BLOG 1: Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness & Countering Violent Extremism

By: Rihan Issa, Executive Articles Editor, Vol. 27

Government surveillance is inevitable in our current reality. So present, it seems it is a fact of life rather than a direct invasion into the lives of marginalized communities. Government surveillance obstructs marginalized communities’ growth and transformation into healthy, safe, and vibrant communities. Surveillance has been used as a method of control by governments throughout history.[i] It is here we look to the practice of abolition to reimagine a world in which surveillance is not present, nor a fact of life.[ii In Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne argues that one cannot understand the history of surveillance without examining its racial past.[iii] Browne intentionally names the book Dark Matters because she parallels this to dark matter in space that shapes and dictates the placement of things and objects; something that is not seen, but the presence of which is haunting and inescapable.[iv] The same can be said for the surveillance of Black bodies, the current mechanisms and trajectory of which continue to expand, much like a black hole. In this three part blog series I hope to examine the “dark matter” of the U.S. government’s surveillance program “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE). Part 1 will provide an overview of Browne’s argument. Part 2 will apply and examine CVE through the lens of how blackness has shaped surveillance. Finally, part 3 will end with exploring mechanisms for applying these lessons today as we work to dismantle oppressive surveillance systems.

Part 1:

Simone Browne coined the term “racializing surveillance”[v] as a conceptual tool to place race in conversation with surveillance. To racialize surveillance is to perceive enactments of surveillance as a way to organize society along racial boundaries- the outcome of which is often violent and discriminatory.[vi]  Studying surveillance through this racial lens highlights how enactments of surveillance dictate what does and does not belong. To racialize surveillance is to also acknowledge that “how things get ordered racially… depends on space and time and is subject to change, but most often… [it seeks] to structure social relations and institutions in ways that privilege whiteness.”[vii] In Dark Matters, Browne discusses the racial lens of surveillance through Frantz Fanon’s description of epidermization in his celebrated book “Black Skin, White Masks.” Frantz describes the experience of blackness as the moment where the “white gaze fixes him as an object among objects.”[viii] It is “literally the inscription of race on the skin.”[ix] It is the disassociation between the Black “body and the world” that sees this body denied its specificity, dissected, fixed, [and] imprisoned by the white gaze.” Through this social construction of blackness, Browne examines the racial roots of surveillance.

Browne examines the racial origins of just a few seemingly race-neutral surveillance tools and practices, such as the origins of prisons, passports, and biometric technology. For instance, Browne argues that biometric technology today was partly rooted in the practice of branding the bodies of enslaved persons.[x] Branding served as a way to label the black body as belonging to a particular person, at times served as punishment, and at other times was co-opted by the enslaved to track down kin.[xi] An important theme throughout Browne’s book is not only naming and describing the tools used over those being surveilled, she goes a step further to describe how those under the eye of surveillance co-opted, repurposed, and challenged the surveillance tools and practices in a way that facilitated freedom.[xii] She names this process, dark sousveillance. Sousveillance is defined as the observing and oversight of a subject done by an “entity not in a position of power.”[xiii] She uses dark sousveillance to underscore the methods used to evade observation while also examining ways to neutralize surveillance and ultimately to imagine another way of being.[xiv] In this way, Browne maintains agency and personhood for those being surveilled. For instance, Browne describes the fifteen-panel photograph series by the South African artist, Robin Rhode titled Pan’s Opticon.[xv] In the series, a man has his back turned away from the camera towards a concrete wall to return the gaze of the onlooker.[xvi] As he returns the gaze through his interrogative eyes, he leaves black circles behind filling the wall up with dark spots.[xvii] The series is a statement on “looking back” at the surveillance as a means to state “Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.”[xviii]

Browne uses the term race through a phenotypical understanding of race, particularly blackness. I seek here to apply her definition of race through not only a phenotype lens but also through how certain groups are racialized. “Racialization as a concept reflects the changing meanings of race within different political, social, and economic contexts producing a more expansive and complex discussion of race.”[xix] My exploration of the racial roots of the ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ program is with the understanding that ‘the Muslim’ has been simplified and racialized. “The ‘racial Muslim,’ …, does not include all Muslims in equal measure. Nor does the racialized term ‘Muslim’ refer exclusively to actual Muslim communities. The term ‘Muslim’ also ascribes people (of all faiths) who fit the socially constructed racial identity given relevance and power by centuries of social construction.”[xx] In the context of CVE, this manifests in the communities that are more aggressively targeted. In 2014, two of the three communities the Department of Justice targeted were communities that had a high concentration of Somali-Americans.[xxi]

In following Browne’s lead, I seek to underscore the racial roots of the government surveillance program, CVE. The program is touted as an effective prevention program for militating against acts committed by violent extremists.[xxii] It was initiated under the Obama administration and has been revived and seemingly “reformed” under the Biden administration to be more race-neutral.[xxiii] In part two of the blog series I will go in-depth on what the program is, who it has impacted the most, and clearly state the racial origins on which this program rests. With this examination, I intend to name and acknowledge the racial legacy of such forms of government surveillance. Not only is it rooted in race, but in fact continues to live on as affecting Black bodies.

[i] John Fiske, Surveilling the City: Whiteness, the Black Man and Democratic Totalitarianism 15 Theory Culture Society 67, 71-72 (1998).

[ii] Critical Resistance, What is the PIC? What is Abolition?,,alternatives%20to%20punishment%20and%20imprisonment.&text=An%20abolitionist%20vision%20means%20that,to%20live%20in%20the%20future, (Last visited Jan. 23, 2022).

[iii] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness 9 (2015).

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 8.

[vi] Id. at 16.

[vii] Id. at 17.

[viii] Id. at 7. 

[ix] Id. at 97.

[x] Id. at 91.

[xi] Id. at 94, 97.

[xii] Id. at 21-22.

[xiii] Id. at 19.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id. at 59.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id. at 58.

[xix] Saher Selod & David G. Embrick, Racialization and Muslims: Situating the Muslim Experience in Race Scholarship, 7  Sociology Compass 644-55 (2013).

[xx] Erik Love, Islamophobia: The Racial Paradox and the Racial Dilemma, 21 Political Theology 461 (2020).

[xxi] Faiza Patel & Meghan Koushik, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Countering Violence Extremism 29(2017).

[xxii] Id. at 5.

[xxiii] Catrina Doxsee & Jake Harrington, Center for Strategic & International Studies, The First U.S. National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, (Last visited Jan. 23, 2020).