The Television May Be Revolutionized: Technology’s Impact on Exposing Racial Injustice

Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster urge readers to better organize around these records of racism to push for civil rights and social justice.

By Biko Agozino

Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice, by Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster. Atria, 2023. 320p, 9781982180393 $18.99, 9781982180416

Book cover of seen and Unseen

Seen and Unseen by Marc Lamont Hill (Temple Univ.) and Todd Brewster, a veteran journalist, is sure to be quick reading for most readers. This volume is a well-written journalistic account of the explosion of images taken on cell phones and shared on social media to broadcast scenes of police brutality against African Americans. Without these video recordings and photographs captured by ordinary citizens and reporters, it would be difficult to convince authorities and the wider world of the terrible, racist actions that law-enforcement officers inflict on unarmed citizens, citizens to whom they are sworn to serve with equal protection before the law.

In lucid prose, coauthors Hill and Brewster contend that in a white-supremacist world:

It was white people who owned the cameras and white people who made the movies, white people who ran the publishing companies, edited the newspapers, and funded the research, and white people who wove tales that sentimentalized the Confederacy, adjusted the lessons of the Civil War to be more favorable to the South, and argued that Reconstruction failed because Black people, inferior by their very nature, had nonetheless been entrusted with equality and authority at the expense of the interests and feelings of the defeated white majority. In short, ‘Negroes’ were what white people saw them to be, wished them to be, and even forced them to be. How do you answer the ‘Negro question’? Let white people do it for you.

(p. 2)

Although the United States is still far from achieving full equality, the nation has nonetheless progressed since Reconstruction, implementing, for instance, publicly funded education for all—in recent years, Americans have even witnessed Confederate statues brought tumbling down in public squares. Given such developments, Hill and Brewster cast their book as a counter-thesis to the assertions above, arguing that, thanks to today’s booming information technology revolution, owning cameras and making movies are activities that have been relatively democratized. No longer does one group exclusively run publishing companies, produce films, or edit newspapers.

Analyzing the videos of the public murder of George Floyd by law enforcement officers in 2020, the authors recognize the important role that information technologies played in the hands of Black teenager Darnella Frazier, who bravely recorded the moment for history and justice, lest the officers cover up their own body camera footage. This indicates that technology in the right hands can be used to provide greater security and accountability for people who are oppressed in public places where there may be fewer concerns about privacy rights.

This book expands on what C. W. Mills called “the sociological imagination” in his 1959 book of the same name—namely, the ability to see the intersections between private troubles and public issues through individuals’ lives. In a major omission, Mills failed to include racism and sexism among the private troubles facing individuals, focusing almost exclusively on class struggles. Hill and Brewster seek to amend this shortsightedness, extending the focus of the sociological imagination to include racism. However, their book would have been strengthened sociologically, politically, theoretically, and historically had the authors also thought to include sexism and imperialism in their assessment.

[T]he authors see the modern use of technology to document police brutality as part of the broader nonviolent strategy of the Civil Rights Movement …

Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the authors see the modern use of technology to document police brutality as part of the broader nonviolent strategy of the Civil Rights Movement, though it most resembles the Black Panthers’ police watch program. As King declared, “the movement would no longer let white men ‘use clubs on us in the dark corners,’” but would rather “‘make them do it in the glaring light of television’” (p. 6).

Although the revolution would not be televised, the television could be revolutionized through “the work of sympathetic photojournalists, both white and Black” (p. 6). In light of the modern Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, this raises the question of whether BLM supporters who similarly document and advocate against police brutality can be considered only as sympathizers or as allies contributing to the principle of interest convergence as Derrick Bell articulated it in Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992)—the idea that social change arises when minority groups’ interests converge with those of the majority.

In The Red Record (1895), Ida B. Wells documented that of the thousands of lynchings reported in white newspapers, about one-third affected white men. Similarly, struggles against systems of oppression—such as the struggle to abolish slavery, the working-class movement, the anti-imperialist nationalist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa—have always been multicultural, bringing together scores of people irrespective of identity differences. Accordingly, comrades in any struggle for justice should not be seen simply as sympathizers because the eye never forgets what the heart has seen, according to an old African proverb.

Moreover, according to statistics published by The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers, about half of those killed by the police in the United States are white, although African Americans are killed by police at a disproportionately higher rate. Given these statistics, “The Spectacle of Death” stemming from police brutality, as Hill and Brewster refer to it in chapter 1, is a problem facing society at large, not just Black people (p. 11). As Kimberlé Crenshaw and Stuart Hall have theorized, the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and imperialism represents a threat to all, necessitating coalitions and alliances for resistance. As the authors here argue, anti-racism should thus be embraced by all people.

Those white people who buy into the myth that they are inherently superior to all other people have been misled by propaganda campaigns. Modern media can be used to undo this harmful consequence, and instead influence more people to take a stand against racism, sexism, and imperialism in support of the abolition democracy advanced by Angela Davis. Such organizing could bring an end to the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as articulated by bell hooks.

Hill and Brewster warn that “while our new technologies are very good at assembling small pockets of resistance, broad-based consensus is frustrated by the bewildering new mood of competition that our techno-democracy has forced upon us” (p. 194). This requires more organization by activists for social justice rather than “leaderlessness,” which is sometimes celebrated as a virtue in a world where autocratic leaders like former President Donald Trump seem to flourish (p. 195).

Newspapers, movies, and books published and produced by Black activists and other intellectuals have long documented similar struggles for resistance, a legacy that today continues under BLM.

In chapter 5, “Another Chance,” the authors remind readers that the use of photography as a means to document state-sponsored violence against peaceful protesters did not begin with BLM. Newspapers, movies, and books published and produced by Black activists and other intellectuals have long documented similar struggles for resistance, a legacy that today continues under BLM.

The only photograph included in this book captures the moment a white supremacist struck a Black man with a car and sent him flying into the air during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The same driver killed a white woman (Heather Heyer) when he deliberately ran her over with his car. Two white police officers also died in a helicopter that crashed while they were policing the crisis.

As Bob Marley sang, “when the rain fall, it don’t fall on one man’s housetop.” In the same way, racism affects all of society, not just one group. Using their journalistic skills, Hill and Brewster detail readable stories of the struggle for civil rights from the distant past to the present to demonstrate for readers how these struggles affect Americans across every ethnic group and stratum of society. All of this has been thoroughly documented and “seen.” What remains “unseen” is adequate attention to the urgent struggles for reparative justice by people of African descent. Whether reparative justice or punitive justice is the preferable response to these harms remains to be seen. The authors have seemingly left this up to readers to decide for themselves.

Overall, Seen and Unseen is a valuable contribution to the field of racial justice, although it could also be read as a contribution to intersectionality, or critical articulations of the nexus of race, class, and gender. This could help to reinvigorate discussions of critical race theory in public education, which have been banned in recent years by many states in the United States on the mistaken assumption that such discussions are too divisive. In fact more discussions of this nature are urgently needed if Americans are ever to achieve full equality for all.

Summing Up: Recommended. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences

Biko Agozino is a professor of sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. His books include Black Women and the Criminal Justice System (Routledge, 2018) and Counter-Colonial Criminology (Pluto, 2003).