Book Review: Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I wish the people that created the Netflix Documentary The Social Dilemma had read this book, I believe it would have provided a great deal of context around surveillance. Through the context of reading about race, I’ve learned a lot about American history that I regret not knowing earlier in my life. This is one of those books that does multiple things at once. First, it teaches about Black history in general, not just Black people in America, but in Africa as well. Second, it teaches about the history of prisons and the very first prison the Panopticon. Third, it discusses Surveillance and surveillance technologies.

It doesn’t teach these as separate threads, though. It’s impossible to teach these topics separately. Even when reading White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, small parts of these topics were brought up. In Between the World and Me, these same ideas were brought up, just a shorter time horizon for the history.

The United States created law after law, mechanism after mechanism, to surveil Black people. According to Browne, this as soon as an African was captured, they’d be branded, sorted, and documented. Then they’d be surveiled in the slave ship, which was a truly horrific environment.

There was something about how Browne described the slave ship that hit home a lot harder than when I’d seen the ships before. Maybe it’s the Pandemic, maybe it’s my own allergies, maybe it’s understanding that they were locked in this miserable condition for 67 days!

Speaking of the pandemic, the right-wing out bursts against wearing masks is laughable considering some of the laws we implemented in the past to protect white people from Black people. There were laws in New York City, called Lantern Laws where any Black person had to have a lantern lit at anytime after dark. They weren’t allowed to be in groups larger than three people and had to have a candle lit at all times. If they didn’t, they could get 40 lashings (apparently it was reduced later to 15). 40 Lashings could certainly kill someone.

Ultimately, the book moves from the history of surveillance to present day, which draws a pretty straight line to what we experience now at the airport after 9/11. However, in the airport Black and brown people experience significantly more surveillance than white people. This can lead to ridiculous things like having an afro searched for bomb materials and statistically higher search rates for Black Woman than white women even though statistically white women are more likely to have contraband. Further, this extends to accepting Black people as citizens, as given in an example with a Canadian woman.

I believe this book is critical in understanding our Government’s response to the BLM movement, the obsessions with Antifa, avoidance of investigating right-wing terrorism, and our current surveillance state. I think anyone that’s working in the social media space or adtech space, should read this book. If you care about ethical technology, you need to read this book. Because if we understand this and address the problems outlined in this book, we address surveillance issues for everyone.



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Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson in 2014, I have been actively working to listen and learn from Black activists and thought leaders. However, I didn’t do much reading beyond Twitter, The Root, and some articles the activists would post. While I feel like I’m in a much better position now, for these protests, to discuss with white Americans the reasons for the protests, I feel like I have so much to learn. I’m glad I went through learning from those activists first, because it was hard to learn to listen. I wanted to rage against what they were saying, because it didn’t apply to ME. I had to learn to listen, which is what really allowed me to listen to what Ta-Nehisi Coates said in this fantastic book.

Growing up in an absurdly white part of Western Pennsylvania, where there was one black family, one Indian family, and one Asian family, prevented me being aware of much of anything. Hell, I really did not understand why Rage Against the Machine said “Some of those that work forces are the ones that burns crosses” why there was so much anger against police.

During the Michael Brown protests I wrote that the police shouldn’t be militarized from more of an objective standpoint because it limited first amendment rights in general. That no American protester should ever be targeted the way they were targeted. This book, helped provide a lot of the context that I didn’t understand for why police would want to militarize. I didn’t understand it was to really control the Body of the Black person.

This book will make you cry. I had tears in my eyes throughout nearly the entire book. It’s a moving letter from father to son explaining the horrors he had experienced. Horrors that Coates had tried to shield his son from, but knew he could never and should never fully shield him from them all. There is just simply too much weight on the shoulders of Black Americans to behave a certain way to prevent White people from weaponizing their whiteness against the Black person.

Amy Cooper Weaponized her Whiteness against a Black birder in a horrific and absurd way. However, Coates explains, this event isn’t ahistorical, it is our national heritage. It is the cost of the “American Dream.” The Dream was build upon Black bodies. First as slaves and then as an underclass, an undercaste, to be separated into a red lined portion of the town. That should be destroyed if they accumulate too much wealth.

Coates has similar feelings as I do about a god and how that means life is even more precious. This life is the only one that we have. That we can and should do the most we can with this life. That this worldview makes the wanton destruction of Black bodies even more horrific, because there’s no afterlife where a lifelong struggle is rewarded. It makes enslaving an entire people for centuries even more horrific.

Coates rejects arguments such as black on black violence as a reminder that the white Dreamers used the state to segregate the Black community through both actions of the state and complicit realtors and other White community members.

This book, at the end, calls out that it’s not the Black person that can resolve the current crisis of their body’s safety. It’s the White Dreamer that must awaken from the dream. To realize this world isn’t for us either, that our bodies can be as easily destroyed as a Black body, if the state decides to do so. I believe this is true. This book has helped me make arguments to my white friends, to argue we need to understand the history of the formerly enslaved or the Black people negatively impacted by racists practices that sprang from enslaving Black people.

If you are White and interested in justice you must read this book. You will cry. You will begin to empathize with our Black citizens. It’s a first step, we need to push for change and justice.

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Corporate Responsibility and Black Lives Matter: Put Money Where Your Hashtags Are

Over the past week I’ve seen a lot of blacked out squares with some semblance of corporate PR speak about honoring diversity and supporting #BlackLivesMatter. Leaders have sent out emails within their organizations explaining how the organization supports the movement and in many cases, this has actually come with some financial donation, like $1,000,000 to NAACP and/or ACLU. These are fantastic gestures. However, they often feel empty. This twitter video really highlights why.

Another reason these gestures feel less than sincere is that the businesses that are coming out and saying these things, often have significant contracts with law enforcement, the Border Patrol, FBI, or national intelligence organizations. For example, Amazon has put out comments around supporting BLM. However, their Ring subsidiary has contracts with at least 400 police organizations nationwide. In fact, they were talking about increasing this and adding facial recognition to the recordings as recently as January.

Furthermore, many companies provide discounts and negotiated rates with local government employees. This, of course, includes police forces. Apple is an example that has Federal, State, and Local Government discounts. We shouldn’t find this surprising, as these organizations have massive buying power together. Companies like Intel also get discounts from the Apple store. However, if Apple is serious about more than just Diversity and Inclusion, Apple should drop discounts for cities and states with high numbers of police brutality cases.

For organizations that really want to make a difference where Black Lives Matter is more than just a hashtag to jump on to show “solidarity,” the ultimate expression of this is through divestment of support for the police. Hold police organizations accountable by removing special treatment. Hold police accountable by cancelling contracts for cloud storage. Hold police accountable by eliminated contracts for facial recognition. Hold police accountable by cancelling IT modernization projects. Hold police accountable by cancelling consulting contracts.

Collectively, define the requirements for restarting engagement. These demands include reduction of police brutalities (ideally as close to zero as possible), elimination of Qualified Immunity (or significant reduction), prosecution of police officers for excessive force, including murder, restructuring of police union contracts to prevent bad cops from being rehired, reintroduction of community policing efforts, introduction of civilian management boards.

These are some ideas provided by the BLM community. I’m ultimately not the right person to be dictating these requirements. Companies that are claiming solidarity should work with Black community leaders to identify the criteria for working with police departments again. Any other than true solidarity through divestment is just more words. Words that may be true, but without action, those words are meaningless. Without forcing the police departments to make change through dropping support, nothing will change. By enabling infrastructure, you’re enabling police brutality.

Below are some more ideas from Killer Mike: