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.
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.
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.