Law in Contemporary Society
Every time I read a news article, a blog post, or anything else on the internet related to the issue of race, I try to avoid reading the user comments. The reason is that I know, with all certainty, that there will be a small but vocal group of anonymous posters who thrive on using their anonymity to incite racial hatred. I wish I could say that this was limited to an uneducated group of Mississippi rednecks, but even comments on race-related posts on Above the Law can rise to this level of small-minded discourse.

In fact, with the increasing popularity of twitter, many people don’t even try to hide behind a shroud of anonymity anymore. Most recently, with the release of the Hunger Games movie, there was a widely reported instance of apparent dissatisfaction and disapproval with the fact that many of the “good” characters in the movie were black. Of course, as soon as these users became aware that their tweets were being reported on major news sources like the Huffington Post, without their usernames redacted, they either deleted their tweets and made their accounts private or shut down their accounts altogether.

As stated in another recent article about this issue, “Users hide comfortably behind their computer screens and type the most obnoxiously offensive things they can think of and thirstily WAIT for an angry response; a validation of their modest efforts.”

Shifting to the point Eben made in class today, is this just proof of racism in our society, or is this more indicative of the institution of white supremacy that has existed for hundreds of years and is just as strong as it was back then? Yes, admittedly, racial attitudes have changed, in the sense that many of the comments that would have been commonplace 50 years ago would be considered abhorrent today, but has anything really changed?

The structure of our society is still the same, if not worse. The intro of a recent Fareed Zakaria report sums it up:

In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.

I could write a never-ending story about the prison industrial complex and about how it is in many ways the most potent evidence of white supremacy in society, but I will leave that for another day.

If you watch TV or read the news, you would believe that Blacks and Latinos are entirely to blame for the drug problem in the United States. But if you look at the statistics from the most recent report by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the drug use rate for Blacks was about 9.6%, for Latinos was about 7.9%, and for Whites was about 8.8%. So if the percentage of drug use is roughly the same, the population of the US is over 70% white, and studies show that most drug purchases are intra-racial, then WHY are 3 out of every 4 persons in prison for drug offenses either Black or Latino?

I’m sure many of the people reading this post are aware of these statistics, but for some it may come as a surprise. The question is, does knowledge of statistics like this really affect someone’s perception of race in this country? Reading many of the anonymous comments about articles relating to the Trayvon Martin story, and other similar stories, it seems that some people in this country are of the opinion that George Zimmerman was justified in what he did. It may be that they have been in similar situations themselves, or it may just be that the way our society is set up causes them to form an “us” versus “them” mentality. Television and the news media, and even police reports, may lead them to believe that one or more minority groups is to blame for the ills that the majority faces in society.

I don’t know if there will ever be anything that can be done about this problem. Even if we found a way to put an end to all the racist posts on the internet (and by the way, I’m in no way advocating government censorship) I don’t know if we would be able to dismantle a white supremacy system that has been established over hundreds of years. And even if we did find a way, it would take equally as long to destroy, if not much longer. But one thing's for sure, as long as this institution exists, racism isn’t going anywhere, no matter how much we try to sweep it under the rug.

-- JasonPyke - 10 Apr 2012

“Users hide comfortably behind their computer screens and type the most obnoxiously offensive things they can think of and thirstily WAIT for an angry response; a validation of their modest efforts.”

If this were true, it would seem to me that it would indicate that racism is less of a problem nowadays (I have no clue what it says for entrenched institutionalized white supremacy; it might just not indicate much of anything on the basis that the internet allows the periphery of society to voice its views). If people are merely trying to be ostentatiously offensive, they don't necessarily believe in what they say; rather, they say it because they know that most people will disagree and find it offensive. Thus, the only thing that racist internet posts would indicate is that people find racism offensive. And that, in turn, would seem to indicate that racism is no longer as popular as it used to be.

Of course, it might just be that everyone is still racist, but at least we all have the good sense to be ashamed about it. But even then, that would seem to indicate some sort of social force arrayed against racism, leading us to wonder about the presence of institutionalized white supremacy. I'm not sure if we can reconcile the presence of a white supremacy system with a cultural taboo on racism.

Another way to look at this is just to throw out the "obnoxiously offensive" theory and to suggest instead that people say racist things not to provoke a response, but because they actually believe it in their hearts. They'd say it on a white supremacist forum and they'd say it on the general internet; how and whether people respond is irrelevant to them. This argument might have some merit, and it certainly seems to make logical sense that anonymity would encourage people to speak their mind without regard for other people or cultural taboos.

At the end of the day, I think that it's probably a mix. There are some people who say racist things to provoke a response, even though they may not actually believe the racist things they say. And at the same time there are some people who are genuinely racist, and the internet provides them with a soapbox to make their voice heard.

What do you think? Are internet posters generally just trying to be obnoxiously offensive or are they voicing their actual views? Can someone be obnoxiously offensive by saying racist things and yet not be a racist? Is racism what you say or what you think?

-- KensingNg - 11 Apr 2012

Jason, I’m glad you brought up this issue, the poisonous discourse on most comments sections on the internet are discouraging for their display of a really ugly side of our cultural psyche that apparently goes unexposed elsewhere. As the author of the article you linked to said, for all the insults and bigotry she has been exposed to on the internet, she had never experienced such name-calling in person.

I agree with Kensing that the author’s characterization of these people’s motivations does little to credit the broader point she is trying to make. We all like to envision Internet hatemongers, cramped in their dark bedrooms and desperate to make up for some lack of “real life” with a vindictive internet personality. Whether that’s the reality of the situation we can’t know, but even on more reputable sites where names and faces are linked to more substantive profiles than just a news site membership, people are saying really terrible stuff. The notion that their motives are merely antagonistic doesn’t explain why they would spend the time to write such hateful things, and surely the satisfaction they derive from “flaming” such comment boards can’t be enough to sustain that.

Kensing arrives at a conclusion I agree with: either people are provocatively posting, actually believe these things, or some combination of the two. I think the broader point is that the Internet represents a novel forum for people to air these types of beliefs, and find support for them amongst all the people who aren’t immediately repelled. Coupled with that is the troubling trend of young people (read: 50%+ of Hunger Games fans) sharing the slightest details of their lives and beliefs with infinite strangers on the internet. I can’t forgive a 14-year old who says something ignorant and stupid about how Rue being black “kinda ruined the movie,” but I can understand why, given that every other insignificant thought is already posted to her account, she would share that one as well.

The fact is we all make poor decisions all of our lives, hopefully more as teenagers, and the Internet provides a public forum for these mistakes and their resolution. Reading the Hunger Games article reminded me of something that happened in November, where Kansas Gov. Brownback was forced to apologize to a teenager for his staff, after they demanded she apologize for a “disparaging tweet” saying something along the lines of “#heblowsalot.” Regardless of how we feel about the underlying controversy, free speech in schools, arbitrary disciplinary procedures, etc., the prospect of a state governor apologizing to a teenager for her immature and unproductive behavior seems unprecedented.

The Internet is undoubtedly transformative, and in my example above it acts as something of an equalizer which is in most cases valuable. However, what is also does is allow people to air these types of beliefs that have long since become taboo to acknowledge out loud. These bigots find an audience, and among that audience they find some sympathizers. That organizational aspect is one of the most valuable and troubling aspects of the Internet, but the downsides can't so easily be separated from the benefits, as you noted. Ultimately, what happens on the Internet, anonymously or not, is a broader reflection on our entire society.

-- CameronLewis - 11 Apr 2012

Kensing, I think I can sum up my response by giving my answer to your second to last question. I do not think someone can say racist things without being racist. However, I do think there is a HUGE difference between making jokes about race, and saying something racist. The problem though, is that there is a fine line between the two. There may be some people who genuinely believe that they are doing the former, but the tone and content of their comments come across more like the latter. That said, I do believe that this group is in the minority. The comments I am primarily concerned with are not just the ones which are meant or interpreted as stupid jokes or even those which are attempts to antagonize, but the more visceral ones which are clear articulations of the author's racial prejudices. But overall, I do agree with you that not all race-related comments on the internet are created equal.

To go to Cameron's point, I absolutely agree that the internet is a reflection of our broader society. When people try to argue that we are living in a post-racial America, the first thing I point to is the fact that, besides all the elements of white supremacist infrastructure that exist in our society today, racism is alive and well, and the most potent example is that people think it is ok to make whatever racist comments they want on the internet. It may not be anywhere near as bad as cross-burning or lynching anymore, but the internet has just allowed for a different form of racism to manifest itself. On the other hand, as our society as a whole becomes more educated, comments like these are increasingly seen as wrong and many commenters who aren't members of the particular group being disparaged are coming forward and writing rebuttals.

-- JasonPyke - 11 Apr 2012

I agree with most of the points made above. I think internet commentary/postings have enabled people to feel free to say whatever they want with no fear of public reprisal or retribution. Many of these offensive commentaries tend to be a mix of someone wanting to spark controversy as well as voice their actual opinions. In regards to the Hunger Games posts specifically, I thought the comments were probably a mixture (as mentioned above), but also reflect some of the struggles black actors are faced with when it comes to casting decisions in Hollywood. For instance, a couple of months ago when George Lucas was doing promotional work for the movie Red Tails, he spoke about the difficulties of trying to find funding for a movie featuring a predominantly black cast. Minority actors in general have had trouble securing roles in which they are the headliners. Despite the successes of actors such as Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, minority actors have not had significantly greater access to film roles. Even this year when Octavia Spencer won the oscar for best supporting actress, she was being recognized for a stereotypical role traditionally relegated to black women (not to take anything away from her performance, which was well deserving). The Hunger Games commentators showed a disapproval of using black actors for roles in which they had envisioned white characters. These comments, even those that were just meant to spark controversy, reflect the continued struggle for black actors to obtain acting jobs that do not pigeon hole them into certain stereotypes, e.g. thug, drug dealer, crooked cop, etc. As everyone has pointed out, the proper response is not censor the commentators (which would be an example of the cure being worse than the disease), but for there to be more vocal backlash against people who make these kinds of statements. There will most likely always be some forms of racism in this country, but the important point is to emphasize that racist commentary is not tolerated and does not have a place in civil public discourse.

-- ManuelLorenzo - 11 Apr 2012

This is a really interesting thread. I may be going off topic (or just on the broader topic of hateful comments on the internet generally) but I wanted to share what I thought. I was wondering how the law figures into all of this, hateful comments on the Internet, I mean. I am aware of a similar problem in Korea, which is where I come from, although race usually never the topic because Korea is an almost entirely racially homogenous society. You cannot read and article or go to an online forum without encountering hateful comments; they are literally everywhere. Sociologists attribute this behavior to a certain dissatisfaction with society and more specifically the economy. People who write offensive comments are predominantly in their teens and twenties. The rise in this offensive activity on the Internet correlates with a rise of youth unemployment rate and a general dissatisfaction with the government. People vent on the Internet because of a vague but overwhelming sense of frustration and desperation. Anyway, I was wondering how law could solve this problem. Defamation suits have worked only marginally in Korea because even those defamed are unwilling to press charged because a) most offenders and young and b) they have a general belief that online comments are somewhat too “petty” to go to court for (or alternatively that words are easier to get over). Also, with race, if comments are not directed at a specific person but a race generally, defamation, or any legal remedy for that matter would not work. I wonder whether there is a more effective legal apparatus to deal with malicious comments on this Internet without curtailing freedom of speech…

-- SoYeonKim - 12 Apr 2012

I came across this article today. It's somewhat related to our discussion, but it focuses more on the New York statute that potentially serves as a way for parties claiming defamation, etc by anonymous persons on the internet to gather information through that person's ISP. I'm a huge advocate of free speech, so I don't know if I'm ok with anyone using this type of power for anything beyond averting an imminent threat, investigating a murder, etc. But the article does hint at the First Amendment issues related to claims under this statute.

