Sunday, July 7, 2013

From the Fugitive Slave Act to COINTELPRO: The Racial Surveillance State

I stole the "Racial Surveillance State" from one of my twitter compatriots, @davidforbes, concerning a recent dustup between Tim Wise and some of his followers regarding some ad hominem attacks he aimed at Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. I don't have a link to the meltdown Wise had on his timeline, unfortunately, but I wanted to speak to the critique he clumsily attempted to make. Wise was trying to point out the hypocrisy of many white people,  white social media folks/bloggers and mainstream media organizations (primarily run and populated by white people) who express surprise and dismay over the discovery of the NSA's massive surveillance programs given the fact that people of color, particularly Blacks, have been subject to systematic, large scale surveillance for a LONG time (read: since before the founding of the US). But Wise got bogged down in his mistaken statements regarding Greenwald and got appropriately shouted down for it.

That being said, I am sympathetic to what Wise was trying to say, and I to am incredibly unimpressed with the reactions around these discoveries about the NSA. And I do think if there is not a hint of hypocrisy here, then there is at least a strong contradictory note to the current mania over surveillance that ignores the very long history of race-based surveillance in this country and our large cultural indifference to its existence. Beyond that, I would also argue that this racial surveillance state has not only hurt black people but has also been targeted at white people at the same time. In this way, we can theorize on the myriad ways that racism hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor (though the victimization is nowhere near even).

Succinctly, the US has engaged in a near-continuous operation of surveillance on multiple groups of people, particularly Black people, for the purpose of control and economic exploitation. It is only until fairly recently that we can MAYBE claim such efforts exist simply because Blacks are naturally considered suspicious in a country built on white supremacy. So...you know...progress!

Black Americans have been under surveillance and control since before the inception of the US as a country. Slavery required an extensive surveillance network centered on watching and controlling Black bodies, but something we forget is that slavery also required an entirely new set of social relations, practices, and differing levels of surveillance for ALL people, especially since Blackness was a state determined by ancestry as much as physical appearance (the infamous "One Drop" rule and varied mixed-race classifications are a testament to this). But the larger point is that Black Americans have always been surveilled, monitored, and extensively policed and that these systems were also unevenly applied on greater populations. This history should expose the ridiculousness of current mania over discovery of NSA surveillance as some manifestation of new, dark turn our federal government has with its citizens. This policy is simply an extension of surveillance practices that were traditionally aimed at the US's problematic populations, of whom Blacks are a founding and permanent member (honorable mentions go to the Irish and Jewish folks for making it out!).

Not recognizing this history is not only fairly sloppy and indicative of how white privilege makes the lived experience of non-white people invisible, but it also obscures the true structural foundations of surveillance, as practiced by the US government (and its states and local governments). Cries over the transformation of the US from a free country to a "police state" ignores the fact that for many people in this country they are born into a police state and are often killed by it while others can walk worry-free, snug in the tattered, threadbare blanket of liberty that is Whiteness in America.

Because you cannot talk about the history of surveillance in this country without talking about the slave codes. You cannot talk about a police state if you do not talk about how poor white men were seen as suspicious by well off planters and were often victimized and killed for the crime of being suspiciously friendly to slaves. You cannot talk about the creeping police state if you don't talk about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (yes it was highly contested but it was upheld by the Supreme Court and it still demanded Northern complicity and expanded Black surveillance formally).

Beyond that, such positions ignore the heavy-handed surveillance and social control required to make the Jim Crow South and heavily segregated North run efficiently. De jure and de facto segregation in housing and in industry is still about control over Black bodies and fortune. In the South it was viscerally apparent and open, but in the North we still had riots over Blacks demanding fair housing, "hate strikes" (check out Sugrue's Origins of the Urban Crisis for more detail) by White unionists who wanted to keep their shops and plants Whites only, and a police force designed to control and contain Blacks in specific parts of a city or county. The edifice of White supremacy, ultimately, is built upon the vigilance of individuals and institutions to always be aware of non-White, particularly Black, bodies.

