Mother Jones: How do you think the idea of using the Internet to target specific groups will have an impact on the way groups in Washington reach out to African Americans?
Chris Rabb: Well, that already exists because in this very segregated society we already have parallel universes of communication and media. So we have black newspapers, we have black radio stations, we have black magazines, we have black books. So presently, the Democratic Party, Republican Party, consultants, campaigners, et cetera, can access black folks pretty straightforward. The question is: Do they want to spend as much money in the black community per capita as they do in other communities when everybody knows that 9 out of 10 black folk who are committed to voting are going to vote the correct way? And so if all they need to do is get Jesse, Bill Clinton, Sharpton, and now Obama, into a large black church the Sunday before the election and get CNN there. It’s cheaper to do that than to run ads; you don’t have to pay for that. And gosh, every black person listens to whatever Jesse says, so you know. I think it is a very cynical and racist shorthand strategy for not investing in black community, because they take our votes for granted.
MJ: Do you think what you call the digital ethnorati is going to be a significant factor in the political landscape and the upcoming elections?
CR: I have no idea, and I am not optimistic. But who’s to say what the future holds? There needs to be a multiracial, inclusive agenda online for those who wear a liberal or progressive label. I think the big question is what are we doing on the Internet and to what end, because why and how black folk use the Internet is very different than how white people use it. We’re less about social networking, more about information around education, housing, and health.
MJ: Why do African Americans not use social networking sites as much and focus on the information aspect of it?
CR: There may be an assumption that we’re just not there. We don’t really know. There are so many websites and new media sources that ask for everything. They ask for age, ideology, but they do not ask for race. MoveOn is the perfect example. MoveOn has I don’t know how many million members and they’ve never asked their members what race they are. Which I think is kind of absurd, because to me folks who don’t ask that but they ask everything else are organizations that are afraid of dealing with race. How can you possibly serve a diverse membership if you don’t understand their concerns? We are progressive and our identity is very obvious and very verbose: “Oh, I’m a progressive, I’m antiwar, whatever.” But why not ethnicity? At the very heart of American society is the whole creation of race. So not talking about it is very naïve or maybe something far more sinister.
So if I go to a social networking site and I’m not asked about race when I’m signing up, I’m going to have a very low expectation for connecting with people of color and African Americans in particular. And if it is intentionally designed to do so, then I think most African Americans can pick up on that fairly quickly. And also we find out about things based on who our friends tell us to visit. MoveOn is incredibly popular, but I’ve never met an active black person in MoveOn.
MJ: That’s really interesting.
CR: What it is is segregated. It’s the same segregation that exists offline. Despite the fact that it’s not about an explicit political ideology. They’re not talking about these issues in a meaningful manner and that is a real problem. The leadership of these organizations largely is ignorant. They don’t know how to do it and they do not have the will to do it. Maybe it’s because they feel inadequate or maybe because they feel doing so would be a distraction from more important things. And if it’s the latter, you’ve lost many of us because so many of us believe that race and racism is very real and until we can address this stuff candidly, we can’t do anything else.
MJ: What about on other social networking sites?
CR: I suspect that probably-there is probably reasonable parity, racial parity on MySpace. I don’t know who over the age of 21 spends a lot of time on MySpace who’s not a campaign worker or a marketer or a pedophile. I doubt that there is a majority of people on MySpace who are a) old enough to vote, b) registered to vote, and c) who actually vote. I know they have all these big things for Obama or Hillary or John Edwards, but what it would take for me to visit those sites. What info am I going to get from Obama MySpace that I can’t get from barackobama.com?
MJ: So is open-source politics reality or hype?
CR: It’s ultimately votes. At the end of the day it’s the right votes from the right people in the right states. You gotta get your poll numbers up, which means you gotta get publicity, you gotta get media coverage. So now that MySpace and YouTube are part of media and the creation of buzz, that stuff is important. But there has to be a correlation between that stuff and people giving money.
So for instance, will Barack Obama advertise online and will he cater some of his stuff explicitly to black people? Maybe not explicitly, but intentionally tailor some of his content to black people online? I don’t know. Where will his people put the money that is going to reach black people online? It’s not going to be Daily Kos. It’s not going to be Huffington Post. It’s not going to be MyDD or Eschaton or whatever the major white blogs.
You have the corporate-owned black media, which is not particularly thrilled with scaring off corporate money for fear that they are too partisan or too black or too democratic, so that leaves the small built-in-my-living-room-over-the-weekend kind of websites that reach 500 people there, and 1,000 people here—that sort of thing. This is also symptomatic of the huge, huge racial wealth gap. The people who could afford to sleep on Howard Dean’s couch in Vermont are the same people who can raise the money to build a digital consultancy or a social-networking site. They have the social capital to raise real money, which the African American middle class, which is much poorer than the white middle class, can’t afford to do.