As soon as Theo Wilson started making YouTube videos about culture and race, trolls using racial slurs started flocking to his page.
After engaging in endless sparring matches in the comments section, Wilson began to notice something curious: His trolls seemed to speak a language unto themselves, one replete with the same twisted facts and false history. It was as if they had all passed through some “dimensional doorway,” arriving from an alternative universe where history, politics and commonly accepted facts had been turned inside out.
There was the idea that slavery was a form of charity that benefited enslaved Africans; that freed blacks owned more slaves than whites before the Civil War; that people of color make up the majority of those receiving aid from America's safety-net programs; and that investor and philanthropist George Soros is funding protest movements like Black Lives Matter.
Curious about where his trolls were getting their revisionist history lessons, Wilson, 36, — an award-winning poet and actor from Denver — decided to go undercover in their world. In 2015, he started by creating a ghost profile named “Lucious25,” a digital white supremacist who appeared to be an indigenous member of the alt-right's online echo chamber, he said.
His avatar was John Carter, the Confederate hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs's science fiction series about death-defying adventures on Mars.
Within a few weeks Wilson's alternate identity was questioning President Barack Obama's birthplace, railing against Black Lives Matter and bemoaning people he called “race-baiters,” such as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. After several months, he was a disaffected fixture on alt-right websites that draw white supremacists — such as Info Wars and American Renaissance — and in the comments section of racist YouTube videos.
“To be honest, it was kind of exhilarating,” Wilson told an audience during a recent TEDx talk about his experience. “I would literally spend days clicking through my new racist profile, goofing off at work in Aryan land.”
During his eight months as a racist troll, Wilson never revealed his true identity. When it was all over, Wilson said, he came to appreciate the way in which the far-right media bubble disables its participants — offering an endless stream of scapegoats for their problems but no credible solutions.
We spoke with the poet about his experience, whether white supremacists are redeemable and why he believes liberals should listen to the far-right. The interview has been edited for length.
How did it feel to assume the identity of a person who — if real — would presumably hate you and everything you represent?
It was painful at first. I'm still me. This isn't like the blind Dave Chapelle KKK character who didn't know he was black. To get beneath the pain, I had to begin to dissociate from myself as a black person. The pin pricks didn't go away, but it began to feel like a character study. I've acted before, and the muscle I developed learning theater allowed me to do this. Acting teaches you that you can't just act, you have to be, so I would sort of tell myself I was Daniel Day Lewis or Denzel Washington becoming a role.
As you became more familiar with the alt-right online, what shocked you most about their views?
That there are still people who think black people are not fully human and that we are lagging in terms of evolution. The comments I'd read about our facial features being monkey-like and dark skin being proof of primitiveness were shocking. The fact is that there are people who believe that the difference between us is the difference between two species, not a race. I was raised with so many examples of black excellence and nothing about inferiority. Meanwhile, the folks on these forums are still discussing phrenology. Who uses phrenology anymore? We mapped the human genome!
After spending time in the white supremacist universe, do you consider all of them “bad people”?
It's wise to avoid absolutes. “Bad” generally means “irredeemable” and “disposable.” Therefore, if I thought everyone in the alt-right were any of these, the experiment would be useless.
You mention that in their forums they're also seeking “answers” to questions. What are they trying to resolve?
In today's America, they're struggling to understand why they'll have less opportunity than their father's generation. They also want answers to basic questions about race in America, such as: What's the point of multiculturalism? Why can only black people say the “N” word? How is racism not over when LeBron James and Oprah have huge bank accounts? How is affirmative action anything other than reverse racism? Why shouldn't I be proud to be white if someone else is proud to be black?
Were you struck by the reality that infiltrating this world would've been nearly impossible for you at almost any other time in American history? You would've been putting your life at risk.
This experiment was completely a product of the digital age. Even when the reverse was done in the book “Black Like Me,” there's always that chance you could be discovered, but here that's extremely unlikely unless someone is a hacker. The Internet is sort of what a car is to road rage. The glass and steel create this bubble of perceived safety, which amplifies people's rage, but keeps them from having to deal with the consequences of that rage. There is an honesty that is exposed in the process.
You talk about “breaking out of the digital divide.” Technology offers us the chance to connect with new people and ideas, but you don't believe it's a reliable tool for combating racism. Why is that?
James Baldwin accurately diagnosed the white culture’s need for shadow projection onto black bodies as being the roots of racism. A smartphone and an iPad won't address this need. All they do is reinforce our wants and desires, so if these desires are immature, we never grow. Racism is a comfy cage, and technology hasn't provided the key for getting out. We need to have courageous, face-to-face conversations with difficult people outside of the security of our laptops.