-- JasonPyke - 12 Apr 2012

I found that article you posted to be a really valuable roadmap of how these claims might proceed in NY, as well as some of the remaining unsettled issues. This article, published today, refers to a couple in Texas who just won a $13.8 million jury ruling for defamatory statements made anonymously against them on a website. The case is interesting, as the defendants are also being sued for malicious prosecution. They filed a sexual assault claim against the defamation plaintiffs, and then essentially launched a smear campaign on a forum website,, alleging murder, pedophilia, and drug abuse. The case features a lot of the technical difficulties identified in the article previously posted, including multiple ISPs, discovery requests, etc.

While I understand hesitation in opening the floodgates for defamation suits based on Internet speech, I think it hits close to home for what we were talking about earlier in this thread. As more of our lives are conducted on the internet, our real life identities and our online actions will increasingly overlap. Imposing liability for speech on the internet, even when the person believes themselves anonymous, is an important step in signaling that people are accountable for what they do on the internet. While it has been true for quite some time, the important thing is that society become aware of it so we can begin to adjust our behavior.

-- CameronLewis - 25 Apr 2012

It's amazing what is revealed during extremely emotional, conflict laden periods ... the comments are not concealed but rather people are not afraid to let others know who they are at these particular times. That is why I believe it is a case of a systemic, institutionalized racist system that has resulted in subconscious thoughts, no longer able to be controlled, coming out at these "trying" times.

Case in Point: After one of the only black hockey players in the NHL, Joel Ward, scored the game winning goal for the Washington Capitals in a Game 7 win over the Boston Bruins, a flood of racist comments appeared on Twitter...

It is a reminder that we have to correct a systemic problem because people often act on their subconscious "racist" thinking, which has an extremely detrimental effect on society. Some of those comments even referenced hanging, which echoes a period that many believe we have moved past. To the contrary, these beliefs are still here but embedded deeper in countless people,irrespective of color or creed. This does not happen by chance. Many people in our society want this to continue, although they go about this pursuit in a deceptive manner. This makes it the most effective.

This is why society desperately needs more creative, courageous lawyers.

-- WilliamDavidWilliams - 26 Apr 2012

I apologize for not providing a more substantive response (it certainly deserves one and I would like to come back to it in the future), but I wanted to say for now that reading the posts in that link made me really ashamed to call Boston home. I suppose it is naive of me to feel shocked after reading that, but I do - I've never encountered that level of racism (or anywhere close) in the 25 years I've lived in Massachusetts. It's disturbing to become aware that racism continues to permeate a place that espouses liberalism and tolerance, but it is even more disturbing that I was not aware of it to begin with. Thank you for sharing that story and for giving me the opportunity to become more conscious of my surroundings.

-- ElizabethSullivan - 26 Apr 2012

Verging away from the race issue, I think So Yeon made an interesting point about why people go on the internet and make distasteful statements when she cited that “sociologists attribute this behavior to a certain dissatisfaction with society and more specifically the economy.” Throughout history, there seems to be a correlation between the exhibition of negative actions based on racial/class perceptions and general social instability. Maybe instead of taking it to the streets, people are now feeling comfortable taking it to the web. Maybe people just use these forums to release internal conflict that they feel they would not have the opportunity to explore elsewhere. Where are the spaces for frustrated people to come together and explore their conceptions (or misconceptions) of race/class identities in light of other social issues? If not in the comment section of a random news article, then where can people throw their ideas out anonymously in hopes of obtaining feedback?

-- JenniferAnderson - 27 Apr 2012


Webs Webs

r13 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:05:30 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM