Hate finds new home

President Barack Obama

BU study shows racism alive, well among new media users


In the days before the civil rights movement, blacks were stereotyped as “animalist, evil or shiftless.” A recent Baylor University study showed that these labels are not a thing of the past; nor does a person’s political or societal status make them immune. There has been a resurgence of these images on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Facebook users are now relying on new media hate groups to express their discontent with President Barack Obama. This includes depictions of the president as a chimp, or sporting a bandana and a mouth full of gold teeth, according to the study. Wife Michelle is often portrayed as the stereotypical “angry black woman,” with artists painting her features in a masculine and unattractive light.

More than 20 Facebook groups/pages were analyzed, using the keywords, “hate,” “Barack Obama” and “Michelle Obama” in a study by Mia Moody, assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. Moody found that the racist portrayals of black men and women often fell into one of three categories —blackface/animalist, socially deviant and evil/angry. Facial features are exaggerated to an often ridiculous effect.

“Hate groups” once conjured up images of the Ku Klux Klan sporting white hoods and meeting in secret by candlelight, and new members were recruited only by word of mouth or discreet distribution of pamphlets. Now, in what some consider to be a “post-racial” era, the same message can be shared by millions of people all over the globe — thanks to the Internet.

The results of this study come as no surprise to Mark Potuk, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center located in Montgomery, Ala.

“That there are racist images of Barack and Michelle Obama on the Internet, or on Facebook — that’s the least surprising thing I can think of,” Potuk said. “This has been true since the moment Barack Obama appeared on the national political scene, and it is not remotely restricted to Facebook. We see this on mainstream Web sites all the time. You see this kind of stuff on comments on regular newspaper Web sites — and these aren’t necessarily hate groups. The vast majority of people who post things like this don’t belong to any group at all. They are so-called regular, everyday people.”

However, Potuk is quick to point out that Facebook and other social media Web sites such as Twitter are not to blame for lingering racial tensions still felt in today’s society.

“Certainly this kind of racist talk and these kinds of racist images are traveling around the world faster thanks to the Internet,” he said. “But Facebook is not the reason that we have racism in this society, or even the reason that it’s fairly visible. The Internet has helped make it obvious, but my God, listen to what the politicians are saying. We have political operatives talking about defending Anglo-Saxon civilization to major newspaper reporters. To see a monkey image of black people on Facebook, it’s really no different from what we’re hearing in the political sphere on a regular basis. I absolutely do not think that Facebook is somehow making this worse.”

Potuk added that he doesn’t fault Facebook for not policing these groups more heavily.

“I don’t really see how they could police it much better without hiring many, many, many more people,” he said. “There are technical things they do, and people find ways of getting around it. But can they have a person looking at every single page or posting that goes up? I doubt whether that’s within the realm of human possibility.

“And if you go on Facebook, or anywhere else, for that matter, and you threaten the president, that is not legal. But you can compare African-Americans to monkeys or anything like that, and that is absolutely 100 percent protected speech.”

The study might strike a blow to those who held out hope that the election of President Obama in 2008 signaled the beginning of a post-racial era, but Potuk said he doesn’t believe a post-racial era is truly possible.

“There are a thousand ways of pointing out that we do not live in a post-racial era,” Potuk said. “I don’t think that electing a black man as president means you wipe out 300-plus years of very visceral racism in this country. It’s just not that easy. These are attitudes that linger in particularly the older generation for decades and decades, if not centuries. I think that racism will be with us probably for the entire span of the human race.”

However, the future of race relations in America is not entirely bleak, Potuk said.

“Can things be dramatically better than they are now? Absolutely,” he said. “I think there are definitely reasons to work against racism, and we can make a vastly better society than the one we live in now. I don’t think there’s any question about that at all.”