In April of 2003, the Los Angeles City Council voted to replace the term “South-Central Los Angeles” with “South Los Angeles.” The decision meant that on all city documents, signs, and civil processes, “South” would replace “South-Central.” A Vermont Square resident by the name of Carol Black who had attended the council meeting voiced the opinion that “with a new name change and a new attitude of the people, maybe when the government decides to bring jobs in, they will bring them to our neighborhood, instead of ignoring us.” Her words voiced a hope of improving the region’s association with urban decay, street crime, and poverty — a sentiment of gentrification which some members of the Council were not wholly enthusiastic about. In fact, while Councilwoman Janice Hahn argued that it “has been a crime for many neighborhoods and many communities who have been lumped together under the mostly derogatory term of South-Central Los Angeles,” Councilman Nate Holden “questioned the desire for a name change, noting that he was not contacted about it by any of the neighborhood councils in his district.”
Despite this logic, however, it is clear that the mere replacing of the phrase “South-Central” with “South” has done little, if any, to improve the socioeconomic welfare of those neighborhoods by any standard sociological metric of progress. What is dangerous, however, about the original logic as voiced by Councilwoman Janice Hahn is the idea that it is a “crime” for neighborhoods and communities to be understood as belonging to South-Central Los Angeles. Despite the decline in the number of the black population living in South-Central (dating back to the 1990s), South-Central remains a predominantly black region and carries with it a strong connotation of black culture. Councilwoman Hahn’s careless use of the word “crime” is an example of how we have become desensitized to the meaning of the word itself and its derivations. In this thought piece, I will examine the ways in which black remains synonymous with criminal. I argue that the active process of criminalizing the black body enables and legalizes surveillance of black communities and that this surveillance has grown exponentially in recent years. Furthermore, this state of hyper-surveillance lends itself to the continuation of the disproportionate number of black individuals who are arrested, imprisoned, and incarcerated. Mass incarceration and the incapacitation of black bodies is a very deliberate and directed project of the modern state. This is because incarceration serves as a protective measure and legitimizing rhetoric for the criminalization process. Specifically, mass incarceration of black bodies protects the state and its practices of surveillance by producing debt. Finally, I will offer a potential route for resistance to this cycle by suggesting that our intervention must begin with a rigorous and systematic challenging of the legal discourse which mystifies, obscures, and enables violence against black bodies.
Black skin color has historically been associated with the “other.” Black identity, particularly after emancipation, has historically been criminalized. The legality of such an ideology is rooted in the history of slavery in America. Colin Dayan, in her book The Law is a White Dog, writes that “the racialized idiom of slavery in the American social order depended on the legal fiction of ‘civil death’: the state of a person who though possessing natural life had lost all civil rights” (44). Essentially, slaves were thought to be physically alive. However, recognizing their “natural life” was actually possible without legally recognizing their civil rights. More importantly, American (and Western) legal philosophy had been built on the idea that civil laws were synonymous with human rights. The very existence of “civil death” made it possible to reconcile the practical existence and implementation of slavery with ethico-legal principles. While the archaic phrase “civil death” is mostly an obsolete one for modern legal practice, the ideological remnants of race and racialization remain written into the very language of the law as it exists today.
Additionally, the law is overwhelmingly thought of in terms of a binding contract between the state and her citizen-subjects. The fabric of the law is the language of discipline, punishment, and violence. Violence — in its various manifestations — is in fact imbricated with the operation of the law and is actually written into our legal codes. Judiciary bodies, in particular, have remarkable power to produce and enforce violence in whatever form is deemed necessary. Robert Cover writes in his article “Violence and the Word” that “interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur” (1601).
One form of violence which is legitimized by the law and which, in turn, protects the law is surveillance. The language of surveillance studies is similar to that used for the study of law. Just as the law is thought to exist to protect citizens, surveillance — as a project of statecraft — is justified in terms of safety and national security. Surveillance is violent because, while its operation is codified in the language of protection, central state-driven surveillance violates civil liberties and rights to privacy. More importantly, as technologies of surveillance have exploded exponentially within recent years, I argue that there has been a corresponding expansion of surveillance on the community and individual levels. The growth of this so-called “trickle-down surveillance culture” produces what is, in essence, a “hyper-surveilled modern state.”
Surveillance, as a violent operation of statecraft, is also a racialized process — perhaps because of its cyclical relationship with the law. The surveillance of black citizens has been traced as far back as World War I (and perhaps even further). Simone Brown, in her book Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness, argues that blackness was and remains a space where surveillance is practiced, experimented with, and reimagined. More specifically, surveillance as it exists today has its roots in the policing of enslaved black life. Our modern forms of policing and control are informed by whiteness; “policing can be understood as those preventive mechanisms and institutions for ensuring private property within public order, including access to the means of violence, their legal narration, and their use” (Singh 2014, 1092). It follows, then, that mass incarceration would intensify as technologies of surveillance and policing multiply. Indeed, the criminality and surveillance of black existence became amplified during and in response to the Civil Rights Movement, leading to the rapid growth of the carceral state.
The system of mass incarceration grew exponentially in California in the waning years of the twentieth century. Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues in her book Golden Gulag that the political economy of urban California, in particular, gave rise to an incredible network of prisons. These prisons serve as repositories. They are spaces where lives are warehoused and incapacitated. The incarceration system actively and physically separates those lives which have been deemed devoid of and undeserving of human rights from those who have been judged to be in compliance with civil contract between state and citizen-subject. Thus, because the hyper-surveilled state is racist, the carceral state itself is a modern apartheid.
Additionally, the carceral state exists beyond the realm of the physical segregation. Formerly incarcerated individuals consistently struggle to find jobs and housing. Formerly incarcerated black individuals must grapple with increasing realms of exclusion — exclusion which exists beyond the domain of the economic and the financial. These disparate spaces of exclusion combine to produce overwhelming socio-economic and political debt. These debts include the inability to pay bail, the inability to pay for the services of an attorney, the difficulty of re-entry into a workforce or access to higher education, serious restrictions on mobility, and the lack of political agency to advocate for any kind of reform.
The debt that is produced protects the state and its interests. This is because various manifestations of debt significantly impact minoritized black bodies. These debts have been legitimized by the state because the state has, in essence, confirmed the “criminality” of the black citizen as evidenced by their imprisonment and permanent record. The black prisoners who serve their sentence “on good behavior” emerge from the cells and finds that their lives are more intensely scrutinized than ever before. Their homes, jobs, and lives are now under more surveillance than previously imaginable. They were told that they owe a debt to American society as a whole for breaking the law, but find that the state is not satisfied with their time in prison as sufficient payment. Entire neighborhoods have become and remain segregated and separated from large communities — South-Central Los Angeles serving as the primary example in this thought piece.
I would suggest, then, that a possible intervention would be to examine legal discourse as a site of resistance. Indeed, the common thread between surveillance and incarceration is the way in which the law works to legitimize these operations of statecraft. Surveillance and incarceration in turn generate several manifestations of debt which, in being directed at black bodies, protect the state and its machinations. The law is thus imbricated with the production of violence, particularly violence against black bodies. The complicated ways in which the law is rooted in a very real and still-felt history of slavery, subjugation of minoritized bodies, and in disposability means that it is also a discourse worth challenging. In our contemporary moment, the routine (and forcefully forgotten) policing, murder, and warehousing of black bodies is made possible, legitimized, and justified by the actual language of the law. The continued mobilization and unquestioned nature of this language obscures a radically violent and purposefully segregated state. If we are able to interrogate the words used in our courts of law, we can challenge the ways in which that language is constructed to obfuscate the power of the state. Resistance, then, begins by intervening in the spaces where criminalization is constructed and enforced but never questioned.
Barker, Vanessa. The Politics of Imprisonment: How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Higginbotham, A. Leon. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Monahan, Torin, and Rodolfo D. Torres. Schools under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.
Nakamura, Lisa, and Peter Chow-White. Race after the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Palidda, Salvatore. Racial Criminalization of Migrants in the 21st Century. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011.