While Blacks have always dealt with inequality in America, two major events changed the context through which Blacks narrated their experiences of this systemic oppression.
1st The Election of the first Black President
2nd The Rise of Social Media
Obama’s elections was a media spectacle, a moment of manufactured racial catharsis for a nation trained to believe in leadership and progress coming in messiah-like male figures (Lincoln, Roosevelt, King, Kennedy, etc). Obama’s policy agenda places him in the same political zip code of Bill Clinton, who cut welfare and oversaw the biggest increase in incarceration in America. Yet the visual, emotional appeal of a Black President led many, Black and White alike, to believe that a new era in American race relations had dawned, an expectation that has made the recent incidents of police violence against Black youth that much more devastating.
This is one example of a dangerous trend in the analysis of issues related to Black oppression: the confusion of emotional release with political progress. While it may seem to be a very different situation, activists risk making the same mistake they made with Obama now with their response to the protests relating to the death of Mike Brown.
The problems stem from the issue of Spectacular Blackness. In a world of anti-Black sentiment, and a largely white controlled media, nuanced and in-depth interrogations of politics are not what the media world generally desires. Ever since slavery, Blacks have been depicted not as human beings, but through the lens of stereotypes. In the world of social media, media outlets, activists, and individuals are looking to maximize their visibility. Across the political spectrum, media outlets have played on these stereotypes to frame their analysis of Ferguson at the cost of in-depth commentary on the essential question of what exactly is to be done about the systemic racism that is killing Black America.
The Spectacle of Black Suffering
The Wretched Slave – Blacks are helpless, broken creatures who need to be “saved”.
The Magical Negro – Blacks are mystical/spiritual beings and can use their powers to protect and affirm whites.
The media coverage of Ferguson, from the protests to images of the grieving family, has pulled from these tropes, and instead of educating people of racism, they have turned it into a spectacle for their own gain. This effort has enlisted social media users all over the nation as unpaid promoters for their messages, a role we as a public are happy to play for the pleasure of feeling like we’re making a difference and promoting our cause.
This is completely understandable and not bad in the abstract. In a world of White supremacy, Black people internalize notions that they are crazy for thinking the world is racist. Thus, seeing other people speak the thoughts they have in their minds is incredibly powerful, allowing people to believe “I am not alone” and “I am not crazy”. This is a critical 1st step for political mobilization.
The problem comes from the social media environment and the reality of how difficult, scary, and frustrating material activism is. Media companies, including social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are interested in the spectacle, as this drives likes, retweets, and website hits, all of which increase the value of these websites to prospective advertisers. They thus promote content that is especially inflammatory in order to increase clicks, which they then turn into profit for themselves. The more time people spend on Facebook, Twitter, or any news website, the more advertising revenue the site makes. Thus, they promote the emotional message rather than the political content, to the point where Facebook’s algorithms are designed to promote the content with the most interactions, which is almost always the more inflammatory posts, and pushes the most nuanced political analysis off of people’s timelines and thus to the margins of the political discussion.
Thus, companies like Facebook profit off the misery of Black people, and a critical public service, informing the masses, is mediated and controlled by a private company with not only zero direct interest in promoting intelligent debate, engagement, or analysis, but in fact has a profit incentive to promote the most outlandish, fringe views in the name of making money off of people’s anger and sadness.
This media hegemony has also limited the Black public’s conception of politics; centering it on visual symbols of resistance and emotional catharsis instead of communal struggle towards a specific goal.
In this world of “clickbate politics” it is far easier to retweet, hashtag, or post on Instagram from the protest than to commit to the political work of making material change after it.
Social Media is simple, easy, and generally feels good.
Material political change is complicated, difficult and generally draining.
Be it through changing laws (through lobbying), changing elected officials (through voting) or changing yourself( through education or making career/life changes that advance the cause of social justice) people risk losing income, losing time, and losing social standing by taking the unpopular and grueling actions through things like voter registration and self-education.
What does it mean to make “real change”?
Worst of all, these efforts may indeed fail, and this fear of failure leads many to promote the “image” of making change (protest selfies, sharing empowerment memes, etc) without committing to the material actions necessary to manifest that desire for change in the larger world. In “The Black Book: Reflections from the Baltimore Grassroots”, we use the example of the protests after Trayvon Martin was shot to describe how these forms of “emotional activism” trade off with work on other, extremely pressing, but less “media friendly” problems in the Black community:
“The second major implication of the spectacularization of Blackness has to do with the kinds of efforts that Black people organize around. When the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin incident hit mainstream media it created an uproar… the question is what made this particular case worthy of the kind of attention that it was receiving in the mainstream media? … The incident between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman served as a national spectacle. The competing narratives, and the drama that was often associated with the incident and the trial, took center stage in the minds of Americans. The support and attention given to the family of Trayvon Martin was extraordinary in many ways and demonstrated the power that Black unity can produce if we are deliberate in our attempts to combat white supremacy.
Before I go on I want to be very clear. The lives of Black people who are killed at the hands of law enforcement and/or vigilantes are important and deserve our political and social attention. But the spectacularized representations of Black men who are assailed by civil society have the effect of rendering invisible the suffering that Black people face that is less spectacular, but just as devastating. One very important example of this is the persistent nature of sexual assault and sex trafficking in our community. Girls and woman all over this country of all races and ethnicities are victimized by sexual assault and sex trafficking.
But Black girls have been over represented among minors who are trafficked and abused. This should be tremendously alarming to those of us committed to the liberation of people of African Descent. Yet we often respond more intensely to spectacular narratives and representation of suffering than to the constant suffering that is less spectacular. People all over the country organized around the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, but there is not nearly the same fever around building the kind of institutions that would help to eradicate sexual assault and human trafficking from our communities. Sexual assault and domestic violence are not anomalies that are isolated incidents; this is a systemic problem that exists in our communities that undermines the ability to produce healthy people and healthy communities. The devaluation of Black women’s bodies is a broad and pervasive phenomenon that goes back to the way in which Black women’s bodies were captive to the fetishization of their bodies by white men during slavery.”
This is not an indictment of Black America or social media as a tool for politics. The massive social media push post Ferguson is a necessary step in changing the national conversation on race. Similarly, fear of failure is natural, as is the fear of backlash given this societies feelings about those who rock the boat on race relations.
Unfortunately, in the face of such massive violence from the state and systemic violence of poverty, Blacks in America are faced with an unfortunate reality.
Blacks in America are not treated like humans, and as such, even succumbing to human nature is a luxury we might not be able to afford.
Fortunately, Blacks in America have a long history of their best nature overcoming the forces of inertia and leading them towards taking actions that fundamentally reshaped society.
Instead of seeing social media as the tool for politics, we must continue to study the lessons of the Black Freedom struggle and apply them to the modern world. The best starting point for this is to have in-depth conversations with those who have done political work in the past and/or are doing political work now. The process of unplugging from the media matrix and entering the long fight for justice can seem overwhelming, but the best way to materialize ones commitments is to find small spaces where one can support the campaigns people are undertaking now.
In Maryland, many different groups are proposing differing solutions to address the problems of Black people, and in an attempt to learn what others are doing and increase support between groups, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle is hosting Black Legislative Agenda Day: From the Baltimore Grassroots this Saturday, December 6th, at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church (430 E Belvedere Ave) at 1pm. We’re inviting many groups from throughout the city and people interested in making material political change to come and learn about the different ideas groups have for promoting justice in Maryland and find out where they can linkup and help up.
This is but one example of actions all over the country which are attempting to organize the energy coming out of the Ferguson protests into transformative change at a grassroots level, actions which help break help break the seductive but ultimately empty promise that media visibility is sufficient to address systemic inequality and anti-Black violence.
Lawrence Grandpre is the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. His focuses include criminal justice, police accountability, and community-based economic/educational development. He is the co-author of "The Black Book" and his work has been featured in The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun.