I grew up in Rochester, New York and was 6 years old when the race riots broke out in 1964. We lived in the city, on the west side, near the airport. The riots were on the eastern side of downtown, around Joseph Avenue, still a very relevant area for us because only a mile or so way away was my father’s restaurant. Also, to get from our house, which was in a “transitional” neighborhood at that point, to the restaurant, one went through the “Third Ward,” where Susan B. Anthony’s house is and where Frederick Douglass had lived, but also an area by that time deeply affected by the complex social forces of poverty and de facto segregation of the North. Not the exact site of the riot, there was nevertheless much unrest there. My father took that road four times a day, and at all hours of the night. In the car he carried heavy metal pipe. At home, he had a hunting gun beside the bed.
Fast forward to the mid 1990’s and I am a lecturer at the School of Human Ecology, Human Development Department, Cornell University. I have assigned Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book Savage Inequalities to my Family and Social Policy class. If you haven’t read it – and if you are confused about why Ferguson is now the site of race riots – pick it up. Its description of the conditions of schools in East St. Louis, where many of the parents went to school of those now on the streets, will provide you with insight. There are two books that have reduced me to tears, literally, in front of a classroom while I would teach: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and this one.
The July 14 edition of The New Republic includes a story, “The $236,500 Hole in the American Dream,” about how “The typical Black family is worth that much less than the typical white family. Equality will be a lie until we close that gap.” In an unintended juxtaposition, Hilary Clinton is on the front cover of that edition, a reformer by nature but someone whose achievement-oriented husband has made her real politic. If a Black President could not do much to keep the streets of Ferguson from erupting, or Treyvon Martin or Ezell Ford alive, or the teen-age boys at the Florida gas station from being killed in their car for playing their music too loud, I am not sure what a Clinton presidency will do for us. If anything, she – and Congress – will have to do something about the myriad laws, I.R.S. especially, that have allowed a very small percentage of the population to hoard a wildly disproportionate amount of wealth, leaving the poor poorer, the middle class squished down the social ladder and evidently everyone taking it out on everyone else because the core issues lay in the hands of policy makers and lobbyists.
What does this portrait have to do with technology, law and policy? Just about everything, I suggest. The “Internet,” and all that it entails economically, socially, politically and culturally, both shapes, and is shaped by, this world-historical force. Early utopian thought about how the Internet would exist outside of legal boundaries and be the locus of a world without need of government or police wizened up a long time ago to the realities of local law, such as was the famous Yahoo Nazi Memorabilia French case, or nation-state directed technologies, such as the filtering efforts of, for example, Saudi Arabia or Iran, or the multi-pronged approach that the People’s Republic of China take. Having absorbed the lessons of Lawrence Lessig about the four factors that influence the Internet (but not his intent to make it free, open and innovative culturally), they use all four: technology, social norms, the market and law to suppress dissent.
Before we get too self-righteous about other countries, let’s take our own stock: down-ward slide on broadband penetration nationally; protests against the financially fueled, power influences of Internet giants and their work force in the traditional neighborhoods of northern California; a glaring lack of education about the national policy of both education and the Internet such that there cannot be a clear understanding even among like-minded people on issues such as net neutrality or what is meant by an “open and free” Internet. And needless to say, however powerful is the Internet, it hasn’t done much to change historical pressure points of race and class in the United States. Except to demonstrate how race and class persist through digital divides.
Remember how the television affected the views of people back home in the United States about the conflict in Vietnam? So goes the Internet to give us a view of the streets of Ferguson. But those are just means of communication. Are we going to do with what emerges in real time? Will we do even half as much as people did two generations ago to address these ills? Will we rise up and confront the injustices that are now so apparent? Or are we going to observe these travesties with detachment, quietly grateful to be out of the fray and ever hopeful to make it just above the upper-middle class mark? Will we allow the “Internet” and all that means: new billionaires by the score, and, consequently regional planning and K-12 education to be a market product? Bright and shiny objects, fascinating in their own right, lull us away from some principles that are basic to the vision of ourselves in this great nation of promise. If upward mobility is that promise, we have long since reached that peak. If it is about something else: fairness, justice and a greater measure of equality, then history repeats itself. And taking my childhood memories as a future thought, it seems time that we all started to do something serious about it.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts