Duke hosts panel on racism and the impact of social media surrounding the death of Michael Brown

The topic of national unrest surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, landed in the middle of a spirited town hall discussion.
The topic of national unrest surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, landed in the middle of a spirited town hall discussion, which drew about 300 Duke students and faculty to the East Duke Nelson Music Room.

The five-professor panel included Angel Harris, a professor of sociology and African American studies; Karla Holloway, an English and law professor; Wahneema Lubiano, a literature professor; Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture; and Luke Powery, dean of the Duke Chapel. William "Sandy" Darity, director of the Duke Consortium on Social Equity, moderated.

The discussion delved into how social structures and language differences allow racism to persist in America, and what role race played in the shooting.

"We have blind spots in all races," Harris explained, "We see things differently."

The panel explained that many blacks across the country -- including those in Ferguson -- saw Michael Brown's death as a result of racism prevalent in law enforcement.

Brown was the unarmed black teen shot and killed by a white police officer last month.

"Every time I think about Michael, surely he died on a Ferguson street," Dean Powery sang in a song reminiscent of an old negro spiritual lamenting the tragedy.

The shooting led to protests around the country about racial profiling and the militarization of local police forces.

"Southeast Ferguson... is a place... where police have collected a disproportionate amount of city revenue from traffic stops involving the black community," said Lubiano.

Neal spoke about the phenomenon known as black twitter and its impact on the social movement following the shooting. Blacks only make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 27 percent of Twitter users. Neal says that social media presences was responsible for countless images and hashtags, and that there were more than a million "ferguson" hashtag tweets before CNN began its continuous coverage.

"When you think about the hashtag campaigns that black folks did... young black folks in the hours immediately after Ferguson," Neal said, "It would have taken the NAACP 10 days to mobilize like that."

Holloway said the community needed to be sensitive about shaping the social media narrative -- referring to images of tweets with the "handsupdontshoot" hashtag movement -- where people are seen appearing to surrender to police.

"When you see these images, I want you to think about their utility," she said. "We need to be vulnerable when we have children involved."

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