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Scholarly social-media controversies have 20th-century antecedent

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

LAWRENCE – Every week, it seems, a professor or other public intellectual stirs up a hornet’s nest of controversy on social media, particularly when the question of race is at issue.

And while Twitter is often the locus of these brouhahas, such controversies are nothing new, according to a Shawn Alexander, a University of Kansas associate professor of African & African-American studies who wrote about the topic in an Aug. 31 article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Alexander traces these controversies back 90 years to a scholarly article by E. Franklin Frazier, then-Morehouse College professor of sociology and director of the Atlanta School of Social Work, which led to death threats against Frazier and his exodus from Atlanta.

Alexander is available to discuss the history of such scholarly controversies with the media. A link to his article is here: http://diverseeducation.com/article/101015/

Frazier’s 1927 article was titled “The Pathology of Race Prejudice.” In it, he argued that many Southern whites had been driven mad by a “Negro-complex,” causing “otherwise kind and law-abiding” people to “indulge in the most revolting forms of cruelty towards black people.”

Alexander links this episode with more recent ones, including those involving:

  • Tommy Curry, associate professor of philosophy at Texas A&M, who faced death threats after being accused of advocating violence during a 2012 podcast interview where he discussed racial violence and Quentin Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained.”
  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, who canceled speaking engagements after receiving death threats for her criticism of President Donald Trump during a commencement address.
  • Johnny Eric Williams, associate professor of sociology at Trinity College, who received death threats after individuals concluded that his use of a hashtag was advocating racial violence.

Alexander says social media today can be a place for “productive scholarship,” yet Twitter, particularly, with its 140-character limit, is prone to misunderstanding.

“It can be easily misconstrued or manipulated to mean what someone may want,” Alexander said. “There is little space or nuance.”

The controversies are then amplified, Alexander writes, by a “social-media ecosystem and conservative news outlets such as Infowars, Breitbart and Campus Reform that swelled in the Obama years, but has gained a certain amount of energy and audacity in the era of Donald Trump.”

Alexander calls on universities to support their scholars in tough times as much or more than they promote them in good times.

If you’d like to interview Alexander on this topic, please contact KU News Service Public Affairs Officer Rick Hellman, 785-864-8852 or rick_hellman@ku.edu.