I Have a Tweet: Martin Luther King, Jr., Social Media, and the Cure for Cynicism

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, what would he tweet? Would he be engaging trolls in twitter battles, would he be following Kim Kardashian, would he be retweeting inspirational quotes, and reposting the latest memes? Uh, probably. l have a funny feeling that he would be addicted to social media because he was a really cool, fun, young-spirited man who loved to engage people. He was one of the youngest people in his class at Morehouse, he was a chainsmoker, he loved Star Trek, he liked pool, and enjoyed music. However, there is at least one aspect of social media and pop culture that we would not be engaged in–cynicism.
Before I get to that, I thought it would be fun to “hack” King’s Twitter account from 1964, to see what he had to say. The closest thing to Twitter they had in the 1960s was a Western Union Telegram–kind of like reading tweets on paper the color of the Kelvin Instragram filter. Malcolm X sent his “frenemy” MLK @yungking a message on Tuesday, June 30, 1964 that offered Dr. King assistance after the Ku Klux Klan had done a drive-by shooting on non-violent protestors in St. Augustine. #tryme
malcolm-x-to-mlk-telegram
A month before he was killed, King sent a telegram commending Cesar Chavez for his personal sacrifice and commitment to the use of nonviolence in union strikes. Cesar Chavez, was the Mexican American leader of migrant and immigrant farmworkers in California.  He had organized a strike and a 25-day fast to protest the unjust working conditions and treatment of workers. #hungryforjustice
mlk-telegram-to-chavez
When a bootlegger released a mixtape of King’s draft of what came to be the “I Have A Dream” speech, King took him to court and sued to have the proceeds directly benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Berry Gordy, that generation’s equivalent of Kanye West, telegraphed King and stated that he would be willing produce the album at Motown and even lose money on the project if it would help the cause. #2woke2bebroke
berry-gordy-telegram-to-mlk
King’s telegrams reveal the impact of his social media messaging. King used his platform in the church, on the streets, and in the world to build up people and to advance justice, never to tear down or demean his enemies. King reminded us so eloquently in hundreds of sermons and speeches that our response to the world should be one based in positive change rather than cynicism. Speaking to high school students in Philadelphia in 1967 a speech entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint,” King said, “[Y]our life’s blueprint, must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. Don’t allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice. However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody and so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom.”
For every one person who is using social media to organize, speak truth to power today, five people are using it for snark, harassment, cyberbullying, or hate speech. Millions are using social media to hide behind an anonymizing wall of cynicism. Cynicism is a belief that people are purely self-interested and one should be dismissive of any solutions that require community. Similarly, apathy is a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. As some have written and King declared, it is apathy, not hate, that is the opposite of love. The greatest enemies of our nation are not the proponents of racial violence, the homophobe hurling slurs, or the xenophobe spitting insults at immigrants. Rather the greatest enemy of a “beloved community” are indifferent and uninterested individuals, too jaded by cynicism to commit to any lasting vision of change. Far too often our social media has made us anti-social, less invested in the principles that King urged us to uphold. That cynicism has made us far too apathetic and detached. Speaking of these followers King once said: “Detachment is the word which best describes them. Too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to experience sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist.”
A young college student named Barbara Jones Omolade, felt the pain of this detachment and recognized those same tendencies in her generation. She was a young woman enrolled in college in 1964 like many of you today. Her parents expected her to land a quiet job teaching in New York but she had other plans that left her father stone faced in silence and her mother weeping at the kitchen table. She came to Atlanta to work in the movement. What would you do if you defied your parents? She sent a snap (letter) to her parents:
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I decided to work for SNCC…Last summer, I used to watch civil rights demonstrators in Greenwood, Mississippi, on television. I used to cry because I know I should be there. But I also cried because I was relieved to find people trying to change what I thought was unchangeable….You see I thought that the people in those demonstrations on television were extraordinary people like Martin Luther King Jr. but they are ordinary college kids and old people.
Yes, Daddy, I am brainwashed like you said; brainwashed by the fact that I’m black and I have nothing to lose in this fight against the chains that bound me and my people. Going to college, living in a comfortable house, having clothes, even being able to get a job in New York is not going to change the fact that I’m a black girl in a white man’s country and I have nothing to lose by fighting racism. Sure I can teach in New York, but that isn’t enough. The system is corrupt all over. It shortchanges the Negro and Puerto Rican kids and provides better schooling for the white kids. If I taught I could change one school, one classroom. But in the movement I can help bring about more basic changes which can allow me to go back to the South that I love and live there with my friends, white and black, building a new world and living a life with meaning…this is what I went to college for…I was a history major because I wanted to make as well as teach history.
Barbara Jones Omolade’s letter reminds us that the successes of King were built by the scaffolding of thousands of people who were LinkedIn into a network of hope, who refused to settle for cynicism. Who refused to allow their towns, their schools, their colleges and universities, their government settle for the narrow-minded interest of the status quo. The women, the deacons, the disabled, the timid, the outcasts, the poor, those with unpopular views that had made them outcasts in their own communities participated in a national hackathon for justice and the world has never been the same.

Barbara Jones Omolade, “Building a New World” in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p.388-392.
So today I have a tweet!  Martin Luther King’s tweet for America in 140 characters: “Not the media or man that makes a movement but the message of the messengers, not the number of characters but the content of character. #mlk

Towards the Anti-Racist Algorithm: Digital Alterations of Racial Realities

In January of this year, David Auerbach wrote a very interesting article in Slate entitled, “The Code We Can’t Control.” The article was part review of Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society. Summarily, both of these works urge us to more carefully consider our assumptions that computers are incapable of perpetuating racism and bias. To some extent both of these works illustrate that while computers do not create racial prejudice, the implicit biases of programmers are responsible for that, computers can perpetuate and contribute to racism by digitizing the logic of discrimination.

black

Auerbach provided several examples from a recent study by Latanya Sweeny on Google Ad Words that illustrate his previous concerns as well as those of Pasquale. The fact that computers are complicit tools in maintaining a racist architecture urges us to also consider alternatives to our current virtual and physical realities. If in fact computers can be programmed to perpetuate racist structures, we can also program them to perpetuate anti-racist approaches. the same Google ads that serve up arrest records for “black-identified” names can also be used to redirect racists to resources that challenge their misconceptions.  Of course this would fundamentally challenge the idea of search.  The purpose of search is to effectively list what you are looking for not necessarily what you need.  Or is it?  At least we assume, it is.  Should Google or any other search engine be in the business of social engineering? In short, the answer to that question is yes.  Big data search has long been involved in that enterprise from nudging you to buy movie tickets, re-ranking recommended sites, serving ads based on your unique history, etc.  I think the more appropriate question that we should be asking is why do we view a digital intervention to circumvent racial discrimination as unorthodox while we readily accept other forms of social engineering.  The answer to this question is deeper than search engines or algorithms.

googleprompt

The way to reverse racism in the digital universe depends on identical strategies of dismantling it in the physical world. We cannot accept the notion of a de facto state of racial neutrality.  The solution to socioeconomic inequalities has never been in maintaining the status quo. In order for us to effectively deal with racism in the world and online we must actively counter it with alternative visions and algorithms of the world we wish to inherit.

Relationship Between Race and Technology: How Society Uses You (Part 1)

At the risk of oversimplification: race is how society defines and reacts to you; ethnicity is how you define and react to others most like yourself. During the last six years there has been a lot of reaction and little time to reflect on what this means for our emerging ideas of race and culture.

Today it is very popular to argue that race is irrelevant and it has become equally fashionable to embrace one’s ethnicity while denying one’s whiteness. I think both of these practices are quite dangerous and counterproductive for variety of reasons. Largely, they underscore a widespread denial of the ongoing impact of race in American society and its relevance to every major question of social and economic justice today. I argue that there are major differences between race and ethnicity that we really ought to think more carefully about because they affect us in a variety of important ways.

One of the reasons this must be is there is no biological or genetic rationale for racial identity. Race is a result of how populations have historically and socially constructed delimiters based on perceived physical and cultural assumptions. Whether these differences are accurate or not, as dominant perceptions they reflect how a society is structured.

People of different races often share the same cultural traditions, homeland, and language but have very different normative assumptions, experiences, and expectations. So for example, if you take two groups of people who occupy the same Caribbean island, formally known as Hispaniola– today we refer to it as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The racial concepts at play in this island are often imported to the United States by Latino immigrants who find that their understanding of who they perceive themselves to be is superseded by how people assign meaning to them. We see this played out between Latinos but more pointedly in the discussions following President Obama’s executive order on immigration

Another reason this question is important is because ethnicity is largely how people culturally orient themselves in a society. Whereas race is determined mostly from the outside to the inside, ethnicity reflects how communities identify themselves from the inside to the outside.

Lastly, we should consider this carefully because ethnic and racial designations often do overlap so these designations can become quite complex. In someways it can be analogous to they way society views the relationship between gender and sexuality. Gender (race) is how society assigns meaning to you while sexuality (ethnicity) is more about how you express your own identity.

This is important because technology to some great extent is an amalgamation of both race and ethnicity. It is how society uses you and how you use yourself.  Although human beings create technology (like race) we lack control over how it is used and develops.  Although we all use technology on some scale, we interpret our experiences differently via the tools we employ. One some scale, technology is an extrinsic categorical tool like race but also intrinsically significant like ethnicity.

Instead of accepting technologies as extensions of human control of the environment or tools, I prefer to think of technology equally as a product and byproduct of human experiences. The future of the United States (and the world) depends to a degree on what extent the history of race is understood and integrated into our consciousness but it is also how we perceive our role and complicity in that process.

After all, race is a form of technology. It is using us as we use it.