Racist messages pose quandary for mainstream sites

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Although you rarely hear racial insults on Main Street these days, there’s a place where unashamed bigotry is all too easy to find: tossed off in the comments sections of some of the Internet’s most popular websites, today’s virtual Main Street.

Internet anonymity has removed one of the strongest barriers to the type of language that can ruin reputations and end careers. Racist messages are a small percentage of the wild and woolly web, but they stick out since they are rare in person _ and they raise a host of questions.

Do these comments reflect a reversal of racial progress? Is that progress an illusion while racism thrives underground? What kind of harm are these statements doing? Could there be any value in such venting? And what, if anything, should a free society do about it?

“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families,” said Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star. “There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”

At the newspaper’s website, moderators delete individual racist comments that are brought to their attention, and will take down a whole thread if such comments persist. On some stories that are expected to provoke racism, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.

On a single day recently, racially offensive online remarks were not hard to find:

In a comment on a Yahoo News story about a black civil rights era photographer revealed to be an FBI informant, someone called blacks farm animals who “were not and are not wanted in this society.”

Another commenter wrote, “We all know who MADE America what it is today, and we also know which group is receiving hefty tax dollar pay outs… so until the tables turn the only thing you should be saying is ‘thank you’ to all the hard working (whites) who gave you the life you now take for granted.”

Black racism was evident, too. One person on the site wondered if the FBI beat information out of the photographer: “You know how white people do.” On a BlackVoices.com story about two black sisters jailed 20 years for an $11 robbery, someone used several crude epithets to suggest that the judge was a white racist.

A USAToday.com story about demographic changes in the nation’s kindergartens turned into open season on Latinos. “Go to any ER, school, jail and see first hand what race is over consuming precious US resources?” one comment said. Another complained in ugly terms about Latino birthrates.

Some believe such comments indicate that racism has not declined as much as people may think. Joe Feagin, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, said a study he conducted of 626 white college students at 28 institutions revealed thousands of examples of racism in “backstage,” all-white settings.

Are these comments cause for alarm?

“Like the loudest ambulance siren you’ve ever heard,” Feagin replied. “All this stuff was already there. It’s just the Internet has opened a window into it that we normally would not have had.”

Linda Chavez, chairman of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, says racist comments come from a “very small but often vocal minority of people. Most Americans do not like this type of coarse race hatred.”

Chavez has received plenty of racist comments in response to her online writings. “My sense, based on their grammar and spelling, is they’re not the people who are hiring. These are not influential people who make policy.” But she does see a destructive aspect: “It may actually increase the percentage who will feel comfortable expressing these views. Social pressure is important.”

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