Rashad Robinson, Color of Change Director, Is Building a Civil Rights Movement for the Digital Age


ON THE FOURTH and final morning of last summer’s Democratic National Convention, Rashad Robinson rose early, selected a hat to match his suit, and traveled via Uber to a converted industrial WeWork installation in an otherwise barren and unprepossessing section of Northeast Philadelphia. Robinson runs Color of Change, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, and he was taking an hour out of a grueling convention schedule (panels, parties) to tape an episode of a political reality show.

The program was called Party Girls, and it followed a handful of first-time voters, all of them millennial women of color, through the rigors of a crash course in electoral politics. Robinson had been called to appear in his usual role as an avatar of social justice’s future. “FDR had radio,” he told me late the night before, when I asked him why he’d agreed to the show when so much else was going on, “and JFK had TV. Obama had the Internet.” Now is the age of reality television and social media. The problem with that landscape, he continued, is that “the villain is the star. You get followers by being harsh.” Robinson wanted to demonstrate, especially to younger activists, that social-media strategy could be about more than simple, incendiary cultivation of rage and shame.

Party Girls was being filmed in an overheated cubby of a WeWork office, and Robinson stood out against the overeager decor of chipped, exposed concrete, midcentury-modern knockoffs, and a Ping-Pong conference table. He wore a three-piece suit with a faint pinstripe and had chosen, from his extensive hat rotation, a blue felt fedora with brown piping. His head is a dimpled sphere in the shadow of these hats, which seem to float a millimeter above the hairline on the updraft of his smile. It had been days since Robinson had managed more than three or four hours of sleep, but he nonetheless had the glint of a newly minted copper.

THE REALITY SHOW contestants filed in, introduced themselves around, and seemed immediately at ease in the company of someone whose appearance both resembled and undermined that of the traditional authority figure. He told them how Color of Change had been founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the late summer of 2005. The image that had inspired political activists James Rucker and Van Jones (now a regular CNN contributor) to establish the organization, Robinson said, was of “black folks literally on their roofs begging for something to happen.” These were the very early days of online organizing; back then, just the notion of a large email list—as antiquated as this idea seems now—promised communication on an unprecedented scale. If the TV networks were sluggish to cover stories like Katrina, Color of Change would bypass those legacy outlets. Their first email went out to some 1,000 people a few weeks after Katrina hit. The subject line read, in its entirety, “Kanye was right.”

The Party Girls contestants had been perhaps 8 or 9 years old at the time, but they didn’t have to be reminded of what Kanye had been right about: that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. Robinson continued, “They had some T-shirts made at the time that said Kanye was right. They’re collectors’ items now. But, the thing is—” he broke off into a sly, sheepish smile. One woman giggled. “You don’t know when you can wear them or not?”

Robinson, who says he has no poker face, lit up as though he’d tasted something sweet. “Yeah! You never know which news cycle you’re in.” (On any given day, Kanye West might be comparing himself to Picasso, Steve Jobs, or God.) “So you can’t really wear it around unless you’re up on things.”

The joke captured something profound about the problem of concentrated leadership; if black activism depends on the consistency of someone like Kanye, there might be some distractions on the way to structural change. Over the decade since Color of Change was founded, as social-media campaigns have driven crowds into Tahrir Square and Ferguson, the advantages and drawbacks of decentralized tactics have become clear. The process works well in the quicksilver proliferation of broad sentiment—fury, elation, despair—and can in turn prompt spontaneous protest in the streets. This sort of action draws a lot of attention to what’s wrong, and such methods propelled Color of Change’s early growth: Through petitions and hashtags, they mobilized their membership to make MSNBC fire conservative commentator Pat Buchanan on grounds of racial dog-whistling and pushed for Lou Dobbs’ resignation from CNN.

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Source: Wired.com | GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS