BlackVoices: Online Community or Virtual Ghetto?

Last week, the Huffington Post celebrated the launch of BlackVoices, a new section of the website dedicated to African-American issues and perspectives, which is intended to provide a much-needed response to the neglect and distortion of black interests in the traditional mainstream media.

BlackVoices is an admirable addition to the national and global news media because it takes a progressive step towards building an online community of African-Americans, providing a forum for the underrepresented to speak out. It also honestly appraises what founder Arianna Huffington coins the “split-screen” scenario in black America: cultural vibrancy and political leadership on one side, and pervasive social and economic problems on the other.

But, despite its positive intentions, BlackVoices falls short of its goal to make African-American issues part of the “national conversation.”

Separating black issues and perspectives from the mainstream news and lifestyle channels turns Huffington’s “split-screen” metaphor into a literal reality that splits our computer screens into virtual ghettos of black and (overwhelmingly) white voices. As America tries to find its post-racial chapter, this dividing of issues and interests along racial lines is ineffective and self-defeating.

BlackVoices aims to remedy the underrepresentation of African-Americans in journalism, where they account for only 5% of the workforce, despite constituting 13% of the overall population. But, instead of diversifying the national conversation by giving black voices more opportunities to speak on HuffPo, BlackVoices starts a separate conversation. As a result, black voices are speaking, but they are not necessarily being heard.

By putting structural American problems into a racial context, BlackVoices also treats poverty as a strictly black issue, rather than a national problem. The channel seeks to address the socio-economic crisis in black communities, including low incomes, soaring joblessness, and high crime rates, which challenge African-Americans’ realization of the American Dream. But, it fails to identify and address the root cause: structural and sustained poverty that affects at least one in seven Americans, regardless of race. Although African-American families are affected disproportionately by poverty, it is essential that the crisis is recognized as socio-economic, not racial, and treated as a collective American problem in need of a solution.

The division of interests on racial lines also reinforces cultural stereotypes and assumes homogeneity of interests based on race. BlackVoices blogger Issa Rae directly criticises the effort to find “a specific, limited definition ... of ‘blackness,’” yet the streamlined content about black musicians, sports stars, and entertainers presents a narrow definition of black culture and overlooks the fact that American pop culture transcends racial boundaries. Race is a critical element in identity development, especially in minority communities, but interests are also shaped by a multitude of factors including religion, socio-economic class, geography, and education, such that common interests cannot be grouped by race alone.

But some African-Americans argue that solutions to the problems in the black community should “come from us” and that “we will speak for ourselves” on issues important to the black community in an exclusive forum.

It is vitally important that African-Americans and other minorities have a voice and the opportunity to make it heard in the national media, and the Huffington Post has led the way in guaranteeing that opportunity. But, challenging the persistence of racial inequalities and discrimination depends on integrating black interests and black voices on the HuffPo front page and redefining them as collective interests rather than separate ones.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons