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20 July 2016

'What have White people ever done for us?'


In a week of angry demonstrations and soul-searching following the fatal shootings of two black men by police officers, and five police officers by a black gunman, the issue of race is again centre stage in US national debate.

These tensions have been reflected in several social media trends that express solidarity with the African-American community, notably the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag which has become the rallying cry for an active protest movement.

But in the last couple of days the double-edged use of newer tags such as #WhitePrivilegeMeans and #WhiteInventions has revealed further divisions and nuances when it comes to question of race.

On Monday morning #WhiteInventions was one of the top trends on Twitter in the US and was used more than 30,000 times. An early tweet widely shared using the hashtag came from Whitey McPrivilege, an account, which as its name might suggest, prides itself in annoying liberals. In the tweet Mr McPrivilege called on "caucasiophobes" to pipe down and be grateful for all the wonderful inventions that he credited to white people.


If this was intended to provoke a reaction then it worked. Some people responded in kind by posting that the first pinhole camera was invented by Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham in 1021 AD. Others suggested that some of the discoveries on the McPrivilege list depended heavily on the pioneering investigation of algebra by the 9th Century Persian mathematician, Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi.

But there were several people who expressed support for the sentiments of Whitey McPrivilege.

  

This sort of hashtag hijacking was not an isolated case. Over the weekend #WhitePrivilegeMeans was used more 340,000 times mostly by people wishing to express the sentiment that non-whites get a significantly worse deal from US society than whites.


Others mentioned Dylann Roof, the man accused of gunning down nine people inside a historic black church in South Carolina in 2015, who was bought a Burger King meal by police while he was in custody.





Perhaps needless to say when views are as polarised as those revealed by the 'white' hashtags then statistics put up by one side are disputed by the other.

The statistical basis for the above tweet, for example, is contested by Sam Sinyangwe, who is a researcher who started the Mapping Police Violence project. He told the BBC:

"Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people in 2014. And that's taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here."

However, a new study, spanning 10 years and looking at more than 1,000 cases, released by Harvard University, stated that while black men and women are more likely to be "touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer", there was no evidence of intended racial bias when it came to shootings by police officers.

But whatever the figures underlying the existence or non-existence of "white privilege" some on social media feel the outbreak of racially-slanted hashtags is not doing anybody any good.