Debating Race In Cyberspace

Henri E. Cauvin, Washington Post, August 5, 2006

It didn’t take long for the e-mail lists to light up.

Andy Solberg, a well-liked police commander, had been reassigned after saying that black people were an unusual sight in Georgetown.

Faster than anyone could call an old-fashioned, down-at-the-elementary-school community meeting, e-mail lists in Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase and elsewhere were abuzz.

First came a flurry of testimonials for the embattled acting commander of the 2nd Police District, defending him and sometimes sticking up for his comments. And then came the angry replies, from people appalled by what seemed to be open support among their neighbors for racial profiling as a police policy.

Suddenly people more accustomed to going online to compare contractor references and complain about missed recycling pickups found themselves engulfed in a forum about race and crime in a city long defined by both.

“So, yes, black people do live in Georgetown, but their numbers are very few. It is not racist to state this fact,” a man wrote on the Cleveland Park e-mail list. “To be suspicious at the sight of a couple of young black men hanging out along the quiet residential streets of Georgetown after 2 o’clock in the morning is not racial profiling, it is common sense.”

The next day came a reply: “No, it is racial profiling. If you think they are suspicious primarily because they are black, that is the definition of racial profiling. We can’t have people suggesting that citizens should call 911 whenever they see a black man in their neighborhood.”

And so it went for days, a raw, impromptu debate almost unimaginable anywhere but online—fueled by the immediacy of Internet communication and stimulated by the sense of security that comes with composing your thoughts in the solitude of your home.

Often people are reluctant to talk openly and deeply about race, especially among strangers. But in the furor that erupted after Solberg’s comments, people expressed themselves with a candor that to some was open and refreshing and to others was abrasive and ignorant.

Solberg had made his remarks at a community meeting July 10, a day after a white man from Britain was slain in Georgetown. Four black people were charged in the killing. Urging anxious residents to report suspicious activity to police, Solberg said, “This is not a racial thing to say that black people are unusual in Georgetown. This is a fact of life.” The next day, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey reassigned him, saying his comments at the meeting were unacceptable.

Upper Northwest, where in just a few months Solberg had established himself as a fast-acting commander, was soon up in arms, demanding his reinstatement. After Solberg made a public apology, Ramsey reinstated him—but by then, the public debate was on.

“He is not a racist. He was doing his job. He may not have been politically correct but he was direct,” one woman wrote on the Cleveland Park list a couple of days after Solberg’s reassignment. “ . . . Sometimes, you know something is not right, but how do you tell the police without sounding racist?”

A couple of days later, a woman offered her take. “Sure people should remain vigilant and report suspicious activity, but stating that black people are unusual in Georgetown is racist. Tell that to all the black people who come to Georgetown to shop or eat out, or all of the students who attend Ellington, Georgetown U, GW, etc.”

This was not the first time that a big issue such as race or class had surfaced on a neighborhood e-mail list in the District. But the breadth and energy of the debate were a sign of how important the lists have become as more and more people turn to them, often to talk to the people just down the street.

“I think it was really healthy,” said Peggy Robin, who moderates the 4,300-member Cleveland Park list with her husband, Bill Adler. “I think it got a lot of dialogue going that otherwise never would have happened.”

{snip}

But civility is not always easy to maintain, particularly when a contentious, complicated topic such as race surfaces, as it did here.

“People felt like it gave them free rein to say and do things that they might not otherwise publicly say,” Michele Pollak of Chevy Chase said in an interview.

Pollak, a former civil rights lawyer who is white, wrote of black colleagues and friends who had endured particular scrutiny from police simply because they were black. “I was offended by the thought that in a city that is majority African American that anyone should say there’s any place that an African American should not be,” she said.

And the sort of candor she saw on the list was telling, she said. “I think race is a hard thing to talk about, but I found it interesting that people found it not so hard to talk about it, when it came to racial profiling, because they viewed it as a sensible thing.”

{snip}

But it can make for a confusing confluence of private and public, she said. “It feels private. It’s your home, it’s your computer screen, it’s almost like you’re writing in a journal. But if you were standing with 500 people facing you, you would have the sense that you’re in a public forum, which is what you are in.”

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