My mother was not the only black person to come under the watchful eye of American law enforcement for perceived and actual dissidence. Nor is dissidence always a requirement for being subject to spying. Files obtained during a break-in at an FBI office in 1971 revealed that African Americans, J. Edger Hoover’s largest target group, didn’t have to be perceived as dissident to warrant surveillance. They just had to be black. As I write this, the same philosophy is driving the increasing adoption and use of surveillance technologies by local law enforcement agencies across the United States.
Today, media reporting on government surveillance is laser-focused on the revelations by Edward Snowden that millions of Americans were being spied on by the NSA. Yet my mother’s visit from the FBI reminds me that, from the slave pass system to laws that deputized white civilians as enforcers of Jim Crow, black people and other people of color have lived for centuries with surveillance practices aimed at maintaining a racial hierarchy.
It’s time for journalists to tell a new story that does not start the clock when privileged classes learn they are targets of surveillance. We need to understand that data has historically been overused to repress dissidence, monitor perceived criminality, and perpetually maintain an impoverished underclass.