George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; two people who tragically became household names overnight last year. Their deaths sparked an international movement to demand that Black people be seen and treated as equal individuals. While this surge in awareness brought some legislative change and forced people to educate themselves on racism, it also led to a movement of performative activism that may have done more harm than good.

Shannon Seignious

The mistreatment of Black people at the hands of law enforcement is nothing new in the United States. Just one week after the one-year anniversary of the protest held in Graham, where protestors and Elon students gathered to join the fight against racial injustice, we are left to ponder how much has really changed in that year. Have we taken steps at Elon, in North Carolina, or even nationally to create real and lasting change?

The Black Lives Matter organization was founded in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. According to the Black Lives Matter organization’s mission statement, the body was created to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” Though they have been fighting for change and equality for several years now, the organization gained a global audience in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests organized around finding justice for him.

But why did it take long for them to receive such high recognition? 

Despite the headway made by the Black Lives Matter movement and its activists last year , the number of Black people shot to death in 2020 by law enforcement in the United States reached 1,021, the highest number since 2017. So, the question is, did all of the activism from last year actually make a difference? Why has the sense of activism died down since 2021? It is not as though police brutality has been eradicated, or even significantly dropped. In fact, the rate of fatal encounters with police in 2021 is on pace to reach a level as high as it was in 2020, according to Mapping Police Violence.

Though it may not seem as though much has been done in terms of legislative progress, there have been some state police reforms as well as progress in the passing of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Several cities such as Austin, TX and Los Angeles, CA have committed to reallocating funding from the police budget to community programs, and some states including Colorado and New York  have even passed legislation to change the use of force and accountability standards of police officers. These changes likely would not have occurred without so many people using their social media platforms to spread awareness about issues involving police brutality. However, part of the reason why there has been such a dramatic decline in social media activism in 2021 could be because of the intentions of those who were using their platforms last year. 

The role of social media

Several Yale students and professors discussed in “Full Disclosure,” a Yale daily news podcast, the difference between performative activism and genuine progress. The podcast stated, “You have this social approval that comes with posting — we conflate likes and views and follows with value — and so even with people who are of the best intentions, you’re trying to play this game, this algorithm, of social media, while trying to promote something that is inherently not individualistic.”

I am not saying that we should stop using social media to spread the word about police brutality and demand accountability for officers who abuse their power. I am merely suggesting that the next time you think of reposting a tragic story about another Black person being killed unjustly at the hands of a police officer, think about your intentions in making that post. Studies have shown that social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter play a critical role in maintaining awareness about social justice issues, but think about what other steps you are taking to further the fight against systemic racism.

Are you reposting a picture of a black box because you are seeking social approval from your friends and are scared of what the social ramifications may be if you don’t?  Or, are you posting it to show support and allyship towards a community that has faced injustice and systematic oppression for centuries? Are you using your platform to provide resources about organizations and educational pieces to help a victim’s family get the justice that they deserve? Or, are you reposting it because everyone else is?

Understanding racial issues in the nation and using social media to do it can require self reflection. By reflecting, hopefully, people can begin to see that in order to create real, transformative change, activism extends beyond social media posts. Activism starts with finding ways to focus on the people who are actually being affected by the issue.