Exposure of Social Problems

Today explicitly racist laws are no longer on the books, yet racism continues in many areas of life as a result of a vast carceral apparatus that facilitates legal discrimination against those “marked” with a criminal record. So, while Black people in the abstract enjoy greater freedom of movement, in practice many are immobilized by an elaborate penal system. Not only those who are convicted, but entire families and communities are stigmatized and penalized by association – they carry a badge of dishonor with widespread consequences, such as restrictions on where people can live, work, and move around.57 This is the paradox Michelle Alexander documents: the legalized discrimination afforded by the US penal system at a time when de jure segregation is no longer acceptable. Thanks to the work of Alexander and many others, social awareness about the carceral system is growing and people are looking for “more humane” alternatives, such as ankle monitors, and “more objective” measures, such as crime prediction software, to decide who should be caged and for how long. As widespread concern over mass incarceration increases, people are turning to technological fixes that encode inequity in a different form.

Growing exposure of social problems is fueling new forms of obfuscation. For instance, public discourse is filled with frequent and widespread condemnation of blatant acts of racism, albeit often euphemized through the language of “racial incidents.” No longer limited to television or newspapers, condemnation on social media makes the practice of “dragging” people through the virtual public square easier and swifter. Viral hashtags and memes allow almost anyone to publicize racist transgressions, sometimes as they are happening, with the potential for news to spread globally in a matter of minutes. Dragging can be entertaining, and it is profitable for corporations by driving up clicks; but it is also cathartic for those who previously had their experiences of racism questioned or dismissed. It offers a collective ritual, which acknowledges and exposes the everyday insults and dangers that are an ongoing part of Black life. Video recordings, in particular, position viewers as witnesses whose judgment may have political and professional repercussions for those whose blatant racist actions are on view.

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