social policy

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:

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


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:

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.

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…


Do You Use a Public Computer Center? Do You Know Where One Is?

I went into my neighborhood library a few days ago.  It was an interesting experience.  Everywhere was a sense of “new oldness” (alternatively “old newness”) that one comes to expect in a library: materials well organized, furniture polished, carpets clean – but everything a few years out of date.  That is what gives the library its charm.

I could immediately see the usefulness of the place.  It is a physical gathering point for books, ideas, and people.  Libraries can be where a parent can impart the importance of learning onto a child, a place of study or reflection for the individual, where groups of kids can chat or play games (albeit quietly), a place where a writer can discuss her new book, or a community can gather to discuss a given public policy.  I think libraries are great.

An offshoot of the library is the public computer center.  This is a place where people, ideas, and computers can gather.  As I’ll explain, this is a bad idea.  Unfortunately, the federal government has spent 4 billion dollars building them all over the country.

Remember the “Stimulus Package”?

It wasn’t that long ago that the American economy was in free fall.  In an effort to keep from falling off a cliff,  Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is more commonly known as the “stimulus package”.  A small portion of this package, 7.2 billion, was geared towards improving our digital environment.  4.7 billion was earmarked for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).  The BTOP is devoted to “support[ing] the deployment of broadband infrastructure, enhance and expand public computer centers, encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service, and develop and maintain a nationwide public map of broadband service capability and availability.”

The idea – one universally seen as a good one – was to connect as many people as possible to the fastest networks.  My focus here will be on the public computer centers, or PCCs.  In 2010, the federal government awarded 233 contracts to build PCCs across the country.


School Reforms Need Reforming

Dale Russakoff’s article in the New Yorker entitled “Schooled” is about former Newark mayor Corey Booker, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to transform Newark’s struggling school districts.  The article details the reforms proposed by an energetic Booker and a Republican governor who, while not popular in Democratic Newark endorsed the plan with a quip: “Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark. Why not do the right thing?”  After becoming enthralled with Booker, Zuckerberg agreed to provide funding for the reforms to the tune of 100 million dollars.  There was great optimism at the outset.  But things quickly went downhill.

Millions of dollars were spent on consultants.  This riled the district personnel and the residents.  They were seen as carpetbaggers making a profit off of the district’s misery.  Russakoff quotes Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County: “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Moreover, a major component of the reforms was to close schools that were underperforming and open new charter schools in their place.  On the advice of the consulting firm Global Education Advisers, 11 low performing district schools were to be shuttered.  In their place would be several charter schools and themed public schools.  This created the most animus within the district.   Leading the outcry was former school principal, now newly elected mayor Ras Baraka:  “Co-location is more like colonization,” Russakoff quotes him as saying.

Before moving into the US senate, Booker appointed Cami Anderson as superintendent of the district.  Anderson would be the captain who would navigate the district through these changes.  Instead the combination of Anderson presiding over very unpopular initiatives and her off-putting management style, caused her to navigate her family away from Newark for fear of physical harm.

As of now, Anderson is still at the helm of a ship that is quickly taking on water.  Booker is in Washington.  Christie is posturing for a presidential run.  Zuckerberg it seems has moved on.  The reforms have not produced, as of yet, the gains in academic performance that were promised and students are still failing.  The people who have benefited the most from all this business were the consultants and Ras Baraka, who became Newark’s mayor in large part due to his spirited challenge to the reforms.


Booker, Christie, and Anderson - The Leaders of School Reforms in Newark (courtesy of NJ.Com)

Booker, Christie, and Anderson – The Leaders of School Reforms in Newark
(courtesy of NJ.Com)


I could’ve seen this coming.  The well meaning reforms in Newark suffered from the same flaw I’ve seen time and again.  There is little to no emphasis on the neighborhoods, families, and students.  We are spending far too much time tweaking the system without placing attention on those who are served by it.

I came to this conclusion in a roundabout way – through understanding how the Internet grew so quickly.


The Silencing of the Commons

Over the weekend, Los Angeles Clippers owner and real estate Tycoon Donald Sterling was allegedly recorded making disparaging comments about Magic Johnson and black players. His comments were made during, as TMZ says, a “heated argument” with his girlfriend V. Stiviano (who has black and Mexican ancestry). The comments were in response to Stiviano posting a picture of her with Magic Johnson on Instagram.  The audio can be heard on TMZ’s website.

Some of his comments were:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”


“bring him [Magic Johnson] here, feed him, fuck him, I don’t care. You can do anything. But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games. OK?”

It is unfortunate that he has these views, but not a surprise. Sterling has exhibited problematic behavior before.  He confidentially settled a lawsuit in 2005 charging him with discriminating against black and Hispanic tenants.  That same year, Sterling, agreed to pay an undisclosed amount in a lawsuit that alleged Sterling tried to force non-Koreans out of apartments in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.  Furthermore, Former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor filed an age and race discrimination lawsuit alleging that Sterling wanted a team of “poor black boys from the South … playing for a white coach.”

But this is not a post  about race and racism, but about digital technology and its social consequences. From that perspective,  it leads me to sympathize with Donald Sterling.