/ 12 July 2018

Social networks help combat racial bias

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“Permit Patty” and “Pool Patrol Paula” have been unlikely — and somewhat infamous — stars of the Twitter age: they are white Americans who have called the police to report alleged problems with black people.

Instead, social media users have quickly accused them of racial profiling — and turned their “problems” into national teachable moments thanks to the power of the hashtag.

Incidents of racism in the United States are hardly news, but smartphones and social networks are catapulting such seemingly fleeting moments into the spotlight — and sparking a collective shaming over discrimination.

In April, the Starbucks coffee chain took a social media beating after a store manager in Philadelphia called the police to report two black men deemed suspicious — they were waiting for a friend but had not yet ordered.

A video of police arresting the men went viral, triggering a national outcry and leading Starbucks to conduct an afternoon of company-wide anti-bias training.

“Social media and phone cameras have created a way for people to record and distribute examples of racial profiling and harassment in ways that weren’t possible in the past,” said Makana Chock, a professor of communications who specialises in media psychology at Syracuse University in New York state.

“Incidents that might have been dismissed or evaluated as exaggerated can no longer be ignored.”

‘Get out’

In early July, Erica Walker, a white woman living in Memphis, Tennessee, called the police to report a black man who wore socks while swimming in a local pool.

The man’s girlfriend, a woman named Camry Porter, filmed the incident.

“It’s 25, 30-plus white people out here and you haven’t said anything. You’re partying with them! But when we come, it’s an issue,” Porter explained to a local CBS affiliate.

In South Carolina last month, a white woman demanded that a black teen invited to the community pool by a friend “get out” and hit him several times before threatening to call police. The internet named her “Pool Patrol Paula.”

Just a week before, another woman in San Francisco called the police about an eight-year-old black girl selling water bottles on the sidewalk. She is now known as “Permit Patty.”

For Victoria Wolcott, an expert on African American history at the University of Buffalo, “some whites associate African Americans with disorder, violence or with a lack of cleanliness, as threatening in some way.”

“Whites know that you can’t exclude somebody because of their race, so they call the police or challenge them — that’s a legal way,” Wolcott explained to AFP.

Swimming pools and parks have long been the scene of racial profiling, she notes, calling them “spaces that were more segregated throughout the country, because of issues around stereotypes of cleanliness and sexuality.”

But what is new is the social media aspect — and the societal divisions that have cropped up in President Donald Trump’s America.

In California, a white woman lashed out at a Latino man — a US citizen who grew up in California — for being “Mexican.”

She called Mexicans “rapists” and “animals,” adding: “Even the president of the United States says you’re a rapist.”

“Some people who are in fact racists feel freer to voice these feelings, but also the people who oppose racism feel greater urgency to contest it,” Wolcott said.

“They might have in the past stayed as bystanders, not said anything or intervened, but now the stakes seem higher.”

What about freedom of speech?

Chock notes that while the data is mixed on whether such incidents are mathematically on the rise, videos posted on social media provoke a more visceral reaction.

“Videos of people’s personal experiences, however, have always been more persuasive than statistics,” she said.

This week, a park in Illinois launched an investigation after a woman accused one of its police officers of standing by and doing nothing as a man called her “un-American” for wearing a t-shirt with the flag of Puerto Rico — a US territory.

Wolcott said that while some people film such incidents out of fear that they could end in violence, the knock-on effect of possibly changing hearts and minds is a positive one.

“Perhaps the calling out of so many of these incidents may actually lead to some real social change. You can change the law but it is more a societal change” that is needed, she told AFP.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the nation’s most powerful rights watchdogs, says racial profiling is a “long-standing and deeply troubling national problem,” and reminds all Americans that it is illegal.

For “Permit Patty” and “Pool Patrol Paula,” legal action is not the only problem.

“Permit Patty” resigned as CEO of her cannabis products company after the backlash, and “Pool Patrol Paula” was fired from her job as a property manager.