Let's Talk Race
by Matt Stoller, Sun Sep 17, 2006 at 02:24:16 AM EDT
A historically important barrier to equality has been the inability of blacks to speak out without intimidation, without the threat of being silenced, or without having to speak through the cloudy prism of social predjudice. Blacks were kept off of early radio, off of early TV, and press coverage of African-American issues has been and is generally quite poor. And even when blacks could use these media, it was nearly impossible to use them without the audience knowing of the speaker's blackness.
Yet, unlike any other medium, these barriers do not exist online. No one is stopping any person from going to blogger.com and opening up a free webpage or blog. No one can stop anyone from saying what one wants to say, doing good research, or putting up opinions people want to read. No one can stop anyone from creating a community that others want to be a part of. No one can demand that anyone wait one's turn before speaking. It just doesn't work that way, because the nature of the internet is different than other channels for speech and social interaction. Anyone can speak, anyone can remain anonymous, and anyone can choose to reveal their race, or not.
If we choose to think in terms of race as a barrier to the achievement of power and influence online, we have to recognize that the nature of the conversation must be different. It simply is not acceptable to pretend like this is an exclusionary medium, for its architecture actually embeds inclusion. This architecture must have real consequences in the way that we think about race and the blogosphere. My sense is that most of what has been discussed on this topic with regards to the Clinton event has not taken these genuinely novel architectural dynamics into account.
That said, there's so much anger, resentment, and self-delusion on the topic of race that it's hard to know how to talk about it. And as I have a somewhat reckless tendency to dive right in on sensitive subjects, I'm going to start by talking about my own whiteness and my conversations with black friends in politics about race.
From my off the record conversations with black friends in politics, there seems to be immense bitterness at the way both parties treat black people, but especially the Democratic Party, since it is considered home. There's so much anger at the cabal of white men who control the strategy and purse strings that I think threats of leaving the party may materialize in the next few years if we can't actually change the way the party functions. I write about these men in various guises, the lobbyists and strategists who start huge 527s, screw everything up, and start new huge 527s. It's truly a perverse culture.
The progressive blogosphere doesn't mimic these perverse dynamics, but it has its own quirks. One of them is that the people that have emerged as opinion leaders on the progressive side online are appealing to largely white audiences. I am white, I write from a white perspective, and my readers are mostly white. That's just how it is. Are there black bloggers, black readers and black commenters? Yes, of course. Just like there are white listeners of Tavis Smiley and Tom Joyner. But by and large, when I write about Maxine Waters or Al Sharpton, I get responses that are written by white people who don't realize how pivotal these people are or have been in the struggle for equality for blacks.
And that lack of knowledge is, while not fine, at least understandable. I've only recently started to learn about black politics and history, and it's fascinating, a whole other world. I mean, I'm a tall white and well-educated 28 year old Jewish guy. I know a lot of white people, and a smaller number of black people, but I haven't really had the courage to talk openly about race until relatively recently. I don't know what it's like to grow up black, and the closest I can come to empathizing is to go back to my time working in Japan, when I felt objectified, feared, hated, and loved all at the same time. In Japan, I was followed around in stores, people were generally nervous around me, and I felt a constant psychic pressure that was impossible to explain and made me resent those near me. I'm not sure, but that strikes me as what it might feel like being black. It wasn't the people who were overt about disliking foreigners that were the worst, it was those who couldn't see that they treated me as a piece of meat rather than a person. Those were the people who drove me crazy.
So I guess if I had to project, I'd probably guess that to black people, equality isn't a nice happy concept in one's head somewhere, it means dealing with a very real set of daily obstacles to feeling like a dignified human being everywhere you go. And that includes the progressive blogosphere, which is rife with discomfort for people who aren't white. Just look at a very standard argument for why there aren't a lot of prominent African-American political bloggers, the so-called digital divide. This is a ridiculous argument, as black people use the internet in large numbers, and if one argues that the digital divide is a causal factor, one is implying that black people aren't sophisticated enough to use the internet. That argument is absurd and predjudiced, but it's one I hear from white liberals all the time. It's proof that the progressive blogs aren't color-blind - there's a reason Stephen Colbert's joke about 'my new black friend' is funny.
Yet, in the angry reaction to the Clinton event, I see a lack of willingness to accept that the very real historical limits of speech for African-Americans in this country have been lifted on the internet, and yet blacks are not discussing their politics online in significant numbers. This is immensely frustrating and puzzling, but it is a reality at least in the summer of 2006.
From my recent conversations and reading, it's pretty clear that being black in America is not a monolithic experience. There's a black elite, black poverty, there's black radio, there's black media, there are strong black social networks, there's a whole parallel stream of conversations going on that I'm not part of and I only get hints of. It's a fascinating problem facing African-American leaders - how do you deal with internal problems and tensions within a larger society where you are considered non-mainstream with all that implies? It's a conversation that could be held online in rich and revealing detail, but is currently restricted to backrooms and private phone calls. I get why this is the case, since the race problem on the left among everyone is handled this way. At the same time, I constantly hear that though the right is mostly racist and often openly so, there is a basic respect for their overt nature about race. The right-wing acknowledges race and racial barriers, even if they embrace those barriers. We on the left often refuse to recognize race at all, hence Colbert's other joke about how he just doesn't see race.
Anyway, I care about race relations because I find it interesting and morally important, but I also think that there's an important strategic relationship that needs to develop between the current netroots and the African-American community. We saw this in Connecticut, and we're seeing it around the country in interesting and novel ways. Two of the most anti-war groups in the country were Moveon-type progressives, who are usually white, and African-Americans. That's a natural alliance. All that's missing is the social connections, the bridging capital among activists who can displace the current political leadership.
Which brings me back to the blogosphere. Unlike any other medium, there's basically no barrier to entry. And yet while there is some black blogging, it's patently ridiculous on its face to pretend like African-American community leaders are writing political blogs. Just what is going on? It's not like anyone's keeping blacks off of political blogs, even though blacks have been kept out of every other medium intentionally by political elites in this country's history. And clearly there's some awareness of the blogosphere in the black community.
I don't know what's happening, really. I suspect that the possibility of using this medium to foster genuine internal and open dialogue is pretty frightening for a group of people who are used to being attacked simply for the color of their skin. The right-wing smear machine may be new to us, but it's not new to the Tom Joyner's of the world, and it's certainly not new to the 90+ percent of the African-American community that voted for Gore and Kerry. Opening up a tight-knit world is really hard, and we're not making it that easy.
I imagine that I'm going to be viciously attacked for this post, since one doesn't talk about race, and one certainly doesn't say what one really thinks. But I hope that we can begin a dialogue soon, because we really have to.