Styling & Profiling:
Privacy & The Hip Hop Generation After 9/11
by Jeff Chang 3/24/02

For the Hip-Hop Generation, the issues of profiling and privacy are intertwined. We are America1s post-boomer cohort, the most diverse generation in U.S. history. We are the muses and the products of the Information Age. We are a profiler1s dream.

High-tech marketing was invented for usÜthe language of webpage hits, Soundscan units, impressions, "eyeballs" and psychographics. Every time we swipe our credit card, log onto the internet, or walk out onto the street, chances are that data is being gathered on us.

This isn't all bad, if our primary function in life is to consume. It's cool, for instance, that can anticipate the next CD you'd like to buy, or the next book you'd want to read. The more you buy, the better they figure it out. But, as the most thoroughly profiled generation in American history, our worlds seem filled with product placements, and we find it difficult to find true spaces of privacy.

From a hip-hop point-of-view, of course, there is rich irony in this. Hip-hop began as a way for ghetto youth to refuse anonymity, to escape enforced marginalization. Hip-hop was a big bumrush on the public life of the mainstream, and it knocked down segregated spaces one by one downtown nightclubs, radio playlists, video shows, TV, movies, fashion, middle American shopping malls.

Watching MTV nowadays, it's hard to remember that in the early 80s, black music was almost never shown on it. But by the mid-eighties, the tide began to shift. One could argue that our demographics made the rap video star. "Yo MTV Raps" debuted in '988 with the strong backing of MTV execs. At some point, corporate America finally got the message too. And then they said, cool, now here's some Nikes.

So each of us became an advertising bullseye, a bipedal data-set to be captured. Remember Public Enemy's logo? It was a target-sight. And here's where this discussion intersects with the Fourth Amendment, for numbers also tracked us in a much different way.

Let's discuss some relevant numbers:

In 1992, Denver's gang database listed eight of every ten young people of color in the entire city. Many other cities and counties keep similar databases, with similar racially disparate results. In some places, all you have to do to get in the database is to be down with hip-hop style--a youth may be defined as a gang-banger by such visual cues as clothes, shoes, and tattoos.

In Chicago, 43,000 young Chicagoans were arrested in just two years under an anti-loitering ordinance that was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The ordinance allowed police to sweep and arrest any gathering a cop "reasonably believed" to be gang-related. Many were arrested for hanging out with friends in front of their own homes.

Last year, Tampa was given a high-tech face-recognition surveillance system by Visionics Corporation to scan crowds in its nightclub district for suspected criminals. The numbers to date: zero matches, zero arrests, lots of pissed-off clubgoers. Yet the Pentagon has invested $50 million more in developing the technology.

Profiling and surveillance of youths and people of color has never been more sophisticated. Driven by hysterical fears and flimsy definitions, the usage of gang databases have expanded rapidly.

Many states are now in the process of connecting to or integrating these with national criminal databases maintained by the FBI. The goal is to connect 80,000 law enforcement agencies. Information could include photos, fingerprints, and DNA.

But there are no uniform national data standards. In the case of Chicago, the unconstitutional sweep ordinance added many thousands of innocents to the rolls. And how accurate can a system claim to be when 80% of a city's minority population appears as a gang member?

Some of these databases are administered in part by private security firms, which profit from a database's expansion not from its accuracy. But although there are major concerns about such databases, their use continues to expand. In the wake of 9/11, criminal databases have been described as a necessary component of homeland security.

The Hip-Hop Generation could come under more surveillance because of the October passage of the USA Patriot Act. The Act authorized the federal government to install its controversial Internet monitoring program Carnivore. The program tracks and makes copies of all of an ISP's traffic, including web and e-mail activity and uses filters to sort out irrelevant content. But critics have argued that the FBI can use Carnivore technology to devour much more than its appointed meal. Under the Act, the FBI does not even have to publicly disclose what they have read.

Even before the Act passed, some hip-hop activists said that the FBI was monitoring and picking up nonviolent anti-prison, anti-globalization, and anti-war organizers for questioning. The Patriot Act now provides cover, under a sweeping definition of "domestic terrorism", for federal officials to further harass hip-hop activists.

Most egregiously, the Act restores many government powers that were removed in the after J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program, which surveillanced and harassed everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. to John Lennon. FBI officials can now, by law, circumvent the Fourth Amendment and justify broader spying on any targets, even domestic ones.

For the Hip-Hop Generation, technology is not the enemy. We have embraced it. And because it has transformed corporate culture, and reinforced corporate multiculturalism, we now have the dubious opportunity to be better consumers than ever.

But the same technologies have ultimately eroded our ability to maintain our privacy. And in a politically-charged wartime atmosphere such as this, when thousands are still serving indefinite detentions, the government can turn such technologies all too easily toward silencing voices that need to be heard.

Goodie Mob once asked the musical question, "Who's that peeking in my window?" And they answered, saying it loud, "Pow! Nobody now." Like Goodie Mob, we as journalists should be vigilant about asking who is peeking in our windows. And if they ain't s'posed to be there, perhaps we need to knock Îem out the box too.

Written by Jeff Chang
Presented at Media Bistro Salon, 3/19/02

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