Did you know that one of Reddit’s most vibrant subreddits is devoted to Black Twitter? It might come as a shock considering the site’s reputation for virulent racism, but r/BlackPeopleTwitter, a channel that showcases the jokes and positivity black people share with one another, holds roughly half of the top 50 posts on Reddit from the past year. It even came as a surprise to the channel’s moderators, who claim that the subreddit’s popularity was mostly accidental. Still, it struck a chord; as one mod, Gerald, told The Verge, "Race relations in the world unfortunately may never be ideal, but if there's one thing that can help bring all people together, it has been and will always be humor."
What should not surprise, however, is how Black Twitter, a collective of vocal and socially motivated black people online, still struggles for mainstream media attention. Not enough people know how powerful and meaningful it is for public discourse. But as the Los Angeles Times this week announced it would hire a reporter to cover Black Twitter specifically, that might finally start to change.
Black culture is inherent to the makeup of America
Black culture is inherent to the makeup of America. Voices in the black community have influenced American culture as a whole for generations, leaving indelible marks on politics and the arts. However, there is a wide gulf between influence and recognition. It’s the lived reality of white supremacy; blacks and people of color are deprived of the institutional power afforded to whites in this country. Thus, whatever innovation black people create is ignored, perceived as a curiosity, or appropriated long before it is accepted. Only time, concerted effort, and peril allows for the appreciation of the work of black hands and minds.
The same is happening with Black Twitter. The last several years have brought violence and terror to the black community in America. Children have died, and churches have burned to the ground. It’s now clearer than ever that more should be done to better tell their stories. So, in the memo sent to LA Times staff, managing editor S. Mitra Kalita named Dexter Thomas, a media scholar and author, as the reporter who would take the Black Twitter beat:
"Dexter Thomas joins us today to cover Black Twitter (which really is so much more complicated than that). He will work closely with the newsroom and #EmergingUS to find communities online (Black Medium to Latino Tumblr to Line in Japan) and both create stories with and pull stories from those worlds."It’s still too early to tell how the stories told from this beat will read. However, Thomas’ task in reporting on Black Twitter will hopefully entail complicating narratives about race in America, on and offline, and elevating conversations about Black Twitter itself in media beyond just "what black people are talking about today." As an amorphous collective of black voices, Black Twitter was initially identified as those in the black community leading the most popular, entertaining trending topics and hashtags. Observing the back-and-forth created by such tags as #uainthittinitright, The Awl’s Choire Sicha once mused about his "obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter, an obsession I know some of you other white people share, because it is awesome."
Black Twitter's greatest strength has long been its ability to mobilize
Indeed, Black Twitter’s power to entertain and drive culture is pre-eminent. But even Reddit giving rise to powerful black voices doesn’t show the complete picture. Black Twitter’s greatest strength as a collective has long been its ability to mobilize, serving as a platform for raising awareness about the black experience, thanks to hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter — which exploded into public consciousness beyond Twitter amidst last year’s protests against police violence — and open discussion about how race intersects with class, gender, and sexuality.
"For every major news story, there is a story that Black Twitter is able to tell," Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, told The Verge. "The day that the Supreme Court issued its ruling on same-sex marriage, people who identity as part of Black Twitter were there talking about struggles that continue for people of color. That it doesn’t just end at marriage equality."
That the struggle for identity and recognition is playing out online, across platforms, and at a large scale is incredible and mustn’t be ignored. Sadly, even media’s sloth at grokking this shift is yet another case of history repeating itself. At a time when newsroom diversity is still depressingly low, the fact remains that news organizations were called upon to hire more black reporters nearly 50 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson.
"As far back as the Kerner Commission report in 1967, we have known that news media has been deficient in its ability to fairly, accurately, and comprehensively cover the black experience in America," said Clark. The Commission’s report, released by the Johnson administration after the race riots of 1967, recommended that newsrooms hire, train, and retain black reporters to allow for the coverage black communities and America at large need lest we move "toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." Now, with police killing after police killing, riots in Baltimore, and the murder of black churchgoers serving as a dark mirror for Civil Rights-era violence, it is high time journalists got this task right.
We must recognize and appreciate the work of black hands and minds
It’s time to pay attention. Hiring a beat reporter is still just a first step, and there are questions left to be answered. No community is a monolith, so whose stories will be told? Can one reporter cover every aspect of a vibrant, thriving collective? How many organizations will follow suit? Still, we need more initiatives like this. As newsrooms endeavor to improve how they report both internally and in their storytelling, making a concerted effort toward including and understanding a community that already breaks news gives reason for cautious optimism. It means our collective culture can finally start to recognize and appreciate the work of black hands and minds.