There’s plenty of speculation over the social and political effects of the Wild West that is the Internet. Optimists believe it’s a mechanism for democratic renewal; pessimists are certain it is shortening attention spans and facilitating the spread of conspiracy theories.
I lack sufficient expertise to evaluate most of these arguments/predictions, but I do know one thing: the Internet and especially social media have upended our ability to deny the extent of American racism.
Before social media, nice people–and I still believe nice people outnumber the not-so-nice–could tell ourselves that race relations were improving, that the civil rights movement had addressed most legal inequities, that the growing rate of intermarriage was a sign that old, tribal hatreds were subsiding.
And there has been progress– just a lot less than I used to think.
it isn’t just the explicitly racist websites. The Internet and the ubiquity of smart phones with cameras have combined, making it impossible to ignore the extent to which people are treated badly simply because they are black. In recent incidents, police have been called because a graduate student fell asleep in a common area of her dorm, because a picnicking family was grilling in a city park, and because two businessmen were waiting–without ordering– for a friend at a Starbucks. Those incidents are just recent examples; similar episodes constantly flood the Internet.
As distressing and hurtful as those sorts of experiences can be, the truly horrifying videos are those showing police officers killing unarmed black men–all too often in situations that defy justification.
A few months ago, here in Indianapolis, police officers shot and killed an unarmed motorist named Aaron Bailey. The officers weren’t charged with a crime, but after an internal investigation, the Police Chief recommended that they be terminated for failing to follow proper procedures. Terminations have to be approved by the Police Merit Board, however, and last week, at the urging of the police union, the Merit Board declined to approve the Chief’s recommendation. The Board accepted the argument that the officers had “feared for their lives.”
Perhaps they did. There’s plenty of research showing that white people generally–and police officers specifically–have an instinctive, often unreasonable, fear of black people.
The Indianapolis shooting is one of a long string of similar incidents that have been captured in videos and distributed on social media. It’s impossible to view some of these without thinking “If that guy had been white, the officer wouldn’t have shot him.” I think of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun; I think of Stephon Clark, who was shot in his grandmother’s back yard holding a cell phone. Type “police shoot unarmed black man” into google, and you get dozens and dozens of hits.
I was in City Hall when Indianapolis police arrested a young man named Michael Taylor. He was shot dead in the back seat of the patrol car, and the police swore he must have had a gun on him that they’d missed–that he’d shot himself. I remember how Bill Hudnut, the Mayor at the time, agonized over that episode. He desperately wanted to believe members of his police force, and he had no evidence on which to dispute their version of events, no matter how far-fetched it seemed.
Before cell-phone cameras and social media, nice people were often in denial of the extent to which Americans–including but certainly not limited to police– continued to harbor implicit and explicit racist attitudes, the extent to which our belief in progress was illusory.
Whatever else the Internet has done, it has forced us to confront a very unpleasant reality. That certainly doesn’t mean that every police shooting is unjustified, or that every conflict involving people of different races is prompted by bigotry.
But neither can we dismiss the now-exhaustively-documented fact that, in far too many cases, skin color makes the difference between being apprehended and being killed.