Black Love? Vol. 2: Mass Incarceration & Online Dating For Black People

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Hearing the phrase “back in my day” might trigger an eye roll in response, but when it comes to dating and Black people living in the US, we might actually learn something. 

Looking at social media, it may be hard to have a positive outlook on romantic partnership as a Black person. Twitter debates about splitting finances and even eating bread too quickly at a dinner table might discourage people from shooting their shots online or in person. Behind all of the podcast episodes and hot takes, though, is a conversation about the historical context of how we got here in the first place. 

From the 1994 Crime Bill to Tinder’s new background check feature, student loan repayments, and more, Black dating, like many things, has been impacted by American history and its present. 

In the second volume of the Black Love? Series, the Black Information Network is taking a closer look at those factors that have made their way to the dating pool. 

Let’s dive in. 

Mass Incarceration & Dating: How Did We Get Here?

In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law arguably one of the most negatively impactful pieces of legislation in US history. The Crime Bill militarized police departments across the country, rolled in new sentencing minimums in every state, and implemented the three-strikes rule, which fueled the mass incarceration of Black people for decades

The bill’s impact struck in the aftermath of the 1980s War on Drugs led by former President Ronald Regan whose economic strategies doubled Black unemployment while cocaine ripped through communities, leading to mass death and substance abuse

The 1994 Crime Bill, it can be argued, finished what Ronald Reagan started in the1980s, carrying out the legacy of legal enslavement of Black people in America.

As laid out in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the legacy of incarceration in America can be traced to the enslavement of African people on this land. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s 13th draws that line clearly to show how the system was never abolished, just evolved with the times.

One era, in particular, that is still seen today was the establishment of the convict leasing program that created what we may now refer to as the prison industrial complex. Arbitrary laws were put on the books so as to “catch” Black people in criminality to then legally –– as written in the 13th Amendment –– enslave them. Today, the privatization of prisons, documented racially-motivated brutality by police officers, and disproportionate over-policing of our communities “catch” us still. 

And the effects are seen in the devastation of our communities in a variety of ways, including our ability to date and love.

Tinder’s New Criminal Background Check Feature

Earlier this year, Tinder announced it would be launching a new feature to allow users to screen potential dates’ criminal backgrounds.

The initiative was the result of a partnership between Tinder's parent company Match Co and Garbo, a nonprofit background check provider that focuses on gender-based violence awareness and prevention. The move came after calls for greater safety measures within the swipe left or right dating app. 

The feature specifically allows users to access Garbo's databases using information frequently found on Tinder profiles: date of birth, phone number, zip code, etc.

Garbo currently searches sex offender lists, public arrest records, and convictions. Some critics say the feature places the onus of safety back into the hands of users and not Tinder, and that given the low conviction rate for sex crimes the feature might not be as useful for users.

Let's Talk about It

The risks of online dating we discussed in Vol. 1 of the Black Love? Series paired with contextualizing the potential exposure of a Black person's criminal background on a dating app is, at the very least, complicated. 

There is a need for safety and knowing as much as possible about a person before meeting with them –– that's a tactic even experts recommend, which may be particularly relevant for Black women and LGBTQ+ people who face higher rates of violence.

And how do we reckon with the fact that the American criminal system has disproportionately impacted Black people –– often in targeted ways?

This question is not to erase the reality that Black people have actively participated in the rates of violence against Black women and other Black people, it's to ask, as critics of Tinder's feature argued, what is being done with the information from criminal backgrounds that may pop up on dating apps? And with or without that information, what are apps doing to ensure the safety of their users?

The need for safety within our community is varied and wide. The origins of a system that has criminalized our existence paired with generational violence that overwhelmingly targets Black women and LGBTQ+ people warrants continued calls for justice and inter-community conversation.

Reading about Black trauma can have an impact on your mental health. If you or someone you know need immediate mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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