Racism Is Still Alive and Well in Online Comment Sections

NewsOne for Black America, September 24, 2010

Although you rarely hear racial insults on Main Street these days, there’s a place where unashamed bigotry is all too easy to find: tossed off in the comments sections of some of the Internet’s most popular websites, today’s virtual Main Street.

Internet anonymity has removed one of the strongest barriers to the type of language that can ruin reputations and end careers.

Do these comments reflect a reversal of racial progress? Is that progress an illusion while racism thrives underground? What kind of harm are these statements doing? Could there be any value in such venting? And what, if anything, should a free society do about it?

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At the newspaper’s website [the Indianapolis Star’s], moderators delete individual racist comments that are brought to their attention, and will take down a whole thread if such comments persist. On some stories that are expected to provoke racism, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.

On a single day recently, racially offensive online remarks were not hard to find:

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Another commenter wrote, “We all know who MADE America what it is today, and we also know which group is receiving hefty tax dollar pay outs . . . so until the tables turn the only thing you should be saying is ‘thank you’ to all the hard working (whites) who gave you the life you now take for granted.”

Black racism was evident, too. One person on the site wondered if the FBI beat information out of the photographer: “You know how white people do.” {snip}

A USAToday.com story about demographic changes in the nation’s kindergartens turned into open season on Latinos. “Go to any ER, school, jail and see first hand what race is over consuming precious US resources?” one comment said. Another complained in ugly terms about Latino birthrates.

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Are these comments cause for alarm?

“Like the loudest ambulance siren you’ve ever heard,” Feagin replied. “All this stuff was already there. It’s just the Internet has opened a window into it that we normally would not have had.”

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Chavez [Linda Chavez, chairman of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity] has received plenty of racist comments in response to her online writings. “My sense, based on their grammar and spelling, is they’re not the people who are hiring. These are not influential people who make policy.” {snip}

Racist comments may scare average people away from productive conversations about race–conversations that are moving rapidly into the digital domain from print publications, town halls, street corners and shopping malls.

“When there are forums about race, people flock there to do battle,” said Eric Deggans, a reporter and blogger for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Whenever he blogs about race, “about 20 percent of the comments will be straight-up racist. Another 20 percent are questionable.”

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The comments sections of media websites are meant to foster community discussion and keep people engaged with the site, which in turn generates revenue for an industry still struggling to make money online.

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As champions of free speech and enemies of censorship, journalists take care to tailor any proposed limits.

“I recognize the value of citizen dialogue,” Steele [Robert Steele, a journalism scholar at DePauw University and The Poynter Institute] said. “But when the comments are poisonous . . . you have to go back to the issue of why you would allow the dialogue.”

“For me, all the problems of online anonymity and comments outweigh any imagined benefits,” said Herb Strentz, a retired journalism professor and dean at Drake University in Des Moines. {snip}

Polls and studies that measure racism are hotly debated because most people won’t acknowledge prejudice to a stranger, the subject is so subjective and politically charged, and many people of all races may not even recognize their own biases.

On one side sits evidence that racism remains a major challenge: For instance, some 40 percent of white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, according to a 2008 Associated Press-Yahoo poll that focused on racial attitudes and the presidential election.

On the other are signs of progress: The percentage of African-Americans saying black people’s situation improved over the last five years has doubled since 2007, to 39 percent, according to a 2010 Pew poll. The poll also found that 70 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks believe the values of the two groups have become more similar.

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The dynamics of racism on the recipient can be powerful online, said Brendesha Tynes, a professor of psychology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois.

Her study of 264 Midwestern high school students found that 20 percent of whites, 29 percent of blacks and 42 percent of “other” or multiple races reported being personally subjected to racial epithets or other discrimination online–and that these youths were more likely to feel depression or anxiety. The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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Public disapproval has played a major role in reducing face-to-face racist speech, and Tynes noted that public complaints can get racist comments removed from popular places like Facebook. {snip}

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So what types of people are typing these anonymous attacks? {snip}

Jared Taylor, who is white and calls himself a “race realist,” believes that whites and Asians are more intelligent than Hispanics and blacks. He avoids using racial slurs, and his organization’s website does not allow racial insults–but he has an explanation for the source of the comments: “Intense frustration among ordinary whites at what they see as coddling and excuse-making for blacks and Hispanics.”

“Many, many whites are hopping mad about that kind of double standard,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Their frustrations are never voiced in the mainstream media, and anger provokes crude language. . . . Most of those people probably never use racial slurs when they speak. This gives them a chance to commit what is considered a great and shocking sin and get away with it.”

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Nathan Schroeder, national secretary for the Supreme White Alliance–whose website warns visitors of its “racist overtone”–says people who share his views benefit from online anonymity.

He said many white people “aren’t to that point yet where they will openly come out and say, ‘I stand for this. I am proud of my heritage. I want to preserve my people.’ They don’t want their close friends, families, what have you, to find out so they are more comfortable speaking about it on the Internet.

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