Jun 12 2013

On (Some) Black People and the Surveillance State…

[This is a work-in-progress. I am puzzling through my thoughts on these matters. Feel free to leave your comments and ideas]

Some black folks in my life have no patience for some white people’s new found interest/discovery of Cointelpro and particularly of their (now incessant) invocation of the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. The interest seems to them instrumental and transactional. It’s as if folks who have had little concern about black people’s daily experiences of state violence are now demanding our support in safeguarding their rights. There has been no prior relationship or trust-building so some black folks are feeling used and exploited. It brings to mind the lyric: “Will you still love me, tomorrow?” This sentiment is understandable.

As the revelations about NSA surveillance roil the political world, media outlets & others are suddenly very interested in Americans’ views on matters of privacy, civil liberties, and individual rights. A poll was released a few days ago. It apparently found that “blacks were more likely than whites and hispanics to consider the patriot act a necessary tool [that helps the government find terrorists] (58% to 42% and 40% respectively). On my Twitter timeline, several people mused about why this would be the case. After all, black people are the disproportionate targets of government surveillance at all levels (city, county, state, and federal). We’ve always been under the gaze of the state and we know that our rights are routinely violable. Moreover, we are used to these abuses being ignored by the majority of our fellow citizens. Shouldn’t black people then be the most opposed to violations of civil liberties and to laws that encroach on those liberties?

Civil liberties and individual rights have different meanings for different groups of people. They also have different priorities depending on social contexts. A review of black history suggests that considerations of civil liberties are always embedded within concepts of equality and social justice. In other words by design or necessity, black people have focused on our collective rights over our individual liberties. This makes sense in a society where we don’t just assume individual black guilt and suspicion. We are all guilty and we are all suspicious (even if we may want to deny this reality). In that context, individual liberties and rights take a back seat to a collective struggle for emancipation and freedom.

Additionally, as a people, we have always known that it is impossible for us to exercise our individual rights within a context of more generalized social, economic, and political oppression. Individual rights are necessarily rooted within a larger social context. Civil liberty concerns take a back seat to putting food on the table and to survival more generally. To guarantee our individual rights as black people, we know that we must address broader social concerns. We don’t have the luxury to ignore this fact. For others not to understand this reality is to foreclose on any opportunities to recruit more black people to the cause of dismantling the surveillance state.

Returning to the poll: what might account for a majority of (polled) black people’s seeming ‘support’ of using the Patriot act to find ‘terrorists?’ Are they indirectly expressing their support for President Obama’s foreign policy through their response? It’s possible. Are some black people answering yes & perhaps hoping that concentrating on ‘terrorists’ might shift the focus away from the government’s targeting of African-Americans? Maybe. It isn’t crazy to think that if the government develops a new public enemy #1, it might lower its black people as threat matrix just a little bit. This is of course wishful thinking but it’s a plausible explanation.

My personal hypothesis is that black people living in the U.S. are Americans and that we have, like millions of other Americans, bought into some of the law & order rhetoric espoused by the government. In this context, it should be unsurprising that some black people would express support for the Patriot act. Many other Americans do too.


Black people are disproportionately incarcerated in the U.S. Prisoners have no presumption of ‘privacy’; that idea is an abstraction. Blacks are disproportionately subjected to bodily searches and seizures through practices like stop and frisk. Stop and frisk is a neon ‘no tresspassing sign’ for young black people in particular. Unfortunately too many of us have become acclimated to the daily assaults on our persons and the trampling of our individual rights. Can you blame us? If you are a black woman, then you may have the direct experience of the state policing your body in various ways. Many of us resist policies intended to do this but some of us don’t (for a number of good and bad reasons).

The examples that I have cited suggest that for most of us (black people) government surveillance and being perceived as threats are a daily fact of life; not an academic/analytical exercise. Many black people living in public housing, for example, can attest to the fact that they aren’t seen as having any privacy rights when law enforcement routinely kicks down their doors supposedly looking for narcotics.

The vast majority of the country accepts these “law and order” practices as the price of “freedom” and “safety.” The outcry against mass incarceration and stop & frisk is still overwhelmingly confined to people of color and other marginalized communities like LGBTQ individuals. Yet even in those communities, many have become inured to the routine violations of rights and liberties. In order to have an elusive sense of “safety,” we are told by politicians and law enforcement that these practices are necessary and that they are in fact “color-blind.” We mostly swallow their propaganda. It doesn’t matter that incarceration and intense policing & surveillance are actually decimating black communities.

Black people know that the state and its gatekeepers exert their control over all aspects of our lives. So when we mention that the NSA surveillance regime isn’t new to us, the appropriate response is not to mock, ridicule, belittle and berate. No. The response that conveys solidarity and a desire to partner is to say: “Yes that’s true and while I may have been personally concerned about these issues, I am sorry that more of my peers haven’t been outraged for years. How can we work together to dismantle the surveillance state that harms us all?”

Check your privilege, please.