Race is a surveillance technology. Race can be theorized as an embodied, primarily visual means of perception used by the viewer to identify and track human bodies.
In the era of early mercantile capitalism race was deduced by skin color, hair, and facial features. Race was used to categorize humanity into castes of slaves and masters, free and bonded.
The anthropology and biology of the colonial era developed the idea of race as a “nature” in the blood, and as a fact measurable in the body’s proportions, the texture of hair, the size of the brain. All of this was scientific nonsense, of course, but the point wasn’t to grapple with empirical reality; the point was to justify slavery and imperialism based on what is otherwise an arbitrary and politically determined difference. In the plantation societies of the Americas every white eye was a camera, every Black body the object of surveillance.
Surveillance has always been about controlling the mobility of the poor and property-less, be they slaves or prisoners, wards of reservations, immigrants, or welfare recipients.
The poverty and violence of inequality constantly threatens to spill over into the privileged zones of wealth and tranquility.
Surveillance tends to be most concentrated on border zones between the enfranchised citizens and the marginalized denizens, or in ghetto and prison architectures designed to contain the boiling masses of the darker nations.
Today the state and the military-industrial contractors that build and operate the contemporary surveillance systems adamantly deny the raciality of surveillance. Like those who deployed surveillance systems of prior centuries, the empirical evidence contradicts them. We know that NYPD stop and frisk tactics disproportionately target Blacks and Latinos.
We know that border reconnaissance drones fly mostly over the US-Mexico border, watching down upon non-white immigrants.
Biometric databases are used to capture the identities of “foreign” combatants, prisoners, border crossers.
These surveillance systems, vast projects that have consumed billions of dollars and countless labor hours, reveal obvious obsessions with the movements of racialized bodies.
In Oakland, California, local police and security agencies are in the early phases of building out a city-wide surveillance system called the Domain Awareness Center (DAC). The DAC will pull video camera feeds, gunshot detection alerts, and even information gleaned from social media, into one central hub. It will allow the Oakland Police Department to use the surveillance intelligence to deploy officers in real time, and also as evidence in later criminal prosecutions.
As with all surveillance it’s important to understand who will be watched, and who will be watching. Oakland is one of the Blackest cities in California with roughly 100,000 African American residents. 73,000 of Oakland’s African American residents live at or below the federally defined poverty level of income. 27 percent of Oakland’s population is Latino, and 16 percent is Asian. Poverty is high among these groups also.