Since the Snowden revelations, the anti-surveillance community, which like the tech community broadly is largely white and male, has taken to citing J. Edgar Hoover's vicious harassment of Martin Luther King as an example of why unrestrained surveillance is wrong. Dragnet surveillance inevitably means abuse, which always falls disproportionately on the groups in society with the least power and influence.
To many civil liberties activists, this history suggests that minority communities ought to be natural members of the anti-surveillance coalition. It's in their interest, right? But this has not exactly come to fruition. When the Snowden stories first came out, 60 percent of both blacks and Hispanics supported the NSA programs. Though support has since fallen sharply, African Americans remain the most pro-NSA major ethnicity.
Why is that?
The outcry against mass incarceration and stop and 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?" [US Prison Culture]
Or, as a reader of Andrew Sullivan's put it with respect to marijuana legalization, minorities are victimized by the state across the board. Abuse by Hoover, or wildly disproportionate rates of arrest for marijuana use, is merely part of a general pattern of oppression:
African-American marijuana users aren't being arrested at higher levels. African-Americans in general are being arrested at higher levels for everything than their white counterparts. The weed is just along for the ride. [The Dish]
The point is well-taken. But despite the cultural disconnect between the techbros and minority communities, I believe it is still true that minority communities will indeed be disproportionately abused by state surveillance, whether it's the NSA, the FBI, or local police who are doing the watching. There are examples more recent than Hoover to buttress that claim: witness the utterly ineffective NYPD dragnet, which ignored Wall Street money laundering while targeting innocent Muslim shopkeepers.
Minority communities' skepticism of the anti-surveillance crowd is wholly justified, of course, given the long record of hypocrisy they have faced. In the mid-20th century, James Baldwin was appropriately scathing about the general uselessness of the white liberals of his age, whose high principles tended to disappear the instant their own livelihood or security was threatened in the slightest. But the sad flip side of Baldwin's claim is that the opportune time to act is when minority rights coincide with the interests of the enfranchised white bourgeoisie. I see two big reasons why this is the case now:
1. Because the security apparatus has metastasized to a point that it threatens the interests of nearly everyone, not just minorities and out-groups.
2. Because the conflict between the security apparatus and the legislature has just now sparked a constitutional crisis. Yesterday Dianne Feinstein gave a speech lambasting the CIA for spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. As everyone immediately pointed out, the hypocrisy here is thick enough to build pyramids with: Feinstein has been among the most vigorous defenders of the NSA dragnet programs and was a huge supporter of John Brennan himself as CIA chief. But why not seize this opportunity to press for broad anti-dragnet legislation, one that didn't just restrict itself to the NSA or the CIA?
Of course, such a battle would be a long shot, and one would have to watch carefully that any bill wouldn't be riddled with loopholes, but in my view, there could be a real chance for a substantive victory here, and minority communities stand to gain something real: namely, some protection against state abuse.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
- In defense of Obama's golfing
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- The world is on fire and neither Democrats or Republicans have a clue
Subscribe to the Week