The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The surprising origins of the #CrimingWhileWhite movement

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As outrage spread nationally over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white New York police officer in the death of black man, a professional writer for Jimmy Fallon sent a half-joking tweet Wednesday ridiculing white privilege under the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite.

It exploded, and soon white people were confessing to crimes they got away with at a rate of 600 tweets a minute: A white drunken driver given only a speeding ticket. A man, after shoving a police officer, told to go home and sleep it off.

By Thursday morning, the online campaign that some saw as a show of solidarity had become another source of division. Many African Americans on Twitter began to see it as a belittling, self-serving failure to grasp the daily discriminations confronting blacks.

“I know it was well-intentioned,” said Jamilah Lemieux, a senior digital editor at Ebony magazine, who launched a response hashtag, #AliveWhileBlack. “For white people to say, ‘Hey, these are all the things I’ve gotten away with’– it starts feeling more hurtful than productive.”

As social flashpoints expand from the streets to online, #CrimingWhileWhite became the latest sign of how racial tensions can boil over in a digital age. The result was at turns organic, chaotic and raw – a flurry of expression that captured the best and worst of how Americans talk about race.

The tweets helped pull a whispered universe of racial privilege onto a national, share-able stage, and #CrimingWhileWhite became Twitter’s most shared topic in the United States and a trending topic across the world. But some questioned whether it had undermined its own message by pushing moments of privilege into performance art.

“It can be the start to something great if there are extensive conversations beyond the 140 characters, if there’s real action and work beyond just what we post on our Twitter or Facebook status updates,” said Stephany Rose, an assistant professor of women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

“It can be useful. But it just cannot remain as this performance … this distraction from what people of color need right now when it comes to justice in their community.”

At best, the tweets were untold and deeply personal, stemming from a broad section of Americans who might not otherwise take to the streets in protest. Paired with #AliveWhileBlack, the vignettes provided a baffling look at racial inequality in the wake of the recent deaths of Eric Garner, 43, and two other black males, 18-year-old Michael Brown and 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

“Acknowledging it first of all goes a real close way to understanding. That is tangible, that is progress,” said Christopher Parker, an associate professor of social justice and political science at the University of Washington. “It has that domino effect: The more involved you feel with something, the more passionate you feel with it, the more you identify with it.”

But at worst, some said, the tweets amounted to a bragging board, another point of isolation over which blacks and whites stood irrevocably apart. Like many protests, the venue contributed to the chaos: on Twitter, the boundless flurry of 140-character sentiment appeared detached from conversation and context-free.

“It’s always this problem with the evolving nature of online media, the way social movements have used it, evolving their own form of protest,” said Cliff Lampe, an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan. “Raising awareness, does that do any good? Does that create any meaningful change?”

It would not be the first online social movement criticized as shallow “clicktivism,” with participants more concerned about affiliation with a popular cause than meaningful protest. A similar movement, #FirstWorldProblems — a tongue-in-cheek meme of petty issues facing only the healthy and well-off — was later ridiculed for encouraging the kind of whining it was made to lament.

Jason Ross, the Tonight Show writer and former Daily Show writer, launched the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag Wednesday, tweeting, “Busted 4 larceny at 11. At 17, cited for booze + caught w gun @ school. No one called me a thug. Can’t recommend being white highly enough.” He encouraged other white people to share their stories of being “under-punished.” When reached, Ross said he sent the tweet from his personal account and was not acting as a representative of the Tonight Show. He declined to comment further.

Though hard to verify, the ensuing tweets appeared in many cases to be genuine attempts to share anger over how differently blacks and whites are treated in modern life.

Mary Pierce, 39, a special education lawyer in Boston, said she was pushed by guilt to type her story Wednesday on her iPhone as she scrolled through the stories from both hashtags: “When I was 21 I was pulled over drunk and crying from a break up. Wasn’t arrested. #CrimingWhileWhite.”

Pierce said she probably reeked like beer that day as she sped through Phoenix, mascara smeared. “The officer didn’t even give me a sobriety test,” she said. “He almost looked apologetic. I’m not trying to cause any more pain or brag with this story — just acknowledge there’s privilege. That it’s wrong.”

But the sensitive racial dimensions of #CrimingWhileWhite, some said, made it all the more painful to accept. Elon James White, a blogger, radio host and founder of This Week in Blackness, said the tweets showcased another America with which he could never play a part.

“It was a hard pill to swallow, reading those. You people were talking about drugs, causing accidents and getting off scot-free,” White said. “I’d be arrested just for thinking about it.”

White shared his own story of #AliveWhileBlack: Having forgot his wallet at work, he jumped a New York subway turnstile, only to find himself immediately arrested, jailed overnight and interrogated over other crimes.

Such tales of disparity are largely what led Lemieux, the Ebony editor magazine, to launch #AliveWhileBlack from her home in Brooklyn.

Lemieux thought of her father, a police officer, who “carefully instructed our family and friends in how to deal with police officers. … Unfortunately, there are skills you need to survive the police.”

Even agreeing on the singular message from hundreds of thousands of disparate stories became a sticking point. Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he supported the hashtag as a movement for racial justice but was worried by the implicit problem of whites feeling comfortable posting about past crimes.

“The absurdity of persistent racism in America means that white Americans rarely think about privilege,” Zuckerman said, “and black Americans are forced to think about vulnerability and targeting all the time.”

But Zuckerman said, in a conversation, Sherrilyn Ifill, a director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, told him that she saw the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag as an encouraging sign that whites were both acknowledging the privilege and recognizing its implications.

“She told me she was happily retweeting,” Zuckerman said.