You talk about racists with something approaching compassion. Does that suggest you're hopeful about our chances of defeating racism?
Just because this experience made me more compassionate doesn't mean I'm more hopeful. My compassion comes from knowing these people are still so vulnerable to social programming. But the social forces that make racism commonplace aren't necessarily going away. Look at what happened in Charlottesville, for example. How did a brand-new generation of white guys get that hateful? They never joined their dad in a lynch mob. They never smelled the burning flesh of a Negro in a town square or lived in Jim Crow America. And yet, they still adopted those hateful attitudes. That doesn't make me hopeful at all.
This article by Representative Angela Williams suggests the possibilites for legislation that might be introduced. There is a story on FaceBook today 1/23/2015 that a bill is being introuduced that calls for requiring Police Departments to keep track of incidents of police misbehavior.
By Chris Lebron
January 18, 2015 7:15 pm January 18, 2015 7:15 pm 294 Comments
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
I am very honored to be addressing you here today, though it is not without some trepidation.
You see, the distance between where I grew up, where I come from in the world, and where many of you sit is significant. That I am where I am in the world sometimes surprises me. So I consider it an especially pressing duty to be mindful of my journey; and, when possible, to remind others that such a journey is just that for some of us — a setting out without a clear sense that we will get where we intend to go.
If you are celebrating this holiday as a victory over racial injustice, I cannot join you.
Representing the point of view that I do — as a brown American from a lower-class background, with the good fortune today to walk the halls of one of America’s most elite institutions as a teacher of philosophy — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is taken to represent a triumph. But here is an uncomfortable truth: It is a triumph of acceptable minimums rather than full respect for those who continue to wait for Dr. King’s dream to become reality.
My purpose is to challenge the common belief that honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. means the same thing to all Americans. Recalling the sense of disconnect expressed by Frederick Douglass in his speech “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” — between himself as a former slave and his white audience — I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.
That may seem narrow or bitter. You may argue that the holiday has taken greater hold in the nation over time. Who today questions the validity of this holiday? Many of us have been given a day off work to reflect on it. A blockbuster Hollywood movie about Dr. King’s role in one of the civil rights movement’s greatest victories is playing in theaters nationwide. Clothes, furniture, bedding and cars are on sale to honor the man. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems, now belongs to more of the nation than ever before.
But I maintain that it does not fully belong in the most profound ways to many Americans, and to some of them, it does not belong at all.
Selma, Ala.Credit Jim Young/Reuters
I think it goes without question that not only has the idea of a post-racial America proven to be a myth, but that racial inequality remains a tragic mark on the character of this otherwise great nation — a nation founded on respect not only for what persons hope to accomplish in life but for what they are: humans owed rights, liberty and respect because of their humanity. The equal recognition of humanity has only intermittently taken hold with respect to black lives. The closeness of Emmett Till and Eric Garner attest to that.
This was Dr. King’s great struggle in his life. While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks. The mark of true love, for Dr. King, was to embrace strangers as familiars, and conversely, to deny that blacks’ humanity was a new and strange thing. There is hope in the thought that Dr. King is fervently embraced by so many Americans today, and there is consolation that his struggle gave us the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
My purpose today, however, is to reflect on the nature of this embrace. When you celebrate Dr. King, what are you cheering? Do you cheer the greatness of a man who fully knew his journey’s destination was insecure? The greatness of a man who paid the ultimate price so that my son could vote and sit in class alongside your children? If so, I am happy to join you. Do you celebrate his struggle as a resounding success that ushered in a new age of race relations? Do you intend to show appreciation for the notion that he helped us move past a difficult moment in American history? If so, then I cannot join you. And I fear that I observe the tendency to celebrate not so much the man but the hope that claiming him for all Americans exculpates us from the sins of inhumanity that is racial marginalization.
White Americans have adopted the idea that securing racial justice was a matter of the passing of a law and the martyrdom of a great man.
To say today that racial inequality is wrong is easy. Anyone can say it, and, in fact, most people do. It is true, there was a time when to pronounce on the equality of all men and women, regardless of color, was not only disallowed but also treacherous territory, as Dr. King learned. But it is important to note that as truly great a person as Dr. King was, he was not the only person to face the danger that came with insisting on social justice. Nor were blacks as a group the only group to face that danger. As has been known, and as we are being reminded with the film “Selma,” white Americans were key to the success of Dr. King’s movement, and some paid an equally heavy price.
