Sunday, July 23, 2017

Racial Surveillance As American As Apple Pie


thehill |  The McDonald killing also reflects a larger injustice that afflicts our society. This injustice manifests itself in a system of behaviors, norms, laws and technologies ostensibly put in place to maintain public order but is most often directed against people Victorian-era authorities called the “dangerous classes” — minorities and the poor, who are treated as a persistent threat to the established social order.

In the U.S., this system of structural surveillance emerges from a history of racism and white supremacy that links the use of deadly force by police against young black men and women to our systems of criminal justice, social programs and public health. Its reach, as well as its near invisibility to those privileged enough to escape its gaze, makes it especially difficult to address in its entirety, and we are often left to deal with its effects in piecemeal, incident by sickening incident.

This complex system of overlapping surveillance regimes did not emerge overnight but through reactions to moments of crisis, eventually becoming permanent aspects of government and society over time. In 18th century New York, for example, the fear of armed insurrection by enslaved people led to a series of ordinances strictly regulating the movement of blacks and Indians within the city. One such class of statutes required all unattended slaves to carry lighted lanterns after dark so that they could be easily identified and monitored by white authorities. Any person of color found in violation of these lantern laws was sentenced to a public flogging of up to 40 lashes, the actual number left to the discretion of the slaveholder.

Fast-forward to the late 20th century, and we continue to see the instantiation of surveillance mechanisms in response to perceived public crises. These laws and practices were enacted seemingly to maintain public order generally, but disproportionately targeted minorities and the poor.

techcrunch |   Then I attended an event called The Color of Surveillance at Georgetown Law and the hair on my arms stood up straight.

I’d missed it completely.

I’d missed the entire reason privacy isn’t just a concern for those who logged into Ashley Madison or researched something more nefarious than the difference between starches. I missed that it should matter to me because there are people for whom it has to matter, by virtue of their socioeconomic or racial status. And while I have the luxury, by virtue of my own socioeconomic status and race, of ignoring reality and letting this not be my problem, that’s not how wrongs are righted.

I finally saw surveillance not as something mildly offensive to my own sense of civil liberties, but as a tool of institutional racism. It suddenly became clear to me — and I’m so embarrassed it didn’t prior — that the people most stripped of their privacy rights in this surveillance age are the people who are already vulnerable.

But the powerful surveilling the powerless, and I’m specifically talking about race here, is nothing new. It existed even in the earliest days of slavery. Surveillance and power have long been closely linked to institutional racism, from slave owners branding their slaves so they couldn’t move freely and privately, to plantation owners building homes tall enough to surveil the entire plantation. Slavery may have been abolished, but now we see racism and oppression in a new power structure in which the powerful hold the data on the less powerful.