Systemic Racism Video: Government Surveillance

In the next video in the systemic racism video series, Jay Smooth explains government surveillance in this short (1:12) clip:

The text of the video reads:

You probably know that today’s technology lets the government watch what we do and track where we go more than ever before, so much that privacy’s almost a thing of the past. But did you know the government watches some of us a lot more than others depending on where we come from? That as recently as 2011 the NYPD was exposed for targeting their surveillance specifically at what they called “ancestries of  interest” (Indian, Banglasdesh, Pakistani, Guyanese, Egyptian, Lebanese). Using our tax dollars to spy on these people’s everyday lives just going to the barbershop and the bookstore, and singling them out for this constant invasion of privacy based on nothing but where their ancestors were born?

Race Forward, the producers of the video series, list two journalism sources (this and this) for government surveillance as a domain of systemic racism, but it’s a vast subject that goes back decades and centuries in the history of systemic racism in the U.S. If you’d like to read some of the scholarship about this topic, you should see these:

  • Browne, Simone. “Digital epidermalization: race, identity and biometrics.” Critical Sociology 36, no. 1 (2010): 131-150. Abstract: This article considers the ways in which what Paul Gilroy terms ‘epidermal thinking’ operates in the discourses surrounding certain surveillance practices and their applications, with a focus on identification documents and biometric technologies in particular. My aim is not to re-ontologize race, but instead to outline the notion of digital epidermalization, stemming from Frantz Fanon’s concept of epidermalization, as it allows for thinking through race, ontological insecurity and the ways in which the body materializes with and against biometric technologies. I examine key research in surveillance studies, governmental policy documents concerning biometric enabled identification documents and the 2003 ‘deportation’ to India of a Canadian citizen through the issuance of an expedited removal order by the US Immigration and Naturalization Services. By interrogating how digital epidermalization gains meaning and is put into practice, this article seeks to posit a space for refusals of such epidermal thinking through a critical biometric consciousness. (locked)
  • Ellis, Mark. Race, war, and surveillance: African Americans and the United States government during World War I. Indiana University Press, 2001. Abstract:  In April 1917, black Americans reacted in various ways to the entry of the United States into World War I in the name of “Democracy.” Some expressed loud support, many were indifferent, and others voiced outright opposition. All were agreed, however, that the best place to start guaranteeing freedom was at home. Almost immediately, rumors spread across the nation that German agents were engaged in “Negro Subversion” and that African Americans were potentially disloyal. Despite mounting a constant watch on black civilians, their newspapers, and their organizations, the domestic intelligence agents of the federal government failed to detect any black traitors or saboteurs. They did, however, find vigorous demands for equal rights to be granted and for the 30-year epidemic of lynching in the South to be eradicated. In Race, War, and Surveillance, Mark Ellis examines the interaction between the deep-seated fears of many white Americans about a possible race war and their profound ignorance about the black population. The result was a “black scare” that lasted well beyond the war years.

  • Nelkin, Dorothy, and Lori Andrews. “DNA identification and surveillance creep.” Sociology of Health & Illness 21, no. 5 (1999): 689-706. Abstract: The use of DNA fingerprinting as a means of identification is expanding. The technology appeals to military, law enforcement, and other government authorities: those seeking evidence to establish the identity of a dead body, a missing person, a relative, or the perpetrator of a crime. The increased use of DNA identification and the development of DNA banking systems have intensified concerns about surveillance and privacy. More than just a source of identification, DNA databanks are also subject to abuse for political or economic ends. This article describes the expansion of mandatory genetic testing focusing on disputes that have occured when those required to provide DNA samples raise concerns about psychological harm and discrimination based on the information revealed by their DNA. We use these disputes to analyse the problems of ‘surveillance creep’ as growing numbers of people have their DNA on file. (OA)
  • Parenti, Christian. The soft cage: Surveillance in America from slavery to the war on terror. Basic Books, 2004. Abstract: On a typical day, you might make a call on a cell phone, withdraw money at an ATM, visit the mall, and make a purchase with a credit card. Each of these routine transactions leaves a digital trail for government agencies and businesses to access. As cutting-edge historian and journalist Christian Parenti points out, these everyday intrusions on privacy, while harmless in themselves, are part of a relentless (and clandestine) expansion of routine surveillance in American life over the last two centuries-from controlling slaves in the old South to implementing early criminal justice and tracking immigrants. Parenti explores the role computers are playing in creating a whole new world of seemingly benign technologies-such as credit cards, website ‘cookies,’ and electronic toll collection-that have expanded this trend in the twenty-first century. ‘The Soft Cage’ offers a compelling, vitally important history lesson for every American concerned about the expansion of surveillance into our public and private lives.  (locked)

  • Wu, Frank H. “Profiling in the Wake of September 11: The Precedent of the Japanese American Internment.” Crim. Just. 17 (2002): 52. Abstract: The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is the obvious precedent for the treatment of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (locked)

  • Zaal, Mayida, Tahani Salah, and Michelle Fine. “The weight of the hyphen: Freedom, fusion and responsibility embodied by young Muslim-American women during a time of surveillance.” Applied Development Science 11, no. 3 (2007): 164-177. Abstract: This article reports on a qualitative investigation of 15 young Muslim-American women living in New York City, after 9/11 and in the midst of the Patriot Act. Participants completed surveys about identity, discrimination, and coping; drew “identity maps” to represent their multiple identities and alliances; and participated in focus groups on several college campuses in the New York metropolitan area. Focus groups were conducted to investigate collectively their sense of hyphenated identities, their experiences of surveillance and their responses to scrutiny in families, communities, on the streets and in the political public sphere. Implications for the theoretical and empirical study of immigrant youth “under siege” are developed, with a particular focus on the burdens and responsibilities embodied by daughters of the second generation of Muslim-Americans. (locked)

Next up, incarceration.