Home > Uncategorized > The “Panopticon” Created Cellphones and Surveillance Cameras Cannot Bring Safety to Students, Justice to Blacks

The “Panopticon” Created Cellphones and Surveillance Cameras Cannot Bring Safety to Students, Justice to Blacks

Earlier this week I wrote a post about an incident involving a white Student Resource Officer and a disobedient black student in South Carolina. Friday’s NYTimes features an excellent op ed piece by Roxane Gay titled “Where Are Black Children Safe?” Her essay includes a paragraph describing the incident followed by a paragraph with an unarguable conclusion:

On Monday, in Columbia, S.C., Ben Fields, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to Spring Valley High School, was called to a classroom to exert control over an allegedly disobedient student — a black girl. She wouldn’t give up her cellphone to her teacher, an infraction wholly disproportionate to what came to pass. There are at least three videos of the incident. When Mr. Fields approaches the girl, she is sitting quietly. He quickly muscles her out of her seat and throws her across the room

The video of this brutality is unbearable in its violence, in what it reminds us, once again, about the value of black life in America, and about the challenges black children, in particular, face.

Later in the essay, Ms. Gay describes the reaction to this incident by many people, including black media commentators: why was the young woman so disobedient? If she had just followed the directive of the teacher and Principal the police wouldn’t have been involved. Ms. Gay’s response to this directly and passionately:

Time and again, in such situations, black people are asked, why don’t we mind our place? To be black in America is to exist with the presumption of guilt, burdened by an implacable demand to prove our innocence. We are asked impossible questions by people who completely ignore a reality where so many of the rules we are supposed to follow are expressly designed to subjugate and work against our best interests. We ignore the reality that we cannot just follow the rules and find our way to acceptance, equality or justice. Respectability politics are a delusion.

Ms. Gay noted that the young black woman who was victimized in the viral video had recently been placed in foster care. Might that have been an underlying cause of her misconduct? The context of misconduct can often change one’s ideas about why the misconduct occurred.

Ms. Gay’s concluding section of the essay was particularly compelling, In it, she describes the concept of a “panopticon” and relates it to the world black children— indeed ALL children are experiencing:

Michel Foucault — the philosopher who was deeply concerned about power and how power was enforced — wrote of the panopticon, inspired by the work of Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison where prisoners could be watched without knowing when or if they were being watched. Discipline, in such a structure, would be enforced by prisoners never knowing when the watchful eye would be turned toward them. We can certainly see how the panopticon functions in any organization predicated on hierarchies of power and the preservation of that power.

Technology has made the world a panopticon. It has widened the range of who watches and who is watched. Each day, we learn of a new injustice against the black body and in many cases, we now have pictures, videos. We have incontrovertible evidence of flagrant brutalities though, sadly and predictably, this evidence is never enough. At some point, this evidence, these breathtaking, sickening images, will render us numb or they will break our hearts irreparably. There is no respite from the harsh reminder that our black bodies are not safe. The black bodies of those we love are not safe…

Given how pervasive surveillance has become, I would think the black body, black people would be safer. I would think that police officers or assorted racists would think twice before acting, inappropriately, against the black body. It is a horrifying, desperate reality where such people act with impunity, undeterred by the threat of surveillance. They know they might be seen and remain empowered in their racism, their sense of dominion. They realize the nauseating truth — there are some injustices, against certain groups of people, that can be witnessed without consequence.

As yesterday’s post indicates, it has been over half a century since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and a decade more than that since the Brown decision presumably ended segregation and Jim Crow, but we still live in a world with the nauseating truth — (that) some injustices, against certain groups of people… can be witnessed without consequence.

But the world of the technological panopticon affects everyone and assumes everyone is willing to be a prisoner, “…never knowing when the watchful eye would be turned toward them.”  Hopefully we can ALL see how this panopticon could function in a way that preserves the hierarchy of power and also see that the panopticon we’ve created in schools does not protect us any more than the “good guy with a gun” protected the young black woman in South Carolina. In a world where no one knows when a “watchful eye would be turned toward them” we will soon ALL be encountering the experiences blacks have experienced for generations. I would prefer eliminating the racism and oppression visited on blacks to imposing the panopticon on us all in the name of safety.

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