Internet activism challenges the perception that Black Generation Y is apathetic and disengaged
By Corey Arvin
Reflections on the historic U.S. civil rights era often conjure up images of the grandeur-scale marches during the 60’s era, restaurant sit-ins and civic uprising that played its role in advancing black America and cultivating support. Today, experts say the temperament of black activism is comparable, but takes place in digital spaces where young African-Americans share stories and invoke conversation about their struggles with friends and strangers.
Social media has become the tool of choice for African-Americans who are rallying support and a newfound understanding to their causes by spreading messages through their networks and watching them go viral. Twitter, YouTube, and most recently Tumblr, have become a popular springboard for young “activists”, even though some reject the label.
In large numbers, African-Americans have flocked to Twitter, which has become almost a staple of many of their online habits. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, blacks accounted for more use of Twitter than any other ethnic group. In a separate study released in January, African-American internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 accounted for 40 percent of Twitter users compared to 28 percent of whites in the same age group. Blacks’ use of Twitter has created such an impact that its cross-section of the site has been labeled “Black Twitter”.
Several black students at Harvard University became the most recent topic in the national spotlight with their “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign. On Tumblr, the students can be seen in photos individually holding boards with various quotes and statements to draw awareness. The #ITooAmHarvard hashtag circulated throughout Tumblr and Twitter. The students’ various, tongue-in-cheek signs include statements such as “You don’t sound black … You sound smart.”, “’I’m not ‘pulling the race card.’ You’re just being racist.”, and “Oh, I heard her say she was going to Harvard. I just assumed she misspoke. – white parent to my mother”. Their campaign garnered national media attention and coverage by The Boston Globe, USA Today, and Huffington Post amongst other major media outlets.
Last year, black male students from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) were a part of a “spoken word” video posted in November in which the group protested the lack of diversity among enrolled students at the university. The video, which was posted to YouTube, eventually went viral and currently includes a link to a petition page.
The sprawling influence of social media propelled by young African-Americans was seemingly about young African-Americans issues as well, beyond college campuses. The death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman drew the ire of blacks, but also became fodder on social networks, highlighting concerns about young black men who are victimized and racially profiled in their communities.
Vorris Nunley, an associate professor of English at University of California at Riverside, whose studies include rhetoric and African-American culture, could effortlessly identify social media campaigns originated by blacks have prolific and produced widespread support.
“Look at the Black ‘Twitterverse’ and its response to Michael Dunn and his sense of fear that led to the murder of Black folks. The Black Twitterverse was an important tool in the protest around Trayvon Martin.”
Social media activists may not be more likely to galvanize supporters because their efforts begin online, but they are able to identify issues sooner and organize more quickly, Nunley said.
“Social networks are intertwined in the daily lives of youth in an unprecedented manner. Social-network centered activism is an extension of that social-technological fabric. Also, such activism does not require a "leader" to mobilize resistance. Issues of concern can emerge from a more democratic bottom-up logic as we saw with the Egyptian Spring revolts and the organizing around Trayvon Martin,” he said.
According to David J. Leonard, associate professor in the department of crucial culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman, (WSU) social media has its place in activism just as traditional forms of activism commonly associated with the Civil Rights movement.
“Activism and organizing are the basis of change; change comes through what [W.E.B.] DuBois described as ceaseless agitation. There are many different tools that are used to engage in this work; rallies and door-to-door organizing, social media work, cultural for are all tools that continue to be important.”
Leonard points to the information shared in social media about Trayvon Martin, the “online mobilization” to Jena 6, and the execution of Troy Davis, as examples of when black youth use social media to create conversation.
“The murder of Trayvon Martin symbolizes the persistent violence, the persistent criminalization of black youth, and the persistent devaluing of black life. Social media played an invaluable role in raising the awareness about Martin, his killing, stand your ground, and the trial itself. It played a crucial role in demanding justice, in demanding that Martin be seen, and that his life be valued. Given the consistent failures from political and media elites to show concern for black life, social media was instrumental here.”
According to Leonard, there are also contrasting differences in internet activism established between black and white youth when compared.
“If we look at usage rates of twitter, if we look at the ways that black youth have responded to racism on college campuses and the killing of Trayvon Martin … we can most certainly see differences in terms of the types of issues that are being taken up in social media ... we see the difference. The privileges afforded to white youth, and the realities of persistent racism, carry over onto the Internet so it's not surprising that Internet activism among white youth generates in different ways, where upon it’s more about consumption, ‘fads,’ and passive involvement.”
Leonard said that traditional activists should understand “That its tireless work, that it’s about organizing and pushing forward what Robin Kelley describes as ‘freedom dreams’, that people engaged in online activism are engaged in work in a myriad of spaces, pushing forward an agenda based in justice and equity.”
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