"Warning: Pokémon Go is a death sentence if you’re a black man," Omari Akil argued in an essay at Medium over the weekend.
It’s a startling, even extreme-sounding claim. How could a virally popular smartphone game featuring adorable Japanese cartoon characters possibly endanger the lives of black men?
But Akil’s explanation makes a lot of sense, and it is incredibly sobering. Akil says he rushed to download the game and try it out but quickly realized that its "augmented reality" interface also replicates the systemic racial inequalities of our regular, un-augmented reality:
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked "suspicious" or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Akil’s logic is simple: Black men are stopped more often by police for unusual or suspicious behavior. More police stops means a greater risk of violent interactions, and black men are disproportionately killed by police. Pokémon Go causes people to do unusual things in public spaces. Therefore, Pokémon Go poses a real risk to black men in America.
A lot of people are making jokes about how the National Security Agency probably created Pokémon Go as a spy tool. Others are genuinely concerned about the potential ramifications for privacy and civil liberties:
Combine the Pokemon Go interface with police body cams and facial recognition and you have a policing app straight out of Minority Report.— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) July 11, 2016
And these concerns go double for populations that are already more heavily policed than others.
Another Pokémon Go user had a story about police and racial profiling in a viral post on Imgur. He said he’s a white man in his 40s who started bonding over Pokémon Go in a public park with two young black men — and was promptly questioned by police who thought they might be conducting a drug deal.
It ended happily, with the cop downloading the app himself. But it’s unsettling to think about how easily it could have gone the other way.