Monday, February 6, 2017

Local Activism and the Problem of Elitist Gatekeeping Groups: The Case of Nextdoor and Discussion of Racism in My City of Little Rock

Go local, the gurus tell us. Engage in local action. Start in your own backyard.

That's all well and good. But I have some questions about how this is possible, when various structures that are ostensibly set up to facilitate local, community-level activism thwart or censor such activism, if it moves beyond boundaries they consider acceptable.

Case in point: several months ago, a neighbor invited me to join a neighborhood conversation group hosted by an organization called Nextdoor. That organization says in its mission statement (see the link I just provided) that it exists to help "neighbors to talk online and make all of your lives better in the real world."

"Core Values," the "about" page to which I've just pointed you proclaims:

  • Invest in community
  • Put our members first
  • Be a good neighbor
  • Communicate openly
  • Act like an owner

Here's what happened on my own neighborhood's thread at Nextdoor this past weekend: recently, someone in the neighborhood started a thread expressing concern about the fact that a black man (this neighbor used the phrase in the title of the posting starting this thread) had knocked at the family's door and asked for money. Then this weekend, another neighbor started a thread about how she's very concerned that many postings of this sort on our neighborhood thread seem to stereotype people of color and feed prejudice.

This led to a lively — and, I thought, good ("Core Values: Communicate openly") — discussion of the problem of stereotyping people racially in our neighborhood and how many of us would like to come to terms with and combat that problem. But immediately, a number of people leapt onto the thread to say that those suggesting we need open discussion of the issue of racism in our community were accusing neighbors of being racist — and we needed to shut up.

That comment was directed at me repeatedly by someone in my neighborhood: Be silent. Stop making these accusations about neighbors being racist.

I had not, of course, made any such accusations. I had said in general terms that racism is a problem in our society and our neighborhood and we need open discussion of this issue.

Some background: I live in a middle-class Little Rock neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white. My family settled in this neighborhood in 1947. When the neighborhood was laid out at the turn of the 20th century by several developers from Michigan as the first streetcar in the city ran up into the foothills of the mountains from the Arkansas River lowlands on which the oldest part of the city was built, it had a whites-only covenant.

Anyone moving into the neighborhood had to sign a covenant stating that he/she would not sell a house to a person of color. I'm not sure when that covenant was legally abrogated — if it ever actually has been — but it was in effect for a good part of the 20th century, or so I have been told.

More background: Little Rock is known the world over as the city in which screaming, hateful crowds of white citizens harrassed black young people as they integrated the city's white high school in 1957, Central High. This city is known the world over as a city in which the state's segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, called out troops to prevent the integration of Central High, causing the president, Eisenhower, to send in federal troops to protect the black students integrating the white high school. 

My city has a richly deserved, well-earned reputation for racism. Racism has not vanished from American society, pace Supreme Court Justice Roberts. Racism is alive and well in American society. Racism is alive and well in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Racism is alive and well in my almost exclusively white neighborhood in Little Rock, Hillcrest.

Racism came roaring back with the election of Barack Obama as president, and it fueled the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It is now fueling the bullying actions of many people, but notably white males, like the one in my own neighborhood who bullied me on the discussion threads of my neighborhood blog at Nextdoor this past weekend — the young man who ordered me to be silent because I insisted on talking about racism in my community.

And how did Nextdoor respond to that discussion? This morning, when I logged onto the discussion thread, I found that Nextdoor had deleted the entire thread, with no notice to anyone participating in it. It had, in other words, accomplished for that bullying young white male precisely what he wanted: it had silenced everyone calling for open, honest, respectful discussion of racism in our neighborhood.

Nextdoor has given that young white man and others who logged into the thread to attempt to bully into silence those of us talking about racism in our neighborhood the loud, clear message that it stands with them — and with Donald Trump and his presidency. Despite those nice words about talking to neighbors online and making everyone's lives better via open communication . . . .

And so I return to my opening question: how, precisely, are people to go local, engage in local action. and Start in their own backyard to build a better world when organizations like Nextdoor behave as this organization did in its handling of a discussion about racism in my city and neighborhood this weekend? 

At the head of the posting is a snapshot of the Nextdoor team based in San Francisco, from the Nextdoor "about" page to which the link at the head of this posting points. Notice anything about them?

I have deactivated my account with that neighborhood discussion group. I was clearly wasting my time talking to people on these threads, when the folks pictured at the top of a posting can, at the drop of a hat, swoop in and delete valuable discussion threads with no notice at all, while proclaiming the highest of ideals about open communication and building a better world.

No comments: