February 2022Vol. 23., No. 1Think First, Do No Harm
Written by Associate Commissioner Aysha E. Schomburg
February is Black History Month and a time when we celebrate the contributions and triumphs of Black people throughout U.S history. It is true that we have made extraordinary contributions not only to this country but to this world. It is also true that we have historically and consistently experienced racism, discrimination, mass incarceration, and oversurveillance. Oversurveillance is a word that we hear a lot in the field of child welfare. Arguably, racism and discrimination lead to oversurveillance—and oversurveillance leads to mass incarceration. In our field, oversurveillance leads to mass family separation.
Black families in the United States have always been surveilled. Overseers on plantations come to mind. Their role was not only to protect the property of the slave owner but also to preserve the racial hierarchy of the workforce. Overseers were responsible for watching the enslaved Africans and exacting swift punishment for any behavior deemed punishable. We can think back to the "separate but equal" ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave carte blanche to White folks to have the legal right to keep vigil over Black choices of where to sit, eat, and drink. The "wrong" choice would, at the very least, result in humiliation and could undoubtedly result in beating, incarceration, or even death. More recently, in the 1950s and 1960s, we can consider the government's counterintelligence program, often referred to as COINTELPRO, which was the intentional and purposeful surveillance of Black freedom fighters and other political organizations to disempower Black people and maintain the racial hierarchy.