Is the web a hostile environment for African-American young people? Apparently, yes. Black college students experience more bias and discrimination online than their white counterparts. And they have more negative attitudes towards racial diversity on campus. This, according to a study conducted by Brendesha M. Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois, and Suzanne L. Markoe, a psychology professor at UCLA. They surveyed 217 African-American and white college students in order to assess social networking, online victimization and the racial climate on college campuses.
The study found that black students, who generally have more diverse contact online and spend more time on the web, experienced more online victimization, and discrimination as simple as a racist image posted on a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace. And they face a more negative racial environment at school.
For African-American students, negative online experiences outweighed the positives. Meanwhile, the study found that although diverse offline contact fostered a more positive campus climate, online contact did not accomplish the same result.
As this study suggests, one should not underestimate the effects of online racism on one's mental health, including anxiety and depression. And surely, those of us who are actively involved in online communications are acutely aware of the amount of racism in cyberspace, not to mention the dramatic increase in hate speech since the election of President Obama.
Professor Tynes received a $1.4 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to "study the risk and protective factors associated with online racial discrimination across racial and ethnic groups." This past March she and Markoe released another study, this one dealing with the responses of the same 217 students to racially themed party images. Examples of these images are of "gangsta" themed parties where white students mock black culture, typically dressing as black stereotypes, perhaps wearing blackface, and serving fried chicken and watermelon. For example, students at the University of California at San Diego made fun of Black History Month by holding a "Compton Cookout". The hosts of the event "urged participants to wear chains, don cheap clothes and speak very loudly."
A few years ago, students at Tarleton State University in Texas held a Martin Luther King Jr. Day party, complete with students dressed as Aunt Jemima and urban street gangs. And a blackface party at Clemson University in Greenville, S.C., participants dressed in knitted caps and jerseys and held 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. Some women padded their pants to make their butts appear larger.
After viewing racially explicit photos, only 20 percent of white students in the study found the images offensive, as compared to 60 percent of black students. Moreover, white students who considered themselves "colorblind" on racial matters were more likely unfazed by the photos, while those who believed racial differences should exist were more likely offended. The survey appeared in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.
These two studies are timely, given the most recent example of online student racism coming from Harvard Law School.
As a follow up to a dinner conversation, Stephanie Grace, a law student at Harvard, wrote an email message to a few of her classmates proclaiming her belief that blacks are "less intelligent on a genetic level" than whites.
"I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true," she added. "Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African-American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case."
That email has since gone viral and people around the world are getting familiar with Stephanie Grace's feelings about black people. As a black man who graduated from law school and has dual Ivy League degrees, I don't necessarily react to the Stephanie Grace story with shock. Many institutions of higher learning are filled with students who wear their sense of entitlement on their sleeve. Sheltered, they travel in circles where they are never forced to confront their prejudices.
And while law schools have diversified over the years, they have a long way to go. A white-male-oriented environment, with a curriculum based on the Socratic method of teaching, alienates students of color and women. Students such as Grace learn cold legal reasoning that allows them to test their "cute" racist arguments. But their education does not teach them character or compassion, nor does it ground them in the everyday world where everyone is not white and privileged, and where justice and equity are lacking. Sadly, they bring their racism in a large suitcase when they become leaders in society. Some even take a seat on the Supreme Court. While 90 percent of the legal profession is white, roughly 70 percent of the inmates in America's prisons are black and brown.
Sadly, a network connection only allows students to perfect their racism, with high-tech anonymity in some cases, and without accountability.
And to those who believe racism is over, think again. Hopefully the Tynes and Markoe studies will help us understand how to fight student cyber-racism, and possibly provide solutions to improving race relations at colleges and universities across the country.