Debating Race in Cyberspace
D.C. E-Mail Lists Allow
Spirited Discussions at a Safe Distance
By Henri E. Cauvin
Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006; B01
It didn't take long
for the e-mail lists to light up.
Andy Solberg, a well-liked police
commander, had been reassigned after
saying that black people were an
unusual sight in Georgetown.
Faster than anyone could call an
down-at-the-elementary-school community meeting,
e-mail lists in
Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase and elsewhere were
First came a flurry of testimonials for the embattled acting
of the 2nd Police District, defending him and sometimes sticking
his comments. And then came the angry replies, from people appalled
what seemed to be open support among their neighbors for racial
profiling as a police policy.
Suddenly people more accustomed to
going online to compare contractor
references and complain about missed
recycling pickups found themselves
engulfed in a forum about race and crime
in a city long defined by both.
"So, yes, black people do live in
Georgetown, but their numbers are very
few. It is not racist to state this
fact," a man wrote on the Cleveland
Park e-mail list. "To be suspicious at
the sight of a couple of young
black men hanging out along the quiet
residential streets of Georgetown
after 2 o'clock in the morning is not
racial profiling, it is common sense."
The next day came a reply: "No, it
is racial profiling. If you think
they are suspicious primarily because they
are black, that is the
definition of racial profiling. We can't have people
citizens should call 911 whenever they see a black man in
And so it went for days, a raw, impromptu
debate almost unimaginable
anywhere but online -- fueled by the immediacy of
and stimulated by the sense of security that comes
with composing your
thoughts in the solitude of your home.
people are reluctant to talk openly and deeply about race,
strangers. But in the furor that erupted after
Solberg's comments, people
expressed themselves with a candor that to
some was open and refreshing and
to others was abrasive and ignorant.
Solberg had made his remarks at a
community meeting July 10, a day after
a white man from Britain was slain in
Georgetown. Four black people were
charged in the killing. Urging anxious
residents to report suspicious
activity to police, Solberg said, "This is
not a racial thing to say
that black people are unusual in Georgetown. This
is a fact of life."
The next day, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey reassigned
him, saying his
comments at the meeting were unacceptable.
Northwest, where in just a few months Solberg had established
himself as a
fast-acting commander, was soon up in arms, demanding his
After Solberg made a public apology, Ramsey reinstated
him -- but by then,
the public debate was on.
"He is not a racist. He was doing his job. He
may not have been
politically correct but he was direct," one woman wrote on
Park list a couple of days after Solberg's reassignment. " . .
Sometimes, you know something is not right, but how do you tell the
police without sounding racist?"
A couple of days later, a woman
offered her take. "Sure people should
remain vigilant and report suspicious
activity, but stating that black
people are unusual in Georgetown is racist.
Tell that to all the black
people who come to Georgetown to shop or eat out,
or all of the students
who attend Ellington, Georgetown U, GW,
This was not the first time that a big issue such as race or class
surfaced on a neighborhood e-mail list in the District. But the breadth
and energy of the debate were a sign of how important the lists have
become as more and more people turn to them, often to talk to the people
just down the street.
"I think it was really healthy," said Peggy
Robin, who moderates the
4,300-member Cleveland Park list with her husband,
Bill Adler. "I think
it got a lot of dialogue going that otherwise never
would have happened."
E-mail lists are changing the way neighbors
communicate. In many
respects, it's for the better. But not always, say some
people, and few
subjects are as fraught with possibilities -- and perils --
Which is why Don Squires of Shepherd Park thought "long and
diving into the debate.
"Those kind of subjects do not
do well on Listservs," said Squires, who
knows Solberg from Shepherd
Elementary, the Northwest Washington school
their children have attended. "I
think those subjects are best discussed
face to face, in person, so people
can explain fully what they mean and
things are not misinterpreted.
Listservs are prone to people
overreacting and people dashing off quick
e-mails without thinking."
In the Chevy Chase neighborhood, the always
busy list of more than 1,700
members was even busier than usual with
discussions about the commander.
"I have received several offline
messages from people who tell me I just
don't get it," one woman wrote. "I
find it interesting that the writers,
none of whom I know personally, all
assume I am Caucasian and/or have
never suffered discrimination. I don't
want to reopen that discussion
but only want to point out that many of us
tend to make snap judgments
about a person based on a few words with no
Reggie Sanders wrote back: "Perhaps the reason you don't get it
because you may not have to. You are so concerned about Officer
Solberg's reputation and future job prospects you gloss over the fact
that his words, as a sworn public servant, could lead to a larger issue
affecting many lives."
Sanders, a public relations consultant who
recently moved from Chevy
Chase to Manor Park, said he was stunned at how
unconcerned some of his
old neighbors were about the substance of Solberg's
"A lot of these people have grown up and gone on with most of
lives and never had any interaction with people who didn't look like
them," he said in an interview.
So he spoke up, not so much to scold
but to enlighten others who might
not have been stopped at gunpoint by
police, as he once was, he said.
"The Listserv gave us a place to talk
about this. I didn't get into the
race-baiting and the name-calling and the
smart-aleck remarks. What I
was trying to say was I want to keep the
dialogue going," he said.
And that is the goal, said the founder and
moderator of the Chevy Chase
list, Mary Rowse. "People are given an
opportunity to weigh in on any
subject, and people weigh in
thoughtfully," she said.
At an Advisory Neighborhood Commission
meeting or at Starbucks, that
wouldn't necessarily happen, she said. People
would be cut off, by the
clock or by another person. On the e-mail list,
people actually have
time to think about what someone said and about what
they are going to
say in reply, and what they say reaches far more people
than it ever
would during an ordinary neighborhood meeting or a stop at the
But civility is not always easy to maintain, particularly
contentious, complicated topic such as race surfaces, as it did
"People felt like it gave them free rein to say and do things that
might not otherwise publicly say," Michele Pollak of Chevy Chase said
Pollak, a former civil rights lawyer who is white,
wrote of black
colleagues and friends who had endured particular scrutiny
simply because they were black. "I was offended by the thought
that in a
city that is majority African American that anyone should say
any place that an African American should not be," she
And the sort of candor she saw on the list was telling, she said.
think race is a hard thing to talk about, but I found it interesting
that people found it not so hard to talk about it, when it came to
racial profiling, because they viewed it as a sensible
Deborah Tannen, an author and Georgetown University linguist,
Internet "clearly makes people freer with hostile invective. . . .
There's the anonymity, there's the speed. You can dash it off and hit
that send button."
The positive side, she said, is that "everyone
gets their say."
But it can make for a confusing confluence of private
and public, she
said. "It feels private. It's your home, it's your computer
almost like you're writing in a journal. But if you were
500 people facing you, you would have the sense that you're in
forum, which is what you are in."
And as democratic and
diverse as the e-mail exchanges can be, they are
"Listservs are helpful and allow people to express their views,"
Pollin of Chevy Chase said as she read the newspaper at Starbucks,
it's not the same thing as having to sit across from another person and
listen to other ideas. Real communication isn't just about what you say.
It's about how you look, how you move. And I think we're losing
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