On Tuesday the Senate voted on the USA Freedom Act, legislation designed to give Americans more privacy from the federal government. The bill was a specific attempt to stop the government from collecting phone records, a process that was revealed last year by Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who released classified documents outlining the authorization for such collection. However, the bill failed to receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. So the bulk collection of American phone and online communication will continue.
Though not explicitly stated in the Constitution, privacy is a fundamental right held by all Americans. As such, black Americans should welcome measures that seek to guard civil liberties and reduce privacy violations. Although it is difficult for many blacks to get worked up over a small policy shift regarding a right they have never truly enjoyed, the right to privacy is too important to be cast aside.
Privacy infringements are usually the harbinger of additional civil rights violations. When we cede the right to privacy, or even remain silent when given a diminished version of it, we declare to the nation that blacks are OK with being less equal. This has a negative impact on every facet of people’s lives. Blacks, perhaps more than any other demographic, should be the leading voices in support of legislation like the USA Freedom Act and related data-security initiatives because our history has shown what happens when privacy protections are absent.
For black Americans, as an article last week by Yale University professor Beverly Gage reminds us, privacy has historically been more of a luxury than a right. Gage reveals the full text of a letter the FBI sent to Martin Luther King Jr. encouraging him to commit suicide. In the letter, the agency threatened to reveal personal information about King that was gleaned from the government’s extensive invasion of his privacy through wiretapping and the bugging of his hotel rooms.
The incident with King, frankly, isn’t all that surprising. The history of the black American experience has been fraught with a blatant disregard for a right to personhood, much less for any claims of citizenship and privacy. Privacy violations have spanned the entire black American journey, extending from slave rows to communities segregated by Jim Crow laws to neighborhoods policed by stop-and-frisk programs today. For centuries the surrendering of any notion of privacy was a condition of existence for much of black America.
As it turns out, since the Snowden disclosures, most Americans also see privacy violations as an issue, particularly with the spread of technology. According to a new study from the Pew Research Internet Project, 80 percent of Americans believe that we should be concerned about the government’s efforts to collect specific information from our online and phone communications. And 70 percent of Americans are worried that the government is accessing our social media information, such as our Facebook profiles, without our knowledge. Still, Internet, cellphone and social media usage continues to grow exponentially. Blacks have a higher rate of smartphone ownership and social media usage (especially Twitter) than whites.
Yet black Americans are not as concerned as the rest of the country about government surveillance. Compared with all other demographic groups, blacks are the most likely to believe that the government has collected their data and the least likely to feel violated by it. Further, blacks are the least likely to disapprove of the federal government’s collection of their phone and Internet data in the course of achieving national-security objectives. In other words, blacks believe that their privacy is invaded more than any other group does, and they have come to terms with it.
It’s fair to surmise that the historical deprivation of privacy is the core rationale for our lack of surprise or offense when such violations are revealed. Furthermore, because African Americans perpetually suffer recession-level unemployment, exceptionally high poverty and incarceration rates, and relatively low health outcomes and household wealth, government collection of phone numbers is among the least of our concerns.
The nation is engaged in a conversation about the balance between privacy and security. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security became a paramount concern for all Americans. But as time has passed, the country is looking to reclaim some of the liberty that was surrendered in the shadow of that traumatic event. The USA Freedom Act was the latest mechanism in an attempt to recalibrate the right to privacy with an expectation of protection by the government.
But for black Americans, privacy and security have almost always been out of balance and sometimes wholly absent. Although blacks would have benefited from the additional privacy and civil liberties protections contained in the bill, its passage would not have undone the impact resulting from the denial of privacy that has characterized the black American experience. Nevertheless, the right to privacy is fundamental to addressing injustices in other policy areas. As such, it must not be overlooked in the course of the struggle for equality.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.