Netroots Nation Lacks Diversity


Progressive activists, talking heads, politically savvy bloggers, elected officials, non-profits, political candidates, and a host of others found their way to the Netroots Nation convention for four days of trainings, panel sessions and parties with a mostly left leaning focus.

I’m at one of the largest gatherings of progressives in the country writing to you from a hotel in the wee hours of the morning of the third day of the Netroots convention after spending two days with upwards of 3,000 attendees.

NN13 Karaoke

Netroots Nation Karaoke Night 2013

For social justice advocates, NN is the place to be. The halls are packed with the kinds of people who want to change the world, who want to make it a better place for everyone. Which brings me to the point of this piece: Although Netroots touts itself as being an incubator for ideas that challenge the status quo, judging from the racial make-up of the NN attendees, lack of diversity is one status quo that doesn’t seem to be challenged enough.

It’s important to acknowledge that Netroots Nation instituted a policy requiring all panels to be diverse. In full disclosure, I was a member of the panel selection committee. As we prepared to make our selections, we were instructed to dismiss any panel that was comprised entirely of white males. To their credit, the organizers were very clear that they intended to be inclusive. But you couldn’t have guessed that by looking at the crowd at the popular Netroots Nation Karaoke party on Thursday night or by perusing the halls of the convention center where the Netroots crowd convened. For the past two days I’ve been one of a sprinkling of racial minorities floating in a sea of white.

Unlike NN12 which was hosted in Providence, Rhode Island, NN13 is hosted in a majority minority state. Blacks, Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders make up more than 50% of California’s population putting an even brighter spotlight on the overwhelming whiteness of this convention.

Wanting to get the opinion of a Netroots insider, I spoke to Jenifer Daniels, a long-time Netroots supporter who has come to the convention for 5 consecutive years. Daniels is a vocal advocate for racial inclusivity and was a member of the popular NN panel, “Ask a Sista”. I was surprised to learn that she had decided to make NN13 her last Netroots convention. Citing the lack of involvement by racial minorities, Daniels told me, “I won’t be back. I’ve had enough”. We chatted a while at the “This Week in Blackness” party discussing the reasons why minorities don’t turn out. I mentioned that it seemed to me that the black people who were in attendance were not representative of the black people in my life. She didn’t disagree.

Note: After this was posted Jenifer contacted me and emphasized that she might come back to NN but her ten year wedding anniversary plans conflict with the Denver convention. Here is a link to the article Jenifer wrote entitled, “My Last Netroots?”

So while I applaud NN13 for making a conscious effort to be inclusive, the outcome was disappointing which raises questions about the unintentional ways we exclude others. Why is it that this topic is such a hard one to broach? Is the progressive movement racially segregated? What can we do to change the racial composition of future Netroots conventions? I don’t have answers to these questions but I think progressives would be in a more powerful position if they did.

I believe that until the progressive movement comes to terms with the racial divisions that exist within it, we will continue to mount campaigns with one hand tied behind our backs. When confronting our powerful adversaries, we’d be in a much stronger position if we had all-hands on deck. In other words, it seems to me that the racial divide affects the entire progressive movement whether the focus is fracking or money in politics, or universal healthcare — we must be united if we expect to successfully challenge the status quo.

The NN convention is certainly something I want to continue to be a part of. It is educational, fun, and provides lots of opportunities to network. My only issue is the lack of racial and ethnic minority engagement.

Sharon Kyle 2013My hope is that there will be a more focused, more determined effort to make future NN conferences attractive to all progressives. At the NN conferences we’ve attended, we didn’t have to worry about finding each other if we separated to attended two different conferences. My husband could scan the room and easily spot me seated in any of the sessions (with the exception of the “Ask A Sista” panel) because my blackness made me stand out.  When I show up at future NN conventions I’d like to be able to get lost in the crowd and I’m willing to work to help make that happen. Who will join me?

(Note:  This article was linked to a site that is frequented by rightwing ideologues. Most of the comments posted below come from that site)

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive


  1. suzievb says

    I don’t know what convention you were at, but I saw a lot of diversity. Many were commenting on how there was such a diverse amount of people and panels and caucus’s. Why is it anyone’s fault if those of color don’t show? No one is stopping them from attending. Unlike the Republicans convention we don’t have a problem with anyone attending. There aren’t any panels or caucus’s or workshops that only pertain to white’s. They are pertain to American’s. If you are upset that their weren’t enough people of color then you need to tell your friends and family about the convention and spread the word.

  2. gerardv says

    Breaking the Kyle Kode: “Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are white.”

    But don’t worry, all these really nice white Netroots folk are there to help the poor and still oppressed of the US in 2013. You might even get a job in the Post Office,

  3. JoeWeinstein says

    In these days of internet, how many folks of any color really feel a desire and need to spend the gobs of extra time and money to show up not online but at a specific time and place – convention or otherwise? For many of us, to be motivated to attend a remote event you really have to personally know and care about various of the others who are sure to come too.
    So NN organizers shouldn’t feel too bad. Spontaneous diversity is unlikely to happen overnight, even when fervently desired and encouraged.
    My case may be indicative. Outside my neighborhood I go to few meetings and just about no conventions, even of organizations and for causes that I warmly support and keep track of. As a unique exception, next month I’ll be in the Midwest at a clan reunion – for some scores of us who are descendants of a group of 12 sibs who – one after another – migrated to this country from Volhynia (Ukraine) about 100 years ago. It will be the first such reunion in 25 years, and could well be the last ever.

    • says

      According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word diversity is used to characterize the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : variety; especially : the inclusion of different types of people. This is the meaning I intended to convey when I wrote this piece.

  4. Grant Schott says

    I am a white male from OR and this was my first Netroots conf.. Had this been a different group of Dems, say the CA Dems or a union like SEIU, AFSCME, or UFCW, it would have been much more diverse.

    Netroots is, it seems, was founded by Howard Dean supporters. Dean, who I admire, used the Wellstone line “the Democratic wing of the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” in ’03/’04. In reality , his core supporters seemed to be from the yuppie wing of the party, similar to Brown, Hart, Tsongas, Bradley, etc…. ( I supported the latter in 99/2000 and appreciated his message of racial equality.) The fact is, that group, unlike unions, is largely white and affluent .

    I’m not being snide or judgmental, they are an important wing of the party, and, ironically. the core group that fueled Obama’s campaign with $ and activism throughout 2007 when his poll numbers weren’t great. Minority voters, as I recall, were still seen in Hillary’s base until Obama won Iowa and then won SC with huge African American support, partly because of Bill Clinton’s condescending statements.

    You stated that Netroots worked hard to have diverse panels. It would have been nice to have a featured minority speaker. Two local choices would have been Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and former San Fran Mayor.,Willie Brown, both great orators.

    As far as a more diverse group of attendees, I don’t know the answer. One idea is to have organizations that send staff make an effort to send more minority staff, but first they might need to hire more.

  5. john1gun says

    Here is a lesson for progressives, black people will never be happy no matter what you do. No matter what amount of appeasement, it will never be enough. They will always want more and they will take until there is nothing left to take. Open your eyes to the truth. Look at our cities like Detroit and Memphis that they have destroyed, and then blame the white man for the destruction. This is the fate of our country if you continue to pursue progressive policies.

  6. JMcMahon says

    ” This article was linked to a site that is frequented by rightwing ideologues.” Instapundit? You got the benefit of a an Instalanche and you’re complaining about it? A big issue at Netroots was government surveillance, and Glen Reynolds has been inveighing against it since the Patriot Act was written. Is it that, or his longtime support of gay marriage that you have a problem with? Possibly the issue is that a lot of white men are commenting on this site, and the blogger obviously has a big problem with them: “As we prepared to make our selections, we were instructed to dismiss any panel that was comprised entirely of white males.” Not all races and/or genders, just “white males”. Looking at the photo of the kareoke party, that is just cracking me up. Is that really the way that Netroots thinks that things should be run in this world? Sorting people by race and gender, rather than by expertise and interest? i guess that if the only people that were willing and able to convene a panel on an issue were white males, it wouldn’t get discussed. Interesting, but not in a good way.

  7. worddiva says

    Sharon, you make some very good points. It has always bothered me that the progressive movement is not more racially diverse. I think many people of color (POC) hold progressive views, but maybe don’t label themselves as such.

    I think there’s also a problem of perception. I’m a member and sometime blogger on Daily Kos, one of the most influential and active web sites in the progressive blogosphere, and of course, where Netroots Nation originated from. The site’s readership and bloggers are heavily white and male. Despite that, there are several DKos groups that focus on issues specific to minority groups. However, I’ve constantly seen complaints from readers of color that they don’t feel welcomed or their feelings respected on DKos when it comes to issues about race. Some complain the site has become a haven for unfair (and they claim, racist) attacks on President Obama. Some POC readers and bloggers have left the site because of this divisiveness.

    I think the criticism toward President Obama by many in the progressive community – some of it valid, some of it vicious – turns off POC who should be natural allies in the movement. Most African-Americans are strong supporters of the Democratic Party and of Obama – something Obama’s critics need to understand and come to grips with. There is a long history of blacks rallying to the defense of embattled black politicians, mainly because the political power blacks have gained has been so hard won and is yet, so fragile. Black people understand that as a black person, you have to work twice as hard to be judged half as good, and the same goes for black politicians. Obama’s African-American supporters believe he is doing the best he can under extremely difficult conditions, which includes having to deal with the most obstructionist Republican-led Congress we’ve ever seen. And a lot of that obstruction is racially motivated.

    I also think the progressive community suffers from a class divide, with the largely white and affluent focusing on the environment, civil liberties and social issues like marriage equality, whereas POC and the less affluent focus more on social justice issues like voting rights, poverty, immigration and jobs. Although many white progressives do care about social justice issues and some of the best social justice writing has come from white bloggers, I think the perception by many POC is that the progressive movement in general and the netroots in particular don’t give their issues equal weight.

    It’s an age-old dilemma of the Left in this country. We tend to separate into our own issue silos, and unfortunately, those silos are segregated. But it’s imperative that we break out of those silos and reach out to each other and support each others’ issues, or we won’t be able to mount a unified front to solve the problems everyone on the Left cares about.

  8. Diane says

    This does not apply in the least to Sharon, but to the overall picture. When there’s a Black issue of concern nationally, or a Latino issue, white progressives have to show up and be there in support if they expect Americans of racial minorities to show up for programs that are organized predominately by whites. I remember after millions of Latinos marched for immigration reform, peace movement activists wanted to know how we could recruit those numbers and make use of that energy, but only a tiny handful of Anglos marched alongside the Latinos. You have to be an ally in fact, not just in words–and in accompaniment, not leadership–if you’re gonna call it a coalition or an alliance.

  9. Potempkin Village says

    I would have like to have seen an article reporting on what was the thrust of Netroots. I really know nothing about them except they invited Sen. Merkley as their featured speaker. This tells me liberal, democratic grouping. If they really wanted to invite a firebrand, they would have invited Cornel West who said we should impeach Obama.
    More importantly, I don’t think it’s about race at all. I think it’s about class. To the extent that the faux white liberal progressive movement doesn’t push a massive employment program in this country is the extent to which it has failed. And that’s because it is still tied to the Democratic Party. And Obama won’t touch this issue because he says the private sector must provide employment.
    So, if black people continue supporting Obama, they are cutting their own throats. So what are white radicals supposed to do about that?
    The truth is, white liberal progressives don’t know how to build a progressive movement anymore and are uninterested. That should be your real critique. The believe they ARE the movement.

  10. poppa india says

    I’m guessing people of color in America are real good at spotting white people who want to tell them what to do, so Net-Roots Nation is a place they’ve decided to stay away from.

  11. ChurchSox says

    “What can we do to change the racial composition of future Netroots conventions?”

    I don’t know. Be less dorky? Talk about things that the “others” care about? I suppose you could try throwing out all the white guys and see what you have left.

  12. teapartydoc says

    I think most people know the truth about identity politics, even if they aren’t willing to discuss it openly. It is basically a trade-off where the chosen group of “victims” trade their votes to get favors, recognition, bread and circuses in exchange for keeping a bunch of white guilt-ridden liberals, progressives and socialists (I know, I repeat myself) in power. The people in the chosen groups know that they will never be allowed into the leadership of the club, but that’s OK. They get their perks. Besides, a few house negros, Uncle Toms, or kept women get put in positions of cosmetic prominence once in a while to make things look good. But like all libs, any success they have is also cosmetic or stolen. That’s why the guilt is always there. NOTHING is earned. You didn’t build that.

  13. Jonovich says

    Progressives screamed when 3 bad guys were subjected to waterboarding under Bush, but are silent when over 3000 have been killed by Drones under Obama.

    Progressives derided FISA under Bush, but cheer when it is expanded under Obama.

    Progressives said that the $9 trillion debt under Bush was “immoral”, but the $17 trillion (soon to be $20 trillion) debt under Obama is necessary.

    Progessives are hypocrites.

  14. Concerned Black Voter says

    Hmm . . . well, because maybe, just maybe, progressivism is inherently racist at its utter core?

  15. AC_Berg says

    “I mentioned that it seemed to me that the black people who were in attendance were not representative of the black people in my life. She didn’t disagree.”

    So they have black people, but just not the right “kind” of black people. Now I get it…

  16. HopeyChangey says

    White players in the NBA are going to quit playing. Can’t believe you even wrote this article. You are your own explanation for failure.

  17. He_Wei_Jin says

    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Maybe only Republicans, like Rev. King, believe that. Progressives certainly don’t a bigger bunch of racists and tribalists you couldn’t find outside KKK rally, another shining exemplar Democrat party values.

    • RobertCarl says

      Because it is more fun for progressives to tell others how to behave. If they look at themselves in the mirror, they would have to acknowledge their woeful lack of accomplishment.

  18. Misanthrope says

    I don’t suppose minority non-participation might have something to do with, I dunno, minorities not wanting to hang around with a bunch of “social justice advocates”?
    Here’s a thought: Why don’t you REQUIRE minorities to attend, whether they want to or not? Leftists have a long history of forcing people to do things.

  19. ss396 says

    Why isn’t more minority participation mandated? Or does that only apply everywhere else except for the home base? If you were true to your advocacy you would have disbanded yourselves until you could get minority representation more commensurate to the local community.

  20. hurtin1 says

    Boy, I sure feel bad for those liberals coming under fire for racism because they can’t recruit enough minorities to fill out their quota. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people.

  21. section9 says

    The National Security Agency’s transcripts of what went on at NN13 there must have been a howler at the White House Political Office!

  22. Gmama says

    Why does the author care what color the participants are? Isn’t the content of their character more important than the color of their skin?

  23. Bob Marley says

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
    where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the
    content of their character.

    Too bad the Democrats are keeping the division alive and well for power, still.

    • says

      LMAO, Bob! It’s like Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, recently blaming the crap quality of Chicago’s public schools on “rich white people.” Playing the race card agains the Right (unfairly) by the Left is annoying. Watching the Left play that card against each other is, well, wonderful schadenfreude.

  24. Rich says

    What in the world do white people have to be guilty about? Have you ever thought how much better off the blacks are here in America than other parts of the world, like Africa for instance. They ought to be grateful that their ancestors were brought here!

    • Pleiades says

      Zora Neale Hurston said it best: “Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it.”

    • Ralph says

      The Progressives only want the minorities for their vote.
      The Republican part came into existence to stop slavery. The KKK was started by Democrats.

  25. kaymad says

    White people and their guilt, it makes me laugh. Maybe you’d do better focusing on issues rather then counting pigment color and genitalia?

    • gearbox123 says

      LOL. Very true – “progressives” believe everything revolves around their skin and their crotches.

  26. says

    Well, LOL. You seem to lay the blame on Netroots for a lack of Non-White Persons Participation. You say that the progressive movement needs to come to terms “with the racial divisions that exist within it.” Look, I’m a conservative, but I have to defend Netroots on this one. Has it occurred to you that the lack of participation by Non-White Persons is due not to “racial division” but rather to the stunning apathy among NWP’s? This is a phenomenon that is very often seen at rallies and protests by leftist/liberal groups: An overwhelming lack of diversity. Do you really believe that it’s by design? Or is it because too many NWP’s just don’t care enough to participate? Politically incorrect questions, sure, but your eagerness to divert blame is mind boggling and, frankly, insulting to all White people of good will, whether they’re on the Right or the Left.

    • jdkchem says

      While you have a point, what person of any skin color wants to discuss issues, or anything else, with a bunch of sorry lame spunk monkeys? The fact is that unless the nutroots is giving away free crap nobody has a reason to be involved with a bunch of self absorbed losers.

    • says

      Netroots Nation is definitely Stuff White People Like™. She might as well be agonizing about why more black people aren’t coming to her square-dancing club. It’s open to all, but more appealing to some. And that’s OK. In a free country we all have a choice what to do with our free time.

      If it’s really essential to boost attendance by, say, young black males, look into adding dogfights and serve purple drank at the soda fountain.

      • says

        LOL, Brendon. As I noted above, I am a conservative. But I can’t help sympathizing with Netroots on this. I know that Netroots is not a racist organization that excludes Black people. Folks of color are, to my knowledge, welcome and free to participate. Obviously, Netroots just doesn’t appeal to Black people. I don’t know why. But the bottom line is this: There is a low level of non-White participation simply because very few non-Whites care to participate. No mystery. No exclusionary policy. No conspiracy. And, apparently, no interest in participating on the part of non-Whites.

      • arrow2010 says

        It’s nutroots like you that is tearing the left-wing coalition apart at the seams and I’m so happy to see it.

        Rubio/Palin in 2016!!!!

    • Richard M. Mathews says

      First I want to say that I was told that I walked right past Dick and Sharon on my way to the lunch trucks on Saturday. I wish I had been more observant and said hi. All I can say is that I must have been too focused on food to notice anything else around me.

      Now, getting back on topic, it seems to me that there are two major classes of people at Netroots. First there are the bloggers. This is a conference that is specifically for and about bloggers. Then there are the professionals, consisting of electeds, candidates, their staff members, and employees of the various organizations. To the extant that this latter group has a diversity problem, that would be a real problem. We need more diverse candidates, and we need more diversity in hiring.

      For the former group, it really seems to be a different situation. Tom is right about participation levels. The set of bloggers is largely a self-selected group. If there is not diversity among them, it is because not enough minorities care enough or have enough time to be blogging.

      And having enough time may be the crucial thing here. If you are working two jobs and are still below the poverty level, are you really going to go out and buy a computer and spend your time blogging?And even for those minority bloggers we have, can you afford to take Wednesday through Sunday off of work to attend Netroots? Can you afford the travel?

      We see this repeated throughout history. Repressed people are too repressed to be able to pull themselves out of a hole. The 1% (or the 0.001%) count on that to maintain their power. So is it a bad thing to see altruistic people who aren’t in that hole coming together to try to make a difference?

      • says

        Richard: Excellent comment, sir. It is good when altruistic people come together to help others less fortunate. But your comment seems to assume that ALL Black people are so poor that they cannot afford to travel to a Netroots event. (I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, sorry, but how else can your comment be interpreted?) There are plenty of Black Americans who can afford to get to a Netroots meeting…. or travel across town to see a movie, grab a pizza, etc. Are all of the White people at Netroots wealthy? Or did a good number of them they take time off from work, with or without pay, even if they had to scrimp and save to do so, because they feel strongly about the issues? Why not apply the same standard to Black people?

        • Richard M. Mathews says

          It is not necessary to assume that ALL people of color are poor. It is sufficient to observe the well-documented fact that a disproportionate fraction of people of color are poor. Since the poor are underrepresented in terms of people actually at Netroots (which is pretty clearly the case just from looking around), it is not a surprise that people of color are underrepresented compared to the general population. On top of that, economics will also dictate that the poor and therefore people of color are underrepresented among the complete set of bloggers.

          So the questions are how can we get more poor people to become bloggers, and how can we get more poor bloggers to come to Netroots?

          Or are those really the right questions? If I could get subsidies for poor people arranged, would they really want to spend it on a trip to Netroots rather than food and shelter? Maybe we need to accept that the self-selected blogger world is not going to be representative of the population as a whole and realize we need to work with the blogger community we have. Isn’t the real question, is there any more we can do to get the people who do come to Netroots to do more to work for the poor and for people of color generally?

          And from the focus that I saw at Netroots, I’m not convinced that there is a lack of such concern. Many individuals may be putting more time into issues such as the environment and climate or more generally how to win elections, but I saw a lot going into dealing with things like jobs, economic equality, and discrimination.

      • says

        Thanks for commenting Richard. We saw you across the room at one point but you were headed in a different direction and it was almost impossible to catch up with you. Thank you for noting that assuming that people don’t participate because they don’t care is presumptuous and short sighted. The demographic that has the most discretionary time on their hands and the most discretionary income gets to be the group most represented at functions like NN.

  27. thefriendraiser says

    Thank you for your incite Sharon.

    I do want to clarify, I’ve been coming to Netroots for 5 years and every year it has grown. While the conference is not where we may want it to be, it has come a long way.

    My challenge would be for Netroots to figure out a way to include more diverse audiences for the NN14.

    Unfortunately, I won’t be there for 2 reasons. 1: it’s my 10 year anniversary and 2: I need a break.

      • chucktodds goatee says

        Oh I think he meant and he is correct. I live in an integrated progressive community Evanston, IL. and for years all I ever heard was how racist school policies were. You couldn’t find one Black to run for the school board in a community which is over 40% black.

      • thefriendraiser says

        i meant insight, not incite (you are correct) i was typing rather furiously as i was taken out of context. (but as a play on words, it was kind of inciting…)

    • says

      “[F]igure out a way to include more diverse audiences for the NN14?”

      Charge white conference attendees more and use the money to give free conference fees, airfare, and hotel accommodations to nerds of color. That’s sort of your prescription for the rest of us; why not for your conference?


  1. […] Few articles spark the level of interest or the number of comments as those written about race. So it was no surprise when  a piece I wrote about the lack of diversity at one of the largest annual conventions of progressives in the country – Netroots Nation, attracted the attention of a right wing blogger. The result – a slew of conservative comments posted on the LA Progressive giving our regular progressive readers a window into a world they don’t frequent. Here’s a sample of what the right has to offer but if you’re interested, you can read all of the comments by clicking here. […]

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