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.


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“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.”

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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.


  1. Stephen Steinberg

    Trica Danielle Keaton provides a valuable international perspective on the stop-and-frisk policies in the U.S. that are a flagrant violation of elementary civil rights. Yet these practices have passed judicial review of the courts on the transparently fraudulent claim that police have reasonable cause, in each instance, to conduct a search. For example, police claim they are acting on a report of a crime by somebody “who fits your description” or is otherwise deemed to be “suspicious.”

    For over a decade, sociologist Harry Levine has carried on a lonely crusade against this outrageous policy, and finally, his arsenal of facts have received prominent coverage in the New York Times and other liberal media. For example, in New York City, that fabled bastion of racial tolerance, there have been nearly 700,000 searches over the past year, 87 percent of which have been of Blacks and Latinos. Never mind that 95 percent of these searches do not result in an arrest.

    For example: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/s/stop_and_frisk/index.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/opinion/the-scars-of-stop-and-frisk.html

    Obviously, Mayor Bloomberg bears personal responsibility for this contemptible policy. However, Trica’s eye-opening piece forces us to see this practice within the context of the historic oppression of peoples of African descent that continues down to the present, even among nations that purport to be democracies for the rest of the world to emulate.

  2. Joe

    Trica, thanks for the second part too. Clearly, a key issue here is to problematize the central villains in both France and the US — elite whites, