#BBUM and New Media Blacktivism

This piece explores the use of new media tools and platforms by minority groups to bring attention to, and rally support for, issues that might otherwise be ignored. This essay first appeared in the Internet Monitor project’s second annual report, Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World. The report, published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is a collection of roughly three dozen short contributions that highlight and discuss some of the most compelling events and trends in the digitally networked environment over the past year.

On November 7, 2006, the people of the state of Michigan voted 58% to 42% to prohibit the consideration of race, among other criteria, in the admissions process at state universities. The vote marked the culmination of efforts begun by Ward Connerly and the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative following the 2003 Supreme Court rulings in twin cases (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) that targeted the University of Michigan’s admissions process. Connerly’s stop in Michigan was preceded by a similar effort in California, where he helped pass Proposition 209 in 1996.

Following the 2006 vote, the percentage of black students enrolled in Michigan’s freshman class dropped from 6.4 percent that year to 4.6 percent in 2013. This mirrored the pattern seen in California at the state’s flagship universities — UC Berkley and UCLA — after the passage of Prop. 209. Connerly’s work effectively set back the gains of the University of Michigan’s Black Action Movements (BAM I, II, and III). Most famously, BAM I saw black students shut down the university for 18 days in 1970 to call attention to what they perceived as slow progress towards integration.

In November 2013, Michigan’s Black Student Union, upset over their dwindling numbers on campus and what they found to be an increasingly hostile environment, convened student leaders to discuss how they could make their voice heard. They considered a retread of the tactics that worked for BAM over forty years earlier, but in part fearing low initial participation, they opted to focus on a low-barrier to participate Twitter campaign using the hashtag #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan). The idea centered on black students simply sharing their experiences at the university, good or bad, on Twitter using the tag. In some ways, it echoed a similar UCLA effort, a few weeks prior, that saw 12 students release a spoken word video on YouTube. The video, entitled “The Black Bruins,” eventually garnered over 2,000,000 views. The Michigan campaign launched on November 19, 2013, and within one hour was trending nationally across Twitter. Local and national media outlets soon picked up the story, and by 10pm that day, there were over 10,000 Tweets containing the hashtag.

While #BBUM initially started with a small but densely connected group of students in Ann Arbor, MI, the campaign was ultimately amplified and sustained by a broader public consisting of black students and alumni of universities across the world, all connected by similar experiences at their respective schools. In many ways, the #BBUM campaign constituted a major inflection point in the long history of black student activism on college campuses across the country, validating a new type of engagement. It was preceded by UCLA’s campaign a few weeks earlier, and followed by similar campaigns at other schools such as Georgetown University, and eventually Harvard and Oxford’s “I, Too, Am” photo campaigns in early 2014. All of these campaigns successfully leveraged social media platforms to share images and raise awareness about similar issues far beyond the campuses on which they began. To this point, Harvard students held a “blacktivism” conference in October 2014 to build on the momentum of these new media campaigns.

Ultimately, the #BBUM campaign — which students followed with on-the-ground organizing work as well as a YouTube video listing student demands of the university — gained such traction that the New York Times ran a front page story. Moreover, the effort compelled administrators at the university to respond to student concerns, leading them to hold standing meetings with the student organizers for the remainder of the 2014 school year.

Beyond its effect in Ann Arbor, the #BBUM campaign demonstrated the importance and power — particularly for minority communities — of connecting digital activism and the breadth of participation that it affords, with the tactics pioneered by a previous generation of students.

Read more in the Berkman Center’s Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World.