A colleague told me about a student who missed class due to a claimed family illness or something like that. While the student was, supposedly, sick and out of town, he was, in fact, in town and tweeting about being drunk and the fun he was having. A student who I never met, but heard a lot about, once posted crazy rantings about the violence he would inflict on campus on Facebook, as a joke, only to find campus security at his door the next day. Now, in general, I tend to see such young people as hopelessly clueless and want, desperately, to ask them: have you lost your d#%& mind? But I also know of a graduate student who got fired from a student services job because she posted compromising photos of herself and her co-workers on facebook. That wasn’t an 18-year old, who we can somewhat dismiss for youthful foolishness; that was a graduate student somewhere in her late twenties. I could tell countless stories like this and have heard countless other stories from other folk. There is a kind of general discourse that this generation simply does not erect barriers to their private and public identities the way someone in my generation might— a post-civil rights baby, born in the early 70s, who grew up in the 80s. But the issues of private-vs-public as a generational marker and difference between myself and the foolishness I have described is too simple. I think there is more going on here and I think it has to do with my generation and those before me understanding, living in, or living immediately after what was a pretty explicit, surveillance culture. Clearly, young people’s digital presence is surveilled given how easily and quickly all of these folks got caught doing this mess. However, few seem to expect that surveillance will exist.
I get why privileged/elite/white youth might not think they are being surveilled. If you have been taught (even if only implicitly so) that you are at the center of the world and given a material reality to support that view, then why would you feel like you are not in complete control? But for racially, subordinated groups, what accounts for this lack of insight? This is where the embodied and inherited awareness of an explicit surveillance culture becomes a generational marker for me. When I was in college in 1991, Clay Carson, as just one example, had just published Malcolm X: The FBI File. At that time, there simply had not been a great deal of “serious” biographical and historical research on Malcolm, to quote from Carson. In 1978, when I was seven years old, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made documents like Malcolm’s FBI file (file 100-399321) accessible, available even at many university research libraries. In 1987, the FBI also released the New York office file on Malcolm (file 105-8999) based on 1964 surveillance of Malcolm’s home phone. The point is: when Carson’s book was released, the energy on campus was palpable because the things we had really only heard rumors of in our communities were now collected in one book. I have owned many copies of the book since undergrad, but have never been able to keep it on a shelf given the many borrowings and non-returns. The book is as much a part of my youth as the Autobiography.
I learned of things like the FBI having files on Malcolm and every RADICAL from rap lyrics, everyday discourses of the people around me, and PBS’s 1987 broadcast of Eyes on the Prize. No one ever told me any of these things in school. I also knew what COINTELPRO was before anyone ever mentioned it in a college classroom. I knew that this was one helluva operation given the way it manifested the brutal murder of Fred Hampton in his bed, while his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Akua Njeri) was right there watching. Even wikipedia has photos of the bloody bed and of Hampton’s body being dragged out.
I could also see very clearly the black male students on campus, my friends, being followed by campus security and never traveling alone at night. Meanwhile, white male students would openly and defiantly do all manner of mischief with impunity. You do not need to tell me, now or before, that institutions patrol your body and your politics. So how have so many young people of color missed this point? How and why are young people from racially subordinated groups so confident that they are free online (or anywhere)? Where would such young people get such a notion when we STILL do not have the privilege that can afford the opportunity to go all over town, making a fool out of ourselves (like the white male students who I have described)? I don’t mean to denigrate young people here or even suggest they aren’t informed. Anyone would have been hard-pressed to label me as conscious when I was 18 or 19 years old. In fact, I am more critical of teachers/scholars who want to act like we can teach technological/digital tools neutrally outside of interrogations of current and historical patterns of structural racism. I only mean to suggest that many in this generation of college students have witnessed Black Freedom Struggles as commodified resistance given the changes in the organization of capital, media, and knowledge. They have not always experienced a lived history and everyday discourse of institutional surveillance and its violence. Many have certainly witnessed the patrolling/policing of their public spaces (i.e., via the NYPD for Walking While Black, Driving While Black, etc). But not enough understand that private spaces and social networks offer exactly the same kind of thing under structured racism and oppression, not in the way that generations before them did where every other dorm-room on my campus seemed to carry the same visual reminder that we were always being watched: the infamous poster of Malcolm looking out his window with a rifle in hand.
More importantly, I think that it is lethally dangerous for young people of color to imagine that they will be free in a digital empire. They can fight for and take their freedom (or, as Malcolm might say: swing up on some freedom), as Black people always have, but it will not be freely given. This will mean, in part, taking back the discourse on and dissemination of knowledge about Black Freedom Struggles so that it can be a practice… a literacy skills-set… and an ideology… rather than merely another object of academic analysis or a rhyming gimmick/jingle for McDonald’s or BET. Fighting for freedom in digital empire can, in the least, start there.