How Social Media Impacts The Conversation On Racial Violence This week, two black men were shot by police and their deaths were witnessed by those on social media. NPR's Lynn Neary talks with Gene Demby of NPR's Codeswitch blog about the role of social media.

How Social Media Impacts The Conversation On Racial Violence

How Social Media Impacts The Conversation On Racial Violence

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This week, two black men were shot by police and their deaths were witnessed by those on social media. NPR's Lynn Neary talks with Gene Demby of NPR's Codeswitch blog about the role of social media.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. The week began with the police shooting of Alton Sterling. Then there was the shooting of Philando Castile, and it ended with the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas as they patrolled a peaceful demonstration.

Many of us kept up with the news through social media. And depending on who your Facebook friends are, these events played out in very different ways. For some, it was the only thing that happened this week. For others, it barely seemed to register at all. Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team has been following feeds throughout this week, and he joins me now in the studio. Good to have you, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Lynn.

NEARY: I'm going to let you talk a little bit about what was going on on Facebook pages this week because you've been following it so closely. And I know, like you say, like, white friends in comparison to black friends might have really seen things very differently, right?

DEMBY: Yeah, I mean, there's been - actually been a lot of conversation in recent weeks about how we sort our friends on social media, about the news sources we share, about the news sources we get our information from. And so there's a lot of - there's a lot of distance between what people are reading. But it's not just where we get our information from. It's who we talk to outside of social media.

There was this really fascinating study from the Public Religion Research Institute in 2013 that asked people to identify people who they'd had important conversations with in the last six months. And what they found was that 91 - the social networks of white people were 91 percent white. In fact, three-quarters of all white people had entirely white friend groups. They were not talking to people of color at all.

And so when you look at - when you see poll numbers about the vast space between where people of color - the way people of color feel about policing or any number of issues around equality and where white people stand on those issues, it can be explained, in part, by the fact that we are not having the same conversations.

NEARY: So what happens after an event like this? I mean, what have you observed this week in terms of African-Americans calling on their white friends, if they have any in their friend group, you know, to begin having a dialogue on these kinds of issues?

DEMBY: Well, I think there's - one of the themes I've kept seeing this week - I keep seeing this week is the idea that these issues - the needle for these issues can't move unless white people are engaged in them. And so you're seeing people sort of importune their white friends to - or the white people they know who are friends of friends, in a lot of cases - to be involved in these conversations, which are often really, really difficult to have. But I think there's a sense that these issues cannot sort of resolve themselves on their own without white people actually coming - actually sitting down at the table and having discussions because people of color have these conversations all the time.

NEARY: And there's been some really compelling viral videos. I saw one of this female pastor, Savanna Hartman, in Tampa, Fla. Her video's gone viral. It's been seen by nearly 16 million people. Let's take a listen to this video. It was posted on Facebook the morning after the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Let's listen.


SAVANNA HARTMAN: I can't imagine what it's like to be born with skin that's black, not white. I wasn't born rich, but don't get it twisted. See how I look. My white skin is my privilege.

NEARY: That whole video is like that, and it was very powerful. How does that resonate with people?

DEMBY: Well, you know, your mileage may vary with the poetry itself (laughter).

NEARY: Yeah.

DEMBY: But, you know, to the point about white people needing to be in the conversation, you know, a tactic during the civil rights movement was to actively invest and engage white people. The Freedom Riders had white people with them, in part because there was a sense that white people would be better able to empathize with Freedom Riders if there were white people among them.

And so the idea that there's - that we all have equal skin in the game, pardon the pun (laughter), is really important to this conversation. And so to the extent that - I mean, white people listen to white people, both in terms of, like, the logistics of the conversations because they only speak to white people, but because white people value other white people's voices. I think there's a sense that when black people stand up and say that something is wrong, that those - that they can be dismissed.

NEARY: Yeah, social media can also be very mean, as we all know.

DEMBY: Yeah.

NEARY: I mean, does social media help the conversation or not?

DEMBY: It's really - so you would think that social media would bridge a bunch of divides, right? You can talk to people who are geographically very distant from you, which would be important in a conversation in a country in which we are immensely physically segregated. But one of the - maybe the ideal way these conversations need to happen is one-on-one with people who are equally vested in the relationship between the two people, right? And so if you're having a conversation with a friend of a friend of a friend, you know, you often don't feel the same stakes to sit there and be in that uncomfortable place.

NEARY: Thanks, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you.

NEARY: Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch. And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, we'll talk with Justin Cohn. He wrote an article giving advice for other white people trying to help in the wake of the police shootings.

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