By Megan Izzo, Editor-in-Chief
On the evening of Tuesday, February 7, noted social justice activist Shaun King appeared in a sold-out Hogan Ballroom to address members of the College and the greater Worcester community. King, who is senior justice writer for the New York Daily News and a political commentator for The Young Turks, is a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and is best known for his widespread social media activism. His keynote speech, entitled “Civil Rights Today,” was sponsored by Holy Cross’ Black Student Union (BSU) and encompassed many of the issues about which King is vocal—including racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality.
BSU co-chairs Jared Boone ‘17 and Alliyah Veilleux ‘17, who introduced King at the event, have each cited King’s influential social media presence as a key factor in the group’s decision to invite him to Holy Cross. King is highly active on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and believes that social media “connects us in special ways,” in that it allows injustice anywhere to be seen and felt by people everywhere. For King, it’s unquestionable that improvements in technology have helped to globalize activist efforts like his own—but it’s crucial, he told his audience members, not to confuse the improvement of technology with the improvement of humanity.
Much of King’s talk centered on this theme of progress: the idea that humanity is steadily improving year after year, century after century.
“There’s something in us that wants to believe that human beings are steadily getting better,” he told the audience, displaying a bar graph of linear growth. “We want to believe, our parents want to believe, that they left [the world] a little better. And you will want to believe that you made it a little better.”
But this belief, King repeated, was just that: a belief and a hope, not a fact.
“What [German historian] Leopold von Ranke found, as he studied human history…was that humanity did not look like this,” King said, indicating the bar graph again. “Technology does look like this. Any technology. The car. The wheel. Buildings, flight, fuel, construction. Technology was steadily improving, but what Ranke found…was that humanity was more like this,” he said, as the linear bar graph changed to a jagged line with peaks and valleys.
Over the past year, King noted, he’d observed thousands of people on social media confronting incidents of racial injustice with phrases such as “What is this, the 60s?” Following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last summer, the phenomenon became even more widespread.
“People are saying, I thought we had evolved to a point where this didn’t happen,” said King. “It feels like we are in another time. They say that because their concept of time is that we are steadily evolving, steadily improving…But here’s the thing. If this is true, that would make Donald Trump peak humanity. Nobody believes that. Conservatives don’t even believe that.”
To illustrate his point, King interspersed the linear bar graph with images of racial violence and injustice, showing photos of concentration camp survivors and enslaved plantation workers alongside videos of recent assaults on Black victims—many of them taking place at Trump rallies. “If this is true,” he said of the bar graph, “how can this be true? How can he be true? How can she be true? Humanity is not a steady progression…but a series of peaks and valleys.”
In some ways, the steady progression of technology may be a way to counteract humanity’s lack of the same forward movement. King views social media as an avenue through which Americans can come to recognize the pervasiveness of racial injustice—and all injustice—in our country. Because social media and the Internet allow people to more easily see what is happening in the world, King believes that they can serve as a galvanizing force that will continue to encourage more people to fight for change. Viral videos of assault and racial violence, such as the ones King played during his talk, are one prominent example of how social media can fuel activism and make a difference.
“[People see] the dehumanization of people, of women; the normalization of not just ugliness, but violence. Students here tonight…they see all of this and they take it very personally. It doesn’t feel far away,” said King.
Social media has also allowed Black students and citizens in more affluent areas to connect more closely with their counterparts in inner cities, King told BSU members in a private gathering before the talk. Universalized movements such as Black Lives Matter likewise play a crucial role in bringing people together to fight against injustice and counteract the deep valley, or “dip,” in which humanity is currently mired.
“I think that [Black Lives Matter] has led to a social awakening in our generation that’s not going to die,” said BSU co-chair Jared Boone ‘17. “There aren’t as many students of color on campus as some of us would like, so it makes our mission that much more important.”
According to King, college students in general have always played, and will continue to play, a special role in advancing social change and battling injustice.
“I don’t say this rhetorically, I mean it,” he told students before the talk. “College students are always at the forefront of fighting for change. College students in our lives to come are going to be fighting for a better America.”
Photograph courtesy of The Worcester Telegram & Gazette