#CrimingWhileWhite, #AliveWhileBlack, and Twitter on race

On Wednesday, in the outrage over the non-indictment of a New York City police officer after the death of Eric Garner, Jason Ross, a writer whose credits include “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” decided to protest via hashtag.

After tweeting about how he was cited for alcohol and caught with a gun at school at 17 but got off with a sealed record, he called for white people who had similarly escaped harsh punishment for reasons that may have been related to their skin color to tweet their past transgressions along with the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite.


The hashtag quickly gained popularity, garnering media attention and generating hundreds of thousands of tweets describing long-forgotten and sometimes embarrassing crimes and other encounters with law enforcement, none of which led to serious consequences.

While the Twitter outpouring has no doubt meant well, all the notice the hashtag has received raises questions. The tweets spotlight the way race may have influenced perceptions of who was a “criminal” and who wasn’t in the minds of authority figures, but if anything, all the coverage in some ways reinforces the idea of white voices being privileged. If Twitter is filled with tales of teen white transgressions, what does that say about Twitter? Whose voices are being amplified, and whose are being sidelined?

And as NPR CodeSwitch correspondent Gene Demby stated on Twitter, many of the #CrimingWhileWhite tweets have seemed to operate under an assumption that interactions between law enforcement and citizens were usually triggered by some kind of infraction. But Demby cited the NYPD’s now-abandoned stop-and-frisk policy while asserting that in communities of color, the bar for police to approach civilians was lower.

Jamilah Lemieux, a writer and editor, also countered the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag with #alivewhileblack, inviting African-American members of Twitter to share their stories about being harassed by law enforcement while engaging in mundanities like taking out the garbage and driving. The response was swift.


Taken together, the two hashtags paint a fairly stark portrayal of a topic that has been at the forefront of this country’s consciousness in recent weeks.

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @maura.