racist we all are, guys! 1 And perhaps not coincidentally, this kind of stuff clicks really well.
But what Morrisey did later in the week was even more self-aggrandizing, if not completely unethical. After locating some of the teenagers who went on their ignorant tirades, she contacted their schools to inquire if administrators knew about their students’ Twitter comments, inquired about their schools codes of conduct, and needled them to determine how, exactly, they might go about punishing those students. Many of the schools said they knew about the tweets, but most understandably declined to specify whether or how they were disciplining their students. A bunch of the kids deleted their accounts. Others said, unconvincingly, that they’d been hacked.
“We contacted their school’s administrators with the hope that, if their educators were made aware of their students’ ignorance, perhaps they could teach them about racial sensitivity,” Morrissey told Double X.
Word? Really? What would “teaching them about racial sensitivity” look like to her in practice? Why does Morrissey assume these kids’ schools are even equipped to help them unlearn their racism? (Because if those schools were any good at it…) Why is that her (or Jezebel’s) responsibility to make sure that happens? How does a heavily trafficked website tattling on a bunch of ignorant-ass teenagers amount to effective anti-racism? Obviously, those kids shouldn’t be protected from the consequences of their speech — that’s part of the “free speech” tradeoff — but this strikes me as different than, say, alerting someone at a corporation that an employee of theirs was publicly saying racist things.
There’s been some comparison between this and Adrian Chen‘s much-discussed outing on Gawker of Michael “Violentacrez” Brutsch, the notorious and influential Reddit troll. (Jezebel and Gawker have the same parent company.) But that doesn’t quite work. In posting voyeuristic creepshots of underage girls and creating an environment amenable to their posting, Brutsch was actively violating scores of very specific people, even though his skeeviness was nominally legal. It was also protected and emboldened by Reddit’s employees — this grown-ass man’s personal misogyny was given institutional weight and sanction by one of the Internet’s most popular websites. There are much more serious consequences for people on the business end of his animus than there are for a bunch of 16-year-olds with a handful of Twitter followers. I think this also holds true for why the outing of Stephanie Grace, the Harvard Law School student who argued that black people were natively intellectually inferior to whites, was justifiable. At the time, Grace had just landed a prestigious clerkship on an appellate court, which means, like Brutsch, there were potential serious real-world implications for her opinions.
But the more vexing problem with Morrissey’s stunt — and this is a thread that runs through a lot of our public conversations about race — is that it bolsters the idea that racism is a terrible personal failing that can be corrected through sufficient public shaming. This notion of racists-as-evil is so pervasive that few people who readily espouse bigoted beliefs would recognize those ideas as racist; unsurprisingly, people don’t like to think themselves monsters. And so our conversations about racist behavior and racism writ large get frustratingly bogged down in trivia about how churchgoing Suzie is or Connor’s friendly rapport with his Hispanic teammates. The burden of proof for racism has become so high that even people who hang effigies of the black president don’t think they rate.
Shame has serious drawbacks as a tool for curbing racism because so much of the way racism works isn’t “personal.” My hunch is that the number of New York City police officers who said something racist to the 687,000 people they stopped and frisked last year — nine out of 10 of whom were black or Hispanic — is actually pretty small. Their personal feelings may matter but are, to a large extent, besides the point.
1I should cop to being biased here; I’ve been reading Jezebel for a minute now, and whenever there’s a thread about race and its messiness, it is invariably derailed by folks by people who, like, have freckles and so totally know what it’s like to feel other-ed by our mass media and the larger society. Their commenters have very much earned their reputation as a wellspring of #racefail, which is another reason they shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
AN UPDATE FOR CLARITY (11/13/12): The first Jezebel post makes me a little uneasy as journalist; I agree that these kids put this stuff out there for public consumption, but there are lots of very good reasons why newspapers shy away from identifying minors in stories absent some compelling interest in doing so. But this is a story about Twitter behavior and their names are in the tweets. I do think there are some obvious questions about the newsworthiness of the shocking discovery that Twitter-searching “nigger” will yield racist-ass stuff; you could literally do that on any day — and especially on a day on which a prominent African American is in the news.
The second post, though, goes beyond just being ethically questionable. There’s a big, big difference between a journalism outlet reporting on a story in which there was some community backlash against a bunch of students who tweeted racist stuff and a journalistic outlet very much creating the story and itself leading the backlash.
Also, a lot of responses on Twitter seem to suggest that I’m apologizing for these racist kids. Which, I mean…hello, I’m G.D., and this is PostBourgie, and you’re clearly very new around here. Do have a seat and stick around. In fact, have several seats.