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.


  1. Joe

    Trica, thanks for the great comparative posts. Do you have any sense about, or info on, what is happening on these racial profiling matters in other European countries? We get some major accounts of similar institutional-racist events in Britain here in the US, but not on other countries much….

    • Trica Danielle Keaton Author

      Thank you, Joe! Groups such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch, and The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) have been documenting these issues in Europe. Last year for instance, AI accused Spanish authorities of racial profiling to meet its quota mandates; similarly ECRI for Norway and other sites, and there’s also a hyperlink about Germany where the courts essentially sanctioned stops based on skin color…on and on. Fortunately, there are a number of great scholars, lawyers, and activists in Europe and elsewhere who work on questions of race and racism in Europe, and more public awareness is needed and political action.

  2. cordoba blue

    I just returned from a trip to the United Kingdom: England, Scotland and Wales. Fortunately there was one other teacher on the tour, and we talked alot about history and racism.His family was initially from Cuba, and he taught American history at a college in Florida.
    Anyway, there were many people from Australia on the tour. At dinner one night we started talking about racism. The people at my table asked me if racism “still existed in America because you elected Obama,,so we thought racism didn’t exist anymore”. Strange how people from other countries interpret American culture huh? Anyway, I said racism absolutely exists in America and Obama has had a terrible time with Congress, probably because he’s black.
    Then I asked if racism existed in Australia ( I know it does,,but I wanted to see what they’d say). They said it absolutely does. And that the first European-Australians treated the black aborigines in Australia the way we treated our Native Americans.
    Then they asked me the “real reason” for the Civil War. At which point I gave them a history lesson for a half hour. I said that the entire white south had a stake in keeping slavery alive and they were willing to fight to maintain the institution. Interesting how America believes everybody else in the world “just knows” our history, and present status for that matter. They haven’t a clue. They’re just living their own lives in their corner of the world oblivious to us. I mean they know we are the proverbial “Super Power” but that’s about it. It’s not true that they “watch” us constantly. Many Americans believe this. Not true.
    Anway, it was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in London. That means she’s been ole Queenie for 60 years. No disrespect meant to any Brits, it’s just comical to me that they are so fascinated with what the “Royals” are doing. A million people lined the Thames to watch the Queen’s flotilla sail down the river. Plus a thousand boats accompanied the flotilla. Private little motor boats, big yachts, little row boats, whatever.
    I saw quite a few black people in London. They all spoke with an English accent. Very few black people in Scotland or Wales. I didn’t get a chance to discuss racism with a real Brit though. I did see some poorer areas on the way into London occupied by many blacks and people from India. In the actual city of London, there were actually many black people,,seemingly in all walks of life.
    I think racism in Great Britain, if I had to guess, is pretty much like here in the States. It may not be obvious, but yeah it’s there. We’re supposedly past the name-calling blatant stage, but surreptitiously we’re as racist as ever.

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