Race Posts

African-American Digital Practices and Their Relation to Issues in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice professionals with an interest in African-Americans have given little attention to the role information and communication technologies (ICTs) may play in their work.  There are few scholars and professionals who explore how technologies like the Internet, social media applications, and mobile phones impact African-American experiences in modern society.  This state of affairs is understandable.  When one imagines a connection between technology and criminal justice, one thinks of cybercrime, and the battle between large corporations and the highly educated (often white and male) criminals who try to steal money.  African-Americans are not a part of this picture.  One may also think of ICTs as being merely for fun and games, tangential to the concerns of criminal justice professionals.  However, if we widen our gaze and conceive of ICT usage as having an effect on family communication, labor market participation, and political engagement the connections between African-Americans, ICTs, and criminal justice become clearer.

Criminal justice professionals have been slow to explore the links between race, technology, and criminal justice issues.  Image credit: Mashable.com

Criminal justice professionals have been slow to explore the links between race, technology, and criminal justice issues.
Image credit: Mashable.com

My research skirts the disciplines of sociology, communications, and Internet studies.  Research within these fields, including my own work , has led to some surprising (and inspiring) conclusions.  In the main, what we have found is that African-Americans are avid and innovative users of ICTs, and have developed a series of digital practices that have helped them overcome historical and structural disadvantages. In the remaining paragraphs I share some of these insights.

The demands of 21st century life place great strain on the family.  Parents often work long hours, and the stay at home mom is very rare.  At the same time children are engaged in a plethora of activities.  People have responded by relying on their mobile phones to maintain contact with loved ones.  A popular term used by scholars to describe this trend is “networked individualism”.  African-Americans as a group, and African-American mothers in particular, are networked individuals par excellence.  Black mothers – more often single parents, more often working in flextime jobs – have become adept at using their mobile phones to keep track of their charges and to dispense instruction as needed.  Given the established links between parent contact time, difficulties in school, and entry into the criminal justice system, this pattern of behavior is a positive development.

African-Americans are more likely to live in racially and economically segregated areas.  Scholars studying the effects of residential segregation have shown that people living in these areas suffer from a lack of social capital.  Black people living in highly segregated areas are often disconnected from the flows of knowledge that leads to job opportunities.  In my own research I found a very interesting pattern.  I looked at the types of behaviors on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for different racial groups.  I found that African-Americans are more likely to make new connections with people online, especially within a professional context. This, I suggest, is an attempt to address this deficit in social capital.  Black people are aware that they are often on the outside looking in with regards to the labor market, and use ICTs to address this situation.  The links between addressing this deficit in social capital and entry into the criminal justice system are clear – people with meaningful jobs are less likely to resort to criminal behavior.

Over the past three years there have been several high-profile deaths of black mean at the hands of law enforcement.  These unfortunate deaths became front page news stories, initiating a national conversation on race and policing.   African-Americans have influenced this conversation through collective participation on social networking sites.  Scholars term the political conversations emanating from disadvantaged groups – often with different interpretations of current events – as a “counterpublic”.   In this regard, African-Americans have one of the most vibrant counterpublics in recent memory with their collective participation through Twitter.  The group of black participants using Twitter to comment on social issues has been dubbed Black Twitter  by writers in the mainstream press, and is credited with popularizing the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.  Black Twitter is an illustration of how African-Americans have leveraged ICTs in an effort to achieve social justice.

The #blacklivesmatter phenomenon was spurred on by BlackTwitter From:http://www.citylab.com

The #blacklivesmatter phenomenon was spurred on by BlackTwitter
Image credit: http://www.citylab.com

I have commented on three ways that African-Americans are using ICTs to accomplish goals that are of great import to criminal justice professionals.  They have found ways to address disparities in family organization, labor market participation, and political engagement.  Scholars and professionals in criminal justice should develop research programs, college courses, and best practices that take advantage of these African-American digital practices.

A Different Take on Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The Need for Privacy, Even for Racist Chants

A few years ago, in 2009, a photo of President Obama apparently checking out a girl’s booty at the G8 summit began circulating the web.  Headlines such as “The Second Stimulus Package” and “Baby Bot Barack” were everywhere.

We had to place context around this snapshot in order to understand it. Before that happened though, the media had jumped on the picture. Credit: http://mashable.com/2009/07/10/obama-checking-out-girl/

The photo was a misleading snippet of reality.  A video – what is nothing more than several millions of photos, or snippets, strung together – surfaced showing that Obama was gesturing to someone as they were preparing to take a group picture.  The extra snippets were needed to patch together a more complete version of what was going on.