Indifference towards police treatment of Black Americans is what emboldens police forces, like the NYPD, to engage in a mass surveillance program like Stop-and-Frisk or to monitor mosques in secret because their jobs have largely been based on managing and controlling non-White people for the better part of three centuries. Suspicion over Black American agency and calls for freedom set the entire workings of the federal government against civil rights activists and laid the foundation for full counter-intelligence and monitoring programs like the notorious COINTELPRO program aimed at disrupting the Black Panthers and other radical Black groups. Ultimately, this long suspicion and desire for control over Black Americans encourages the application of state and state-sanctioned violence when surveillance is not enough, ranging from the lynchings of the late 19th and 20th centuries, to the assassination of Fred Hampton and other Black radicals by the police in the '60s and '70s, to the hundreds of innocent Black people killed by police every year, to the hundreds of thousands of Black people incarcerated in this country.

This is why we cannot reasonably hope to attack or defeat surveillance or the "creeping" police state without looking at the history and current practices of unevenly applied surveillance and policing of our problematic populations.

Because if we were able to tear down all illicit NSA programs tomorrow and guarantee they wouldn't spy on US citizens, I, as a Black male, would still be part of the essential problematic of America. I would still be more likely to go to prison, be discriminated against at my job or potential choice of housing, and be more likely to be killed by a police officer for the egregious crime of being Black in America on a day ending in "y". And if you aren't talking about when talking about surveillance of US citizens then you're missing a good part of the issue and you'll come back a decade from now when a new program is leaked and still be surprised as to why these things continue to happen.


One Geek in Gradschool said...

I absolutely agree that revelations of the details of NSA and other US orgs electronic surveilance need to be placed in this context of a history of surveilance of Blacks and other "problem populations" wether the no longer targeted Jewish population, or the now targeted Muslim population.

What we should be asking is how do these specific technologies and techniques change the systems of surveillance. One thing it seems to me reading accounts of what metadata based dragnet databases allow is that this is a major expansion of the government's ability to create *unwitting* informants, where you have effectively "named names" to gov agencies without any knowing contact with the agencies. Now of course lots of techniques have been aimed at this goal, from the simple stakeout, to conventional wiretapping, to monitoring financial records, and so on. But the thoroughness of the databases that at least some of the discussion seems to indicate, and its increased difficulty to detect seem to represent a jump in the ease at which this can be done (or at least a jump circa 10 years ago). It's also much harder to detect than some older methods. We can guess what sort of populations are queried from databases by agents, based on exactly the history you mention, we have little chance in guessing which people specifically have been flagged.

Regarding white harm by enforcement of racism, I tend to think that, and I'm not sure the original source here, is that while racism is against blacks (and other racialized groups) "for the sake of" whites, it is not "for the sake of" all whites equally. It is specifically for the white political elite. The system has always been willing to tolerate some level of "collateral damage" against white people, mostly not belonging to political elite.

btw this is @springaldjack from twitter.

Surly Urbanist said...

I agree that the new technology allows for a wider net and greater exploitation of potentially unwitting participants and this changes the game. I was simply trying to make a connection between the surveillance state, history, and the uneven application of these strategies. To me, if we're not talking about the whole apparatus, then we won't be able to truly strike at what terrifies most about these actions, but that means we have to serious discuss racism and that's always hard.

One Geek in Gradschool said...

What I was trying to say was, I accept that you are right. This is a long standing apparatus, that has always been principally, but never exclusively directed at populations considered "problematic" by authorities.

The follow on to that acceptance, from my perspective includes (though isn't limited to) how do these new (relatively) techniques alter the apparatus as a whole. So that's where I made a brief stab.

I don't claim to have a well developed, and thoroughly researched history of or present day analysis of other parts of the apparatus, but I know some about it. I figured this was sufficient ground to launch a blog comment about how these techniques fit into the apparatus as a whole, and first order effects of how this changes the apparatus.

One Geek in Gradschool said...

um..,accidentally hit publish before I was done.

I meant to end with:

If however I'm mistaken, and I ended up going to a place that ignored your point, I am sorry, and will be continuing to rethink this issue in either case.

Surly Urbanist said...

I was agreeing with you! I do think there's a qualitative difference given our advanced technology, but that a structural examination of how surveillance is set up and practiced in this country requires one to look at the long and ongoing practice of racial surveillance and unevenly applied police power. Anxiety over the current technology is fine and good but we're not going to roll back the police state or surveillance in a meaningful way without seriously examining how surveillance is practiced every day in this country. And that practice largely rests upon a long history of racial surveillance. The two are intimately connected. I'm just trying to make that connection clear.

Theda said...

This is great!