The actions of these Americans were deeply honorable, for they faced down the expectation that social power imposes upon us at all times — to stay the course rather than to agitate for change; to take comfort in small moral affirmations in the presence of our peers rather than to challenge the staid beliefs of the privileged. The actions of these Americans serve to remind us that there is hope in the ideas of humanity and compassion, but that without it, America threatens to be false to its past, to its present, leaving our future insecure.
These words might sound anachronistic, as if this were 1955, not 2015. In 1962, Dr. King remarked in his speech “The Case Against ‘Tokenism’” that racial justice was an idea whose time had come. He wrote: “The issue is not whether segregation and discrimination will be eliminated but how they will pass from the scene.”
Dr. King’s conviction seems prescient as the Civil Rights Act remained two years away. But one wonders what to make of this conviction today as segregation not only remains alive and well in many parts of America’s neighborhoods and schools, but is also in some cases worsening. One wonders what to make of the claim that discrimination will soon be a thing of the past when in the 21st century our best researchers have shown that a black individual with an “ethnic” sounding name faces poorer chances of being invited for a job interview than a white American even if the two résumés are identical. Yet anyone who thinks this is a shortcoming on Dr. King’s part fails to employ the better parts of his or her critical judgment.
From Dr. King’s perspective his faith — and that’s what is was, faith — was in ways warranted: He watched a movement to claim for blacks equal status grow into one of American history’s most momentous movements and stand down centuries of white supremacy. Though he faced headwinds, he also perceived that the promised land was at least in sight. No — the failing is not his. The fact that 53 years later neither segregation nor discrimination have been eliminated indicates the eagerness with which white Americans have adopted the idea that securing racial justice was a matter of the passing of a law and the martyrdom of a great man. But this clearly will not do.
During the days of slavery one could identify a person analogous to the swine-drover in the meat market. This person — we might call him a man-drover — rather than ushering pigs to market to be sold as a transferable commodity, did so with blacks. It goes without question that this treatment was inhumane. It made blacks into something less than human, things to be traded as objects to fuel economic necessity.
You may think that these days are long past but consider the case of Ferguson, Mo., — a city of 21,135 people, predominantly black, that served 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013. This remarkable level of surveillance and interdiction incidentally generated for Ferguson more than $2.5 million in revenue from fines and court fees — the city’s second largest source of revenue. I ask you, what is this except the return of the drover in the mask of state legitimacy? In a nation where blacks possess only on average a dime of wealth for every dollar of white wealth, how is this reclamation of scarce resources anything but the continuation of oppression by other means, the reduction of blacks to instruments of economic necessity and exploitation?
A life of civic goodness is always near enough, but we must often stretch to fully grasp it.
If this does not convince you, listen to the audio track of Eric Garner’s last words. In a tragic sense, his plea — “I can’t breathe” — is the soundtrack of black life under conditions of deep unfairness and disregard: When we use the breath we have to ask for the rights and respect that ought to be ours, we have little breath to accomplish much else. Everyday life becomes the double struggle of working not only for what we need but also for securing that to which we are entitled in any case. Dr. King may have seen the promised land, but we appear to be anchored off its coast.
What can get us on course? What can unmoor us from our current predicament toward the promise of genuine American freedom for all? Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. I am concerned that his statement is sometimes taken to hold a view of historical necessity — that oppression has a shelf life, that marginalization has an expiration date.
Despite his religious convictions, Dr. King’s life was marked by the relationship between moral sense and action. The arc of the moral universe is long but bends only where the actions of good and brave people put to shame and rest the beliefs of the morally lazy and untoward. That is why moral life is work, and that is why racial justice is hard to secure. The arc of the moral universe is no more predetermined than is our will to show gratitude for an act of kindness. A life of civic goodness is always near enough, but we must often stretch to fully grasp it — to merely see it and praise it from the comfort of self-congratulatory appreciation is empty and a disappointment to better moral sensibilities.
I would have greatly preferred to present thoughts more joyous than these, but joy in a time of injustice is a very great luxury, one indulged in by either the willfully blind or the callously indifferent. The rest of us must come to terms with what we face and where we are headed. It is as Dr. King says: The arc of the moral universe is long; and it does bend where dissatisfied courage triumphs over privileged contentment. Daily I pray for the courage to do my small part to bend the arc and bring us into right relationship with the good and the just. It is my duty. But it is not mine alone.
If this holiday is to someday belong to all of us, then you must also bear the burden. The great victory comes then: When the burden is shared, so then is the aspiration to show one another genuine love that Dr. King exhorted us to express. So then will his day become both yours and mine as he would have wished. And that is cause for celebration.
This essay is adapted from the transcript of a speech given by the author to the Greenwich, Conn., YWCA on Jan. 15, 2015.
Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University and the author of “The Color Of Our Shame: Race and Justice in our Time.”