Race and Tweets

March 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nigger* is a racially charged word. And if you sort cities or states according to how frequently words like nigger turn up from them on Twitter, you’ll find large differences. In some states these words appear forty times more often than in others. But do those frequencies tell us about the local climate of race relations? The answer seems to be: it depends on who is tweeting.

In the previous post, I wondered whether the frequency of tweets with words like bitch, cunt, etc. tell us about general levels of misogyny in a state or city. Abodo.com, the Website that mapped the geography of sexist tweets, also had charts and maps showing both racially charged tweets (with words like “nigger”) and more neutral, politically correct, tweets (“African Americans” or “Black people”). Here are the maps of the two different linguistic choices.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

West Virginia certainly looks like the poster state for racism – highest in “anti-Black” tweets, and among the lowest in “neutral or tolerant” tweets. West Virginia is 95% White, so it’s clear that we’re looking at how White people there talk about Blacks. That guy who sang about the Mountaineer State being “almost heaven” – I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a Black dude. Nevada too is heavily White (75% , Black 9%), but there, tweets with polite terms well outnumber those with slurs. Probably, Nevada is a less racist place than West Virginia.

But what about states with more Blacks? Maryland, about 30% Black, is in the upper range for neutral race-tweets, but it’s far from the bottom on “anti-Black” tweets. The same is true for Georgia and Louisiana, both about 30% Black. These states score high on both kinds of tweet – what we might call, with a hat-tip to Chris Rock, “nigger tweets” and “Black people tweets.” (If you are not familiar with Rock’s “Niggers and Black People,” watch it here.) If he had released this 8-minute stand-up routine as a series of tweets, and if Chris Rock were a state instead of a person, that state would be at the top in both categories – “anti-Black” and “neutral and tolerant.” How can a state or city be both?

The answer of course is that the meaning of nigger depends on who is using it.  When White people are tweeting about Blacks, then the choice of words probably tells us about racism. But when most of the people tweeting are Black, it’s harder to know. Here, for example, are Abodo’s top ten cities for “anti-Black tweets.”

Blacks make up a large percent of the population in most of these cities.  The top four – Baltimore, Atlanta, and New Orleans – are over 50% Black. It’s highly unlikely that it’s the Whites there who are flooding Twitter with tweets teeming with “nigger, coon, dindu, jungle bunny, monkey, or spear chucker” – the words included in Abodo’s anti-Black tag.** If the tag had included niggas, the “anti-Black” count in these cities would have been even higher.

All this tells us is that Black people tweet about things concerning Black people. And since hip-hop has been around for more than thirty years, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Blacks use these words with no slur intended. When I searched Twitter yesterday for nigger, the tweets I saw on the first page were all from Black people, and some of those tweets, rather than using the word nigger were talking about the use of it.  (Needless to say, if you search for niggas, you can scroll through many, many screens trying to find a tweet with a White profile picture.)

For some reason, Abodo refused to draw this obvious conclusion. They do say in another section of the article that  “anti-Hispanic slurs have largely not been reclaimed by Hispanic and Latino people in the way that the N-word is commonly used in black communities.” So they know what’s going on. Nevertheless, in the section on Blacks, they say nothing, tacitly implying that these “anti-Black” tweets announce an anti-Black atmosphere. But that’s true only if the area is mostly White. When those tweets are coming from Blacks, it’s much more complicated.


*Abodo backs away from using the actual word. They substitute the usual euphemism – “the N-word.” As I have said elsewhere in this blog, if you can’t say the word you’re talking about when you’re talking about it as a word, then the terrorists have won. In this view, I differ from another Jay (Smooth) whose views I respect. A third Jay (Z) has no problems with using the word. A lot.

** I confess, porch monkey and dindu were new to me, but then, I don’t get out much, at least not in the right circles. Abodo ignored most of the terms in the old SNL sketch with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase.  (The available videos, last time I checked, are of low quality (this one, for instance), but like Chris Rock’s routine, it is an important document that everyone interested in race and media should be familiar with. A partial transcript is in this earlier post.)

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