In my opinion, we needed the extra minutes, hours, days, years surrounding the racist chant from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.  More importantly, we need to change our privacy laws in order to prevent these instances from triggering society’s borg mentality.

The fallout was inevitable, even preordained: the news shows clamoring for ratings, the talking heads using the occasion to burnish their progressive credentials with caustic condemnations, the coached apologies, and the inevitable punishments.

The punishments were swift.  The house has been shut down – and so the people who worked in that house have lost this source of income.  The fraternity has been suspended – punishing all of the present members of that fraternity, and others who may wish to have joined in the future.  Two members of the fraternity – the ringleaders – have been expelled from the university.  These two students are being treated like convicted criminals, with CNN putting profiles of the students online (very irresponsible I think).  They are young, and will likely recover, but this experience will always be a part of their lives.  What if it was their and their parent’s dream that they attend this specific university?  What about the friendships they had developed?  What about their educations?

The young men in that fraternity were doing something odious, to be sure.  But to me, it was a bunch of young men having fun on a bus.  The chant was not directed at anyone.  No one was physically or emotionally hurt. Until the sentiments expressed in these chants translate into actual racial bias or discrimination, or until those chants are directed at an actual person, in my opinion the incident should be passed off as frat boys acting stupidly.

But my concern is bigger than this.  Taking videos of people in spaces surreptitiously, where those recorded do not know or expect their actions to be recorded should be against the law.  It follows that placing such material on social media should also be a punishable offense.  The punishments here should not be levied against the fraternity, or the two ring leaders, but the person who took the video and placed it online.

We need to recalibrate our views on privacy in the Digital Age.  Currently, there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces.  This understanding is anachronistic – developed during a time when every action could not be recorded and transmitted everywhere.  This anachronistic understanding led to a judge in Oregon arguing that “upskirting”, or taking pictures of up a woman’s skirt, in Target, was not illegal.   I think women expect privacy there – even if they are in a store with a bullseye as a logo.  But our understanding of privacy was built in an era before smartphones and digital cameras were ubiquitous.

As a society, we are poisoned by this decontextualized data pulled from private moments and plastered onto public platforms like YouTube or Instagram.  There are few winners here.  The public, already strained by so many media choices, have one more fatuous distraction grasping for their attention (income inequality grows…oh wait, here is [place person here] caught on video calling someone a fag!).  The victims of these digital drive-bys have their lives ruined.  And most insidiously, the very important task of combating racial discrimination and racial inequality is reduced to rooting out individuals who make racist remarks off the cuff or in places they thought were private.

I have a prediction.  A sad one.

Incidents like these will continue, and our society will suffer for it, until a martyr comes along.  Someone who is well-known enough, or photogenic enough must fall victim.  The progression is all laid out.  A decontextualized piece of their private life is put into the public domain.  She then tries to defend herself, explain, and apologize.  But the public outcry becomes too great, and harsh sanctions are levied.  She may end her life over the scandal.  Or, someone feeding off the media frenzy may decide to take her life.  At which time public sentiment will change, and people will begin to have sympathy.  In the public conversation that follows, we will come to see the little snippet of deviance splattered on Instagram as not representative of the person as a whole.  This new conversation will recontextualize the snippet, and she will be seen as a complex individual just like me and you – a little naughty sometimes, but generally good, productive, God-fearing, and law abiding.  I can even see some congressman sponsoring a public-privacy law named after her.

Only then, after some unfortunate person pays the ultimate sacrifice, will society work to change privacy laws.

Mining Black Misery: An Overemphasis on Black Disadvantage

Some years ago I was talking with my mother about the content of one of the classes she was taking.  At the time she was working on her bachelor’s degree.  At around 50, it had been a long time coming for her.  We were talking about a course on public health, I think.  She said something to the effect of – “why is it that all the bad things are happening to black people?  It’s not possible that black people are doing that bad in everything!”

I remember that conversation clearly, because I too had had that same reaction to courses I had been taking.  It might be that almost every black person who has studied the sociological literature on race will have this reaction at some point.

These disparities are explained by “social forces” – the factors external to the individual.  These would be your racist whites, discriminatory government policies, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and so on.

Despite my mother’s objections these are empirical realities.  However, these are not the only realities.  In fact the story narrated by sociological research is incomplete.

Let me explain…

Mining Black Misery

Here is a meta-conclusion that could be generated from taking the sociological research as a whole: blacks are “disadvantaged” and have little control over their own plight and unable to muster positive changes on their own.  Blacks invariably find themselves defeated by institutions and bureaucracies that they cannot navigate, shifts in historical trends they cannot adjust to, and whites armed with racist ideology.

