Racism is alive and well in Connecticut. That’s not news, at least not to clear-thinking residents. As for those who disbelieve or downplay it, just consider the news from the past several months.
In August, former Haddam First Selectman Larry Maggi and Planning and Zoning Board member Dan Luisi posted Facebook memes that were lewd as well as racist.
Just last week, Zoombombers crashed a virtual shiva, a mourning service, at a West Hartford synagogue with pornographic and anti-Semitic images.
And the most notorious incident also took place last week during a Zoom meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes when participants heard this: “Jahana Hayes is a N-word.” It happened again, “only this time it’s the N-word on a loop set to music,” Hayes explained. This racist barrage continued for six minutes, as every time Hayes muted one, another popped up – “clearly a coordinated effort.” After the Zoom meeting concluded, Hayes did not want to simply brush off the disgusting and hateful attacks, so she posted another of the racist messages participants had seen: “SHUT UP N-word GO PICK YOUR COTTON.”
We’re not talking the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. This is Connecticut in the 21st century. Racism does indeed exist in the Constitution State.
Racism has always been here, of course. The most palpable example in recent memory is the Ku Klux Klan establishing a Connecticut chapter in the early 1980s, followed by KKK rallies in Meriden and Windham. But racism has always existed as a systemic undercurrent – the yawning achievement gap between minority students and their peers, the persistence of discriminatory housing practices and zoning laws. It’s present, but often veiled. Not anymore, however, thanks to the unfortunate confluence of social media’s popularity and Donald Trump’s presidency.
The rise of social media as a leading method of mass communication is phenomenal. In 2008, the average American spent two-and-a-half hours on social media every day. By 2018, that figure grew to more than six hours. Facebook alone expanded from 100 million users in 2008 to 2.4 billion in 2019.
Donald Trump’s presence on social media mirrors this phenomenon. Since 2009, Trump has shared more than 45,000 tweets, including original tweets and replies. He has more than 77 million followers on Twitter and averages 10,000 mentions every 20 minutes. In 2020 alone, Trump is responsible for 4,400 tweets – so far.
But it’s more than the abundance of social media and Trump’s use of it that are so consequential; it’s Trump’s unrestrained and often malicious tone that has negatively influenced public discourse and behavior.
As just one example, “President Donald Trump retweeted on [Aug. 30] a tweet that falsely blamed ‘Black Lives Matter/Antifa’ for a random 2019 crime in which a Black man shoved a white woman into a New York City subway train. The assault, captured in a video embedded in the tweet, had nothing to do with either the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice or with Antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist activists. The man shown in the video has a long history of offenses on New York City’s transit system; he was arrested again last year over this incident.”
To repeat, that’s just one example from the “Trump racism spin cycle.”
So how does that relate to racism in Connecticut? In short, the ubiquity of social media combined with the current atmosphere in which powerful people spout blatantly bigoted messages has empowered Connecticut politicians to express their own racism openly.
“Somehow or other, in this type of disembodied internet environment, people feel very, very comfortable airing not only their prejudices, but their aggressions,” said Colin McEnroe last month on his WNPR radio show. “And there are people there willing to push back against them, and it just seems to churn this kind of ugliness.”
“It’s at such a fever pitch because the person at the top, the president of the United States, has given the green light to this,” said McEnroe’s guest Alfonso Robinson, a blogger who covers Connecticut politics. “And with social media, people don’t think before they hit the ‘send’ button.”
“We’re talking about adults here, we’re not talking about kids,” added Robinson. “We’re talking about grown people who should know better. If you’re not going to go out into the public, get on a mic, and say this vitriol, you shouldn’t be doing it on social media.”
But people do. Repeatedly.
Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the curtain has been pulled back and Connecticut’s underlying racism is now out in the open. The real question is what can be done about it? And even more to the point, do we have the collective will to do so?
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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