Racial Impact of the Decision of Our Undemocratic Supreme Court

Imara Jones at Colorlines raises the issue of a negative impact of this week’s Supreme Court’s degree on the health and the health insurance options for people of color. As a result of this week’s Supreme Court narrow 5-4 decision:

the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s longterm effectiveness is in doubt, and the racial and economic inequalities at the very heart of the health care system stand to be reinforced. Medicaid—funded jointly by the federal government and the states—is the nation’s health care plan for the working poor . .. . Enlargement of Medicaid is the single most important provision of the Affordable Care Act for people of color. It’s the way that almost all non-whites covered by the law would receive insurance. If implemented as written, the law expected to cover 32 million Americans, accounting for 80 percent of those currently uninsured.

The law as written would force states to expand their Medicaid programs, to include the working poor, or else loose federal funds for all Medicaid. However the Supreme Court knocked down that provision. Some states will likely still seek these funds, but other states, especially with lots of working poor of color, likely will not:

And that’s a problem, particularly in the Southern, GOP-led states where huge numbers of working poor blacks and Latinos live. The majority of states, due to the recession, want to cover less not more people. . . . As former Republican governor, now Senator Lamar Alexander told The New York Times, “If I were governor of Tennessee, I would not expand Medicaid.” Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana echoed the point.

Saving the mandate got much of the media coverage, as many will be helped by what was saved, but

for millions more, the Supreme Court’s ruling will only exacerbate inequities at the core of our national health care crisis, and force the battle over the law back to the states. . . . Medicaid remains a bitterly fought over program today. The ruling yesterday will make it more so.

And the costs are of course very high in human terms, and in dollars as well:

The Center for American Progress estimates that this racial gap in health care coverage costs the country $415 billion a year in lost productivity.

And then there is the underlying question of why “we the people” allow such an undemocratic institution as our Supreme Court to even have this power over our health and health care? This decision by a few unelected folks over US health care is yet more evidence that we are not a democracy, but indeed a kind of plutocracy– that is, a pseudo-democracy that is actually ruled by an elite of the well-off and powerful, an elite that is also still mostly white and very disproportionately white male.

Latinos Still “Alien Citizens”

Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Arizona (or other states such as Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah which all have some type of tough state immigration laws) have little room to legislate regarding immigration policy. The Supreme Court declared immigration enforcement is a federal issue. However, the Court ruled that law enforcement officials in Arizona could still ask about immigration status if they had reasonable suspicion that the person being stopped was undocumented. I wrote about how this would target Latinos in my first blog on racismreview stating that I would not go visit my parents in Arizona without my passport.

 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Ben Roffer

Based on today’s Supreme Court ruling, I will still not travel to Arizona without my passport.

The fact that the arguments of the case turned to issues of federalism rather than arguments about equal protection and/or civil rights violations should come as no surprise. It was set up that way from the start. Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli assured Chief Justice Roberts that this case was not about racism towards Latinos. CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears tellingly states:

Even before the solicitor general began speaking midway through the argument, Chief Justice John Roberts framed the debate away from what has become a major complaint about the law: that it would target mostly Hispanic people for scrutiny and detention. “I’d like to clear up at the outset what it’s not about,” Roberts said. “No part of your argument has to do with racial or ethnic profiling, does it?” Verrilli readily agreed.

In this context the Court unanimously sustained the law’s section referred to as the “show me your papers” policy.

In doing so, it continued the larger policy that says it is okay to subject an entire ethnic and racial group of people to fundamental questions of belonging and acceptance by allowing law enforcement officials to question whether they belong here in this country legally or not.

This perpetuates and contributes to what Professor Leo Chavez refers to as the “Latino Threat Narrative” which situates all Latinos—whether legal immigrants, undocumented, or U.S. born—as outside of the American national community and sees them in a suspicious light. According to Leo Chavez, even U.S. born Latinos are seen as: “ ‘alien-citizens,’ perpetual foreigners despite their birthright”. Today’s Supreme Court decision reinforces that Latinos are seen and can be treated as “alien-citizens.”

Asian Americans: An Uncritical Pew Center Report

Some 18 million Asian Americans make up today nearly 6 percent of the population, a figure than has grown from one percent before the 1965 Immigration Act replaced an openly racist immigration system set up in the 1920s. This reform law of the 1960s allowed into the U.S. a much greater diversity of immigrants.

A recent report titled “The Rise of Asian Americans” has been published on the Pew Research Center website, with much interesting – if somewhat poorly assessed – statistical data on Asian Americans, much of it from a 2012 survey Pew did.

Much of the tone of the report is a “model minority” one, as in this opening statement:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success. . . .

The report accents the “milestones of economic success and social assimilation.” There are no qualifiers in this opening Pollyanna-ism that signal the racial and other societal problems Asian Americans face, including discrimination from whites with power over them and extremely heavy outside pressures on them as “forever foreign” to “assimilate.” Some discussion of barriers appears much later in the Pew analysis, and it is insufficient. Oddly, too, there is little citation of the relevant social science literature on the reality of everyday racism for Asian Americans, such as this recent book that Rosalind Chou and I did.

Still, there is much interesting data in the report. It cites data indicating that three quarters of Asian Americans are foreign-born immigrants, and that half say they cannot speak English very well. Being immigrants means a reality that some social science literature indicates makes publicly noting and organizing against discrimination they face much more difficult. Just getting situated in jobs and housing, and getting adjusted to a new country takes precedence in many cases—as the data on half not knowing English well indicates–and thus conformity to white folkways, to a white-dominated society, can become a passive anti-discrimination strategy. If you talk, dress, and act as “white” as you can, perhaps you will suffer fewer racial barriers.

The report notes that Asian American immigrants are the fastest growing group of immigrants, now surpassing Latinos in that regard. Especially interesting is the large proportion that come from the middle and upper middle class of their home countries:

More than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals….

They average more educational attainment than the populations of their home countries as well. While there are significant numbers of legal immigrants who are not from these relatively affluent backgrounds, a great many do come from such backgrounds–and that is one reason they tend to do better than the average American in terms of upward socioeconomic mobility:

. . . especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The report fails to note, like many other commentators, that a great many come with very significant socioeconomic resources. In some sense, our legal immigration system often “creams off” from the world’s middle and upper middle classes. That is also one reason that Asian American immigrants do better on average that Latino immigrants, many of whom are relatively poor and undocumented. One does not need racialized notions of “Asian culture” and “Hispanic culture” to explain this differential socioeconomic mobility.

The report uses the 2012 survey of Asian Americans to play up certain common images of Asian Americans, such as their “strong emphasis on family”:

More than half (54%) say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life; just 34% of all American adults agree. Two-thirds of Asian-American adults (67%) say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life; just 50% of all adults agree.

The survey also used some rather simplistic questions about “hard work,” and found that “Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard, a view shared by a somewhat smaller share of the American public as a whole (58%).” More than 90 percent thought their country-mates were very hardworking.

Down in the report they finally note significant socioeconomic differentials and problems faced within the “model minority”:

Americans with Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and “other U.S. Asian” origins have a higher poverty rate than does the U.S. general public, while those with Indian, Japanese and Filipino origins have lower rates.

Not much discussion is devoted to this important finding, nor to the reality that large percentages of these Asian Americans do not yet know English very well (and thus do not seem to easily fit the “high assimilation” tone of the article).

The report offers some important summaries of variations in geographic patterns of residence, and religious identifications. There is also significant variability in how the immigrants came to the United States. The Vietnamese mostly came as political refugees, while

half of all Korean and Indian immigrants who received green cards in 2011 got them on the basis of employer sponsorship, compared with about a third of Japanese, a fifth of Chinese, one-in-eight Filipinos and just 1% of Vietnamese.

Educational and family reasons account for most of the others.

After noting in a cursory way that much Asian immigrants faced large-scale racial discrimination and being “othered,” the report concludes that the (problematical) Pew survey data questions show that Asian Americans do not face much racial discrimination. Only one in five said they faced “discrimination” because they were Asian, and only 13 percent said that “discrimination” against their group was a major problem.

One would have thought that these researchers might have looked at the research literature and realized that “discrimination” is often an intimidating word for (especially newer) Americans of color, and that there are much better ways to ask about the specific racial barriers they face—including often using softer language and, most importantly, asking about a significant list of possible racial mistreatments that have been reported in previous studies. The report also operates from a white racial frame in talking about the “perception of discrimination” on the part of their Asian American respondents–a common white-generated way to downplay the importance of discrimination as somehow just “in the minds” of those people of color who are targeted by it. And the white perpetrators of racial discrimination targeting Asian Americans , past and present, are never mentioned.

The report also discusses, as many other commentaries to, the relatively high level of outmarriage for Asian American newlyweds, a figure about 29 percent for those married from 2008 to 2010, more than for any other racial group. Women are much more likely to out-marry than men, a reality linked partially to the negative images of Asian American men in this society ( and ignored in this report) and fully explained in a new book by Rosalind Chou.

A very interesting report that deserves much more critical analysis and assessment in regard to immigrants and the U.S. future than the Pew researchers provide.

Visible Evidence of Racism

With the passing of Rodney King (which I talked about yesterday), there’s a collective sense that video has changed everything in the digital era when it comes to racism. Now, the saying goes, the whole world is (really) watching and that changes everything. And yet, it’s the video footage that helped acquit the white officers that assaulted Rodney King. How is that possible?

There are clue to the answers to this question in the scholarship that emerged shortly after the videographic evidence of the brutal, racist beating of Rodney King.  Most notable here in the scholarly literature is the anthology Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising  (Routledge, 1993) edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, Surprisingly, none of the eulogies and elegies to King (even the ones by academics) have mentioned this volume by Gooding-Williams.  It was a remarkable volume at the time it appeared, so close after the uprisings following the verdicts, and it still holds up some 20 years later.

 

 

The lead essay in the volume, written by Judith Butler,  speaks directly to the use of the video – seemingly visible evidence of racism – and the way it was used to acquit the white LAPD offocers. In her chapter called “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” Butler writes that while she can write  “…without hesitation,” that ‘the “video shows a man being brutally beaten,” yet, it appears that the (predominantly white) jury in Simi Valley claimed that “what they ‘saw’ was a body threatening police, and saw in those blows the reasonable actions of police officers in self-defense.”

Butler goes on to offer this observation:

“The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent of violence, one whose agency is phantasmatically implied as the narrative precedent and antecedent to the frames that are shown.  Watching King, the white paranoiac forms a sequences of narrative intelligibility that consolidates the racist figure of the black man: ‘He had threatened them, and now he is being justifiably restrained.”  “If they cease hitting him, he will release his violence and now is being justifiably restrained.” King’s palm turned away from his body, held above his own head, is read not as self-protection but as the incipient moments of a physical threat.”

She then turns to Franz Fanon’s exclamation, “Look, a Negro!” to explore the theoretical understanding of the black male body in contemporary popular culture, where the “Look” is a racist indicative that indicates a body regarded as inherently dangerous.  Butler notes that “seeing” with regard to King (the night he was beaten) and “seeing” the video are highly problematic notions infused with racism.  She goes on to say:

“The kind of ‘seeing’ that the police enacted, and the kind of ‘seeing’ that the jury enacted, is one in which a further violence is performed by the disavowal and projection of that violent beating. The actual blows against Rodney King are understood to be fair recompense, indeed, defenses against, the dangers that are ‘seen’ to emanate from his body.  Here ‘seeing’ and attributing are indissoluble. Attributing violent to the object of violence is part of the very mechanism that recapitulates violence, and that makes the jury’s ‘seeing’ into a complicity with that police violence.”

So, what Butler is saying here is that even when it seems that we have incontrovertible visible evidence of racism, the “seeing” of that evidence is contested in various ways.  To be more precise, Butler argues that it is the “white paranoia” that pervades contemporary US culture which made it possible to “see” the defense gestures of Rodney King – as he lay being beaten – as evidence of his threat to whiteness.

As we mark some 20 years since the Rodney King beating, acquittal of the LAPD officers in Simi Valley and the uprisings in Los Angeles that followed, it may be comforting to think that digital cameras are more ubiquitous now than they were in 1992.

Yet, to assume that digital video cameras alone (or, the digital cameras in smart phones), are going to address the plague of police violence and brutality is at best naive.

Rodney King (1965-2012)

This Sunday marked the passing of Rodney King, and perhaps fittingly, that same day tens of thousands participated in a Silent March down Fifth Avenue to protest the stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD.

 

There have been quite a few write ups about his passing, and the significance of his life, around the web and here are a few of those:

  • Touré writes in his Elegy for Rodney King: It was the media that transformed King’s horrific ordeal into a moment that would never die. That’s why the moment sits on a gruesome continuum of other horrific moments that were captured by the media and thus swelled to have a forceful impact on America. From Emmett Till in 1955, who was killed and beaten beyond recognition and memorialized by a photograph of his mutilated corpse lying in its coffin, to Trayvon Martin this year, whose moment of death was captured by multiple pieces of audio that seem to paint a frightening portrait of his last moments. These three are martyrs who were crucified, their bodies sacrificed, and their moment recorded and disseminated, thus showing black pain and revealing American injustice and accessing the moral power that was necessary to inspire change. …. But despite the nation watching in horror and feeling for Rodney King, another Rodney King incident could happen today.
  • Jamil Smith, producer at MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, writes: Rodney King nearly became the subject of one of those signs, but he survived. His battle was one which African Americans had fought many times before outside of the glare of the cameras — and yet, despite the presence of a camera, had to fight again. The cameras, in a sense, later turned on him, repeating another theme of cultural strife in this country: subjecting those symbols of those of us who must suffer with its negative effects daily to the media microscope, chipping away at dignity all the while. There’s a reason why you’re seeing a lot of “flawed” and “complicated” in headlines about King’s death, as if having been an addict somehow validated him being beaten to within an inch of his life by L.A.’s Finest. (Aren’t we all flawed and complicated?)
  • Davey D points out that “Even, in Los Angeles the place where Rodney King’s beating was supposed to spark improvement within LAPD we see that police killing civilians is up a whopping 70%. … One would think after the King beating we would’ve witnessed a sea change of improvements within the police departments. sadly what we’ve seen is fast track to enhanced, new and improved forms brutality and harassment. Since the killing of Trayvon Martin we’ve had over 30 Black people alone killed by police. That speaks volumes.”
  • Dr. Jelani Cobb writes: “The removal of Police Chief Daryl Gates and the subsequent appointment of Willie Williams, the first black police chief in L.A. history, was directly related to King’s beating. But in 2009, television viewers saw grainy footage of another black man lying prone at the feet of a California police officer, this time in Oakland. The man, Oscar Grant, had been shot and killed. Earlier this year, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a reportpointing out that in 2011 the N.Y.P.D. conducted nearly six hundred and eighty-six thousand stop-and-frisks, with blacks and Latinos accounting for more than eighty-six per cent of those targeted by police.
  • Dr. James Braxton Peterson reminds us that: “Although Rodney King escaped death that night [he was beaten by LAPD], his life was irrevocably altered; his history became inextricably linked with the violent history of police brutality, racial profiling, and racialized injustice.”

 

  • Dr. Marc Lamont Hill spoke with Rodney King a couple of months before his death, and asked him if he thought the US could erupt in violence again if, for example, George Zimmerman were acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.  When King said he didn’t believe it would, Hill chided him for his optimism, then he writes:  “Given everything that we’d seen and done as a country, how he could he be so invested in the goodness of America? He said that like all people, he had doubts. But his faith in God and America were stronger than those doubts.   That, in a nutshell, is who Rodney King was.  Not the lawless monster portrayed by the LAPD. Not the walking punch line depicted in both Black and mainstream culture. And not the unrepentant addict who never conquered his demons. Rather, Rodney King was someone who desperately aimed to love his way through the absurdity of America’s racial condition.”

 

 

 

Juneteenth and the Reality of Emancipation

Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. As you may already know, the news of the Emancipation proclamation came late two months late to Texas, and the holiday is meant to mark the arrival of that news.  What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration. Yet, that celebration is a bittersweet one given what the reality of emancipation must have been, according to a new scholarly book.

 

(Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900,image source)

According to a new book, Sick From Freedom (Oxford University Press), by Jim Downs (Assistant Professor, Connecticut College), emancipation from slavery was also a health crisis for those formerly enslaved. A health crisis that has been largely ignored both by whites at the time and by mostly white historians since then.

At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.

To do this research, Downs sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the former slaves, as a “race,” were doomed to extinction.

And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where I see a connection to much of the research that I’ve done on racism in the digital era. One of the ways that white supremacists and others not working against racial justice frame their discourse, is to talk about “slavery as a humane institution.”  Just to be clear, it would mean coming to the wrong conclusion to read Downs’ work as implying that slavery was better than emancipation.  It wasn’t.  Emancipation was a moral and a material victory in every sense.  And yet, at the same time, it was complicated by the crushing inequality and brutal continuation of racism after the official end of slavery that guaranteed that oppression manifested itself in the bodies and under the skin of the formerly enslaved.  Even when the physical shackles were removed, there were a hundred ways that people could still be oppressed by the lack of food, housing, and clean running water.

So, when I see those historical photos of early Juneteenth celebrations (like the one above), and I see how small and sober these events seem, I think what a bittersweet moment that must have been – celebrating emancipation and commemorating all those that didn’t make it, whether in the Middle Passage, or who were too sick to finally enjoy freedom.

 

 

Defending Democracy: Past and Present

Assaults on democracy are proliferating across the country in a variety of measures designed to reduce the electorate and defund public education. Political leaders who favor stricter voter ID laws that make it harder for poorer Americans and immigrants to vote, and who advocate drastic cuts to public education and to government-supported student loans, do so out of desire to keep the poorer classes alienated from the political system. This is nothing new in American history.

When the electorate was first expanded beyond the upper classes in the 19th century, elites openly disparaged the participation of poor and uneducated voters. First, working class white men—especially European immigrants—were enfranchised despite the outrage and disgust of many white Americans who feared the “corruption” of the ballot box by “ignorant” voters during the Jacksonian era. Then, after the momentous events of the Civil War, African Americans were enfranchised through state laws and Federal Constitutional Amendments during Reconstruction. Opposition to blacks voting echoed earlier concerns about the white workers’ “unfitness” for the ballot box due to their lack of education, economic dependence, and supposed susceptibility to corruption and demagoguery.But the greatest fear of all was usually unspoken: that politicians might cater to their interests and popularly elected government might actually enact policies that favor someone other than the wealthiest elites.

I wrote a biography of Albion W. Tourgée, a forgotten civil rights champion who fought relentlessly in 19th century America to protect the right to vote for poor white and black Americans, and who advocated robust state and Federal funding to public education.

He believed these two issues were inseparable. Without serious public investment in the education of the electorate, the great democratic experiment of the United States would fail. How can the people rule without the literacy skills required to stay informed, and the civic knowledge of the law, the government and the economy needed to understand their situation? Tourgée wrote:

“if our Government is founded upon the true principles of democracy, if self-government is a possibility to any great nation, then it is of the utmost importance that every individual constituting the governing power in such nation should be not only honest and patriotic and courageous, but that he should have the knowledge to inform his honesty, knowledge to sustain his patriotism, knowledge to direct his courage. The ignorant man is as the breath of life to the nostrils of the demagogue. He is the material which the ambitious and unscrupulous leader uses to promote his own unrighteous ends.”

For decades, Tourgée fought to expand public education—especially among former slaves in the South. In 1868, he was one of the authors of the North Carolina State Constitution that requires that the state provide free public education from grammar school through university, open to all citizens of the state. Education fostered a common culture, as well as a more intelligent citizenry, and encouraged citizens to be active participants in civic life. Education was also to be an antidote to the feelings of alienation and resentment that came from exclusion and enforced ignorance.

Those in favor of placing restrictions on the ballot in Tourgée’s time argued for such devices as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent the ignorant and the poor from exercising the right to vote. By the 1890s, these restrictions became commonplace, especially but not exclusively in the Jim Crow South, and they were used to purge the particularly undesirable voters from the rolls—including most non-whites and known radicals. Supporters of these ostensibly “color-blind” voting restrictions claimed that they would protect the integrity of the ballot box while providing incentive for the “deserving” to get educated so they could attain voting rights. But, Tourgée knew better. The purpose was not to create an incentive to get educated, but rather to exclude, disempower and demoralize:

“The whole theory of republican government is based on the idea that the distribution of sovereign power enables every man to do something toward securing his own rights and remedying his own wrongs, or what he conceives to be his rights or believes to be his wrongs. It is a piece of protective armor, intended to equalize the weak with the strong. It is always the poor, the weak, and the ignorant who are the victims of oppression. To such the ballot is at once a sword and shield. The untrained soldier may injure his friend as often as his foe, or even hurt himself oftener still, with his weapon of celestial temper, but he will at least be able to defend himself . . . and the ballot is the only weapon with which poverty and ignorance may even blindly defend themselves. It is their only hope. Unfortunately, intelligence does not always imply righteousness or justice; and even against the best, the lowest and meanest of every land need always stand upon their guard.”

Once again, using transparently facetious arguments, the wealthy and powerful are trying to curb the voting rights and the educational opportunities of the poor. The struggles of a century ago continue today.

~ Mark Elliott is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Color Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford 2006) and co-editor with John David Smith of Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (LSU 2010).

The Scars of Stop-and-Frisk: Documentary

In 2011, the NYPD stopped and frisked people 685,724 times, and fully 87% of those searches involved blacks or Latinos, many of them young men, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. There is a groundswell of protest growing against these racist police practices, yet too often, the voices of those most affected by it are not included in the discussion. Until now.

Filmmakers Julie Dressner and Edwin Martinez have created a documentary about one young man, Tyquan Brehon, who lives in one of neighborhoods in Brooklyn most frequently targeted by the police. In this short clip (5:55) which appears in The New York Times, Tyquan tells his story:

By his count, before his 18th birthday, Tyquan had been unjustifiably stopped by the police more than 60 times. His hope in sharing his story is that this will be a bigger project to examine more closely the impact of the stop-and-frisk policy on actual human beings.

Racial Profiling in France and U.S., (Pt.2)

In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the similarities between the police practice of racial profiling in France and the U.S., emphasizing that different constructs of race in both countries, nonetheless, produce the same outcome, again racial profiling.

Though discredited by science, race as inherent inferiority and superiority has been central to the socio-economic organization of the U.S. The four horsemen of racial inequality—education, incarceration, health, and wealth—are living legacies of race-making in the U.S. and so is racial profiling.

 

(Image source)

“There’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact,” said President Obama in 2009 after the profiling and arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

And the stop-and-frisk of innocent, predominately Black and Latino New Yorkers is also a fact, numbering over 4 million by some estimates since 2002.  The experiences of New York University Professor Manthia Diawara  illustrates how racial profiling cuts across social class. Professor Diawara was stopped and humiliated by the police while riding in a taxi, not in the U.S. but Paris, France.

Stop-and-frisk laws in the US are not necessarily illegal, but the lawsuit against the New York Police Department’s use of this tactic challenges its legality. Similarly, stop-and-searches in France are not illegal, but racial profiling is. It should not be forgotten that racial profiling led to the 2005 revolts in France, following the deaths of 17 year old Zyed Benna and 15 year old Bouna Traoré who mistook a transformer in a power station as a safe haven and were horribly electrocuted when fleeing from a police control.

Ultimately, the Trayvon Martin tragedy and these examples are only the surface of a more pervasive and malignant, international problem in countries where blackness and stigmatized difference are major triggers of racial bias associated with pathology and crime. Will passing the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2011” in the U.S. make a difference when perception drives profiling? Hard to say. But Civil Rights history shows that behavior can be legislated where beliefs cannot. In France, however, where no such model exists, the anti-profiling lawsuit and Hollande’s reforms were largely made possible by grassroots activists, using non-traditional methods, including a damning Hip Hop focused public awareness series by the NGO, “Stop le contrôle au faciès.”

(image source)

Are stops-and-searches racially motivated in a race-blind France? OSJI lawyer Lanna Hollo sums it up best:

“The claimants are all black or North African men who were stopped by police because of what they look like rather than what they did.  This is racial, or ethnic profiling, constituting discrimination which is illegal according to the French Constitution and international law.”

Similarly, Trayvon Martin and countless others in the U.S. have been stopped for what they looked like not for what they did.

 

~ Trica Danielle Keaton, PhD, Associate Professor, African American & Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt Unviersity, is the author, of several books, most recently the co-edited volume, Black France / France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2012). This volume includes a preface by Christiane Taubira, who was recently named Minister of Justice by President Hollande. With thanks to Mamadou Diouf, Roy Jensen and Stephen Steinberg for their encouragement and invaluable comments on an earlier drafts of this work.

Racial Profiling in France and the U.S., (Pt.1)

On April 11, 2012, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case issued a second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman who, in the affidavit, is described as having “profiled” the unarmed 17 year old teenager before firing the fatal shot. In that document, the word “profiled” stands alone without mention of race or color, casting doubt, for some, on whether race was involved.

That very same day, on the other side of the Atlantic, lawyers in France filed a landmark civil lawsuit, the first ever alleging racial profiling against the police force. All fifteen claimants in the suit are Black or Arab, and all but one is a French citizen. The word “racial” in the English translation of this type of profiling is however deceptive. Race in France is a highly taboo concept and word, expunged from political discourse and rare in everyday use. What gets translated as racial profiling, un contrôle au faciès, refers instead to an identity control or stop-and-search by the police, based not on race but arguably appearances alone.

 

(French Police Stop Unidentified Man, 2011. image from HRW)

Comparatively, these cases resonate on many levels and show how race-conscious and race-blind models still produce the same outcome: racial profiling. Although neither country has had the political will to confront this issue, the French lawsuit and one filed in New York in May represent major challenges to French and U.S. stop-and-frisk practices that have gone unabated. These lawsuits are also an important litmus test of racial profiling in stops-and-searches by police since primarily men of color in both countries are singled out.

France has long cultivated an official race-blindness, raising the maddening question of how to fight and document racial profiling when race itself is unacknowledged or evaded. Race and ethnicity are absent in the French census, and ethno-racial statistics are banned under French law, making it hard to document any form of racial discrimination. “If you mention ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ statistics to a French person,” states French sociologist Michel Wieviorka, “he or she will consider you to be a racist. The French do not consider ‘race’ as a social construction, they consider it to be a physical definition of human groups, and will not accept it.”

The new Socialist government under François Hollande acted quickly on this issue, introducing reforms that would require French police to give a receipt to people stopped. Doing so creates at once a paper trail where none had previously existed and a possible weapon in battling racial profiling. But Hollande’s administration faces a hostile police union that publicly denounced this initiative as racist and ferociously denies racial profiling, even though Arabs and Blacks are targeted.

Reports by Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) tell another story, one showing excessive, multiple, and abusive controls of people of color, in particular outer-city youth, in direct violation of people’s rights. Per OSJI findings,  “Blacks were overall six times more likely than Whites to be stopped by police while Arabs were generally 7.6 times more likely than Whites to be stopped by the police.”

But how can profiling that is actually racial be identified in race-blind countries without a social concept of race? And, how, in the pursuit of justice and equality, can the pernicious effects of thinking and classification in racial terms be avoided when using such a concept? Not only does race-blindness deny the obvious, but when it is law or policy, deprived of historical context, it strips anti-racists of the rhetorical weapons they need to battle racial oppression.

I address these questions in Part 2.

 

~ Trica Danielle Keaton, PhD, Associate Professor, African American & Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt Unviersity, is the author, of several books, most recently the co-edited volume, Black France / France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2012). This volume includes a preface by Christiane Taubira, who was recently named Minister of Justice by President Hollande. With thanks to Mamadou Diouf, Roy Jensen and Stephen Steinberg for their encouragement and invaluable comments on an earlier drafts of this work.