My mother made those comments because she was introduced to a world she did not know.  My mom was not familiar with these blacks who were so thoroughly disadvantaged.  The black people she saw were a mixed bag of problems and successes – maybe a few more problems than whites who lived across the railroad tracks (I don’t mean that metaphorically…in my hometown whites literally lived on the other side of the tracks), but they had their share of successes and achievements.

My mom posited that the drumbeat of black failures she was exposed to through her coursework was conspiratorial – ideas ginned up by whites in order to entrench their dominant position in society.  She thinks like that sometimes.  It’s not true, though.

The reason is, I believe, much simpler.  Sociologists have made an industry out of mining black misery.  Understanding the effects of race is one of the raison d’etres of the discipline, and the lowest lying fruit is to record and analyze some type of black disadvantage.  For every one paragraph devoted to understanding how blacks have made their way in spite of what may be the most sustained social and cultural onslaught against a group in modern human history, there may be ten devoted to understanding how blacks are dropping out of high school at higher rates, how black women are less likely to marry than other groups, and so on.

Understanding the social forces that influence success are just as important as understanding the social forces that lead to failure.  But one aspect of black life dominates the attention of scholars at the expense of the other.

A common rejoinder would be that we are interested in, say, high school dropouts because this is a social problem that needs addressing.  We don’t need to worry about the class valedictorian, the logic goes, because that person is doing all right.

I don’t agree.  That valedictorian has done something that allowed him to succeed in the way he has.  Let’s focus on his life and people like him in order to provide prescriptions for others.  Because race matters, and blacks experience unique social contexts and interactions, we can study black high achievers in order to provide insight into raising educational attainment for all blacks.  There are young black men and women who have managed to navigate a minefield of low social and cultural capital, poorer schools, possibly a harrowing home environment, and rough neighborhoods and come out with college degrees.  How in the world did they do that?  We should learn as much about them as we can.

Consider the constant drumbeat about black unemployment being twice as high as the national average – currently black unemployment is around 11.4%, while it is at 5.3% for whites.  We’ve spent a lot of time exploring how spatial-mismatch (the idea that jobs are not located where many black residents live) and discriminatory hiring practices have led to this disparity.  This is important.  However, there was a time – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where young blacks were employed at higher rates than whites.  What were the conditions that led to this?

One final example: my mother.  She was one of the many black women who went back to school after raising their children to complete their bachelor’s degrees.  This is quite an accomplishment, as I’ve told her many times.  Understanding the ways in which black women have managed families and achieved many goals in life in spite of disadvantages would be enlightening. The trends are that working class, less educated women of all races are becoming single parents more and more.  More research on how black women have managed single parenthood with some degree of success can help society address this growing trend.

(Lack of) Sociology in the Digital Environment

One of the pleasant surprises about research on the world created through interconnected computer networks, the digital environment, is that minorities are doing quite well in it.  Studies from the Pew Center for Internet and American Life show repeatedly that there are few differences between whites and minorities in terms of adoption, usage, and beliefs about new technology.  Even when there are differences it is often the case that it is minorities who tend to be do better than whites. This is especially so when it comes to the use of mobile devices.

My own research shows that groups that are normally disadvantaged in the physical environment are extracting benefits at a higher rate than advantaged groups.  And so minorities, who may have a difficult time getting their opinions heard in the mass media, can use social media to voice their opinion.  Indeed, blacks are more active on social media than other groups – with “BlackTwitter” being something of a phenomenon.  Or, people of working class backgrounds who may have few contacts that can lead to jobs in the physical environment, can leverage sites like LinkedIn  in the digital environment to find new job opportunities.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities.  When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities.  This phenomenon needs to be studied more.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities. When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities. This phenomenon needs to be studied more.


The lack of black disadvantage in the digital environment has, I believe, had consequences for the sociological study of new technology.  Sociologists, acculturated into looking for and mining black misery, find there is nothing worth studying!  There is anecdotal evidence to back this up: if one browses the top social science journals you will see a dearth of studies related to minorities and technology.

In the early 2000’s there was quite a bit of talk about the digital divide.  But once that “divide” between those who could buy technology and those who could not vanished, there was, presumably, nothing left to talk about. Sometimes I will hear about lower levels of programming experience for minorities, or blacks running into walls of discrimination in Silicon Valley.  But this all points to the idea that there needs to be something wrong in order for blacks to be studied.

The die is probably cast for sociological studies in the physical environment – too many careers are based on mining black misery.  But there is still an opportunity to take a different path to the study of race in the digital environment.  We do not need to describe the reality of the black experience online as one of disadvantage and discrimination, racism and rejection.  We can describe it in more complex terms, pointing out both the struggles and the successes.

Let’s Talk it Out, Not Tech it Out: No Need for Police Body Cameras

In response to the shooting of Michael Brown, and other reports of police misconduct, the Obama administration has requested over 260 million dollars for police body cameras and training.  Along with funding for body cameras, the administration has also announced a new task force that would develop strategies for “21st century policing”.

“This challenge of strengthening trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve has been laid bare in Ferguson in a pretty dramatic way,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.

The program, called the Body Worn Camera Partnership Program, would provide over 50,000 small devices to be placed on the lapel of officers.

Keep the task force.  Ditch the cameras.

I know the public will see the cameras as the more efficacious remedy.  They’ll judge the task force as just another bureaucratic igloo – a place where suits hide from the cold, judgmental winds of the public, never having to do anything substantive.

On the contrary, it is the cameras that will be of little use.  Cameras will cause more harm than good, and it is (potentially) the task force that will help address some of the real problems illustrated by events in Ferguson.

Let me explain…


Organizing “Smartly” in Ferguson, Missouri

I don’t like all that violence going on in Ferguson, Missouri.  It is not grounded in the pain and anguish of the loved ones of Michael Brown.  Rather, the violence stems from outside agitators and political opportunists seeing this as a chance to make a name for themselves.   What is Jesse Jackson doing there?  What about the new Black Panthers?  Do the people of Ferguson really need them to prove their point?

Are these people members of the Ferguson community or members of Brown's family.  If not, what are they doing there?

Are these people members of the Ferguson community or members of Brown’s family. If not, what are they doing there?

“No Justice No Peace” rings hollow when supported by violence and disorder instead of organized civil disobedience.  What inevitably happens is that people focus on the peace – trying to arrest rabble rousers, shaking their heads at looters,  and so forth.  They forget about the justice – should Officer Darren Wilson be charged with murder?


I am at risk here, but I wonder if this person lives in Ferguson and if this person is protesting for justice...or just to have a nice image for the media to replay.  Looks good doesn't it.  But it may not do anything to solve the real issue here.

Maybe I am too cynical, but I wonder if this person lives in Ferguson and if this person is protesting for justice…or just sporting this defiant pose to have a nice image for the media to replay. The shot looks good doesn’t it?  I hope his intentions are noble.

The days of marching down main street to prove a point are not over.  As long as the media still covers them, marching and protesting will get the national exposure they want.  But with the help of the digital environment, protests can be more effective…and possibly eliminate some of the rabble rousers who only make the situation worse.  Protesters can organize “smartly”.  Let me explain…


Redskins and Darkskins: The Power of Symbols

Over the past few years pressure has been building on Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, to change that team’s name.  This pressure has been brought on by a wide array of people and groups.  Sports journalists Bill Simmons and Peter King have boycotted the name, as has news host Rachel Maddow.  The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation from California bought airtime to play the ad “Proud to Be”:


Most recently, the United States Patent Office has revoked the trademark of the team’s name because:

“the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services, at the times the various registrations involved in the cancellation proceeding were issued.”

As I was listening to the ins and outs of this story on talk radio, I found myself saying, “What’s the big deal?” “This isn’t hurting Native Americans in any material way.” “Here are the thought police again.”  “The government has no right to interfere in the business of the Washington Redskins.”

And then yesterday, as I was getting off the elevator in my apartment building,  I spoke to a couple to my right, then turned to my left to do the same to a young girl.  She quickly averted her eyes and looked down when my face turned towards hers.  Then I remembered why many Native Americans would want this name changed.


Canaries in Coal Mines

The metaphor of the “canary in the coal mine”, is apparently an overworked one, so says an article by the Wall Street Journal.  But it’s just so darn useful.

I often use it when explaining the causes of many social problems.  Groups with less money, education, social, and cultural resources tend to be “canaries”.  The problems they endure presently often become the problems of wider society in the future.  It was the poor and minorities who first began defaulting during the housing crisis.  We have a heroin epidemic in this country, hitting poor white communities the hardest.

Disadvantaged groups suffer social problems at higher rates than other groups because they don’t have resources to shield themselves from these problems.  When things happen  – the economy tanks, a new narcotic enters the market or bacteria is introduced – they get the worst of it.  Just like the canary in the coal mine gets the worst of a mine filled with toxic gas.

Now let me shift gears…

In the recent European Parliament elections, far right groups made impressive gains.  While many people are surprised by these gains, scholars who study online speech should not have been.  They had seen many online “canaries” pointing to the rise of anti-immigrant, extremism in Europe.  I also like to explore content online, and I’ve seen similar canaries that point to this same phenomenon occurring in the United States.