Sunday, July 23, 2017

Race, Surveillance, and Empire

isreview |  The following month, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux published another story for The Intercept, which revealed that under the Obama administration the number of people on the National Counterterrorism Center’s no-fly list had increased tenfold to 47,000. Leaked classified documents showed that the NCC maintains a database of terrorism suspects worldwide—the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment—which contained a million names by 2013, double the number four years earlier, and increasingly includes biometric data. This database includes 20,800 persons within the United States who are disproportionately concentrated in Dearborn, Michigan, with its significant Arab American population.2

By any objective standard, these were major news stories that ought to have attracted as much attention as the earlier revelations. Yet the stories barely registered in the corporate media landscape. The “tech community,” which had earlier expressed outrage at the NSA’s mass digital surveillance, seemed to be indifferent when details emerged of the targeted surveillance of Muslims. The explanation for this reaction is not hard to find. While many object to the US government collecting private data on “ordinary” people, Muslims tend to be seen as reasonable targets of suspicion. A July 2014 poll for the Arab American Institute found that 42 percent of Americans think it is justifiable for law enforcement agencies to profile Arab Americans or American Muslims.3

In what follows, we argue that the debate on national security surveillance that has emerged in the United States since the summer of 2013 is woefully inadequate, due to its failure to place questions of race and empire at the center of its analysis. It is racist ideas that form the basis for the ways national security surveillance is organized and deployed, racist fears that are whipped up to legitimize this surveillance to the American public, and the disproportionately targeted racialized groups that have been most effective in making sense of it and organizing opposition. This is as true today as it has been historically: race and state surveillance are intertwined in the history of US capitalism. Likewise, we argue that the history of national security surveillance in the United States is inseparable from the history of US colonialism and empire. 

The argument is divided into two parts. The first identifies a number of moments in the history of national security surveillance in North America, tracing its imbrication with race, empire, and capital, from the settler-colonial period through to the neoliberal era. Our focus here is on how race as a sociopolitical category is produced and reproduced historically in the United States through systems of surveillance. We show how throughout the history of the United States the systematic collection of information has been interwoven with mechanisms of racial oppression. From Anglo settler-colonialism, the establishment of the plantation system, the post–Civil War reconstruction era, the US conquest of the Philippines, and the emergence of the national security state in the post-World War II era, to neoliberalism in the post-Civil Rights era, racialized surveillance has enabled the consolidation of capital and empire.  

It is, however, important to note that the production of the racial “other” at these various moments is conjunctural and heterogenous. That is, the racialization of Native Americans, for instance, during the settler-colonial period took different forms from the racialization of African Americans. Further, the dominant construction of Blackness under slavery is different from the construction of Blackness in the neoliberal era; these ideological shifts are the product of specific historic conditions. In short, empire and capital, at various moments, determine who will be targeted by state surveillance, in what ways, and for how long.


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