An exterior wall lined with an assortment of black and white security cameras.
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How the Nextdoor App Modernized Racial Profiling

The Nextdoor app, used by one in three American households, is supposed to facilitate connections with our neighbors, “those people who are central to our day-to-day life” (Vox). However, it’s been labeled “the social network of systemic racism” because of ubiquitous racial profiling (Mashable). Since Nextdoor isn’t built for bigots and talking to your neighbors isn’t racist, what makes so many interactions on Nextdoor racist? 

A white Oakland resident invited Black friends to her home, only to find Nextdoor posts recommending that the police be called on “scary sketchy,” “suspicious” men (Splinter News). A Jackson, Mississippi user warned about individuals simply described as “Black men.” Someone in St. Louis raised an alarm about the existence of “8 African American youths,” while one Bay Area user alerted neighbors to a pedestrian wearing his pants “like a cholo.” (BuzzFeed News). 

The fact that racist attitudes are especially prevalent on Nextdoor points to uncomfortable truths about the kind of neighborhoods we live in and the problematic attitude that some have towards those places in which they live. 

TAKE ACTION

Demand that Nextdoor mandate its anti-bias training for all Neighborhood Leads.

Prepare yourself to intervene when you witness bigotry or interpersonal harm.

Consider: What type of person do you label as suspicious or dangerous? What external messages have shaped that understanding? 

We can’t understand Nextdoor racism without discussing neighborhood segregation. Due to the legacy of racial covenants and redlining, contemporary bigotry, and well-off families moving to affluent school districts, the segregation of American neighborhoods by wealth and race is stark and enduring (University of Southern California). A 2021 report found that “white residents almost everywhere… live in mostly white neighborhoods” (Brookings). And even neighborhoods that aren’t racially homogenous are often not truly integrated since the average white person’s friends are 91% white, and 70% of white people have exclusively white friends (Washington Post). 

This sets the stage for Nextdoor racist profiling, where people are assumed not to belong based on race and class markers alone. The next step is assuming that these supposed outsiders have malicious intent. To protect “their” neighborhood, white residents speculate about criminal activities, alert their neighbors to be on the lookout, or encourage others to call law enforcement. In short, they assume the role of the police: surveilling an area, profiling suspects, gathering evidence, and arranging arrests. 

Stories about Nextdoor racism often compare it to an older form of unofficial local “policing”: the neighborhood watch. Trained to act as conduits for the actual police, neighborhood watch members are encouraged to report any “incident, event, individual or activity that seems unusual or out of place” even if they can’t “articulate specifically what is unusual” (National Neighborhood Watch). They learn that protecting their community means calling the cops on anyone they find suspicious. As may be expected, racial profiling and racist violence can ensue, like when neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman murdered a “real suspicious guy,” innocent 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (Reuters). The connection between the “paranoid racialism” of some Nextdoor users and a “noisy Neighborhood Watch appointee” isn’t coincidental: Nextdoor actively pursues partnerships with law enforcement agencies and neighborhood watch groups (National Neighborhood Watch). 

Nextdoor needs to end those partnerships and training moderators on racial bias. Users need to confront their prejudices towards people of color. And white residents need to reflect on how their actions (or inaction) contribute to racial exclusion or displacement. 

We should all understand that if our neighborhoods are divided by race and wealth, and we take care of them by acting like the police, “paranoid racialism” is a predictable outcome. 

Instead, we should be intentional about how we look out for our community. We should be concerned about our communities and the people around us. We can intervene to stop interpersonal harm, harm frequently directed towards marginalized people, whether in the workplace or on the street. The thing is, we don’t need to emulate or rely on the police to do so. 

Multiple organizations offer resources or free online training on bystander intervention. Using these tools, you can learn how to safely intervene when witnessing harassment, whether gender-based, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black, or xenophobic. This model of addressing harassment and assault isn’t based on policing because, as Hollaback! Detroit puts it, “policing is legalized assault” (Hollaback!). 

Being a responsible community member means being prepared and willing to intervene against actual harm you witness, ideally without depending on violent and harmful institutions. There’s no excuse to emulate the systemic racism of the police in your neighborhood or on an app. Active anti-racism and proactive collective care are full-time jobs.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Stereotypes and segregation fuel neighborhood watch and Nextdoor racist practices.
  • Both neighborhood watches and Nextdoor are integrated with law enforcement.
  • We can actively support community safety without acting like or calling the police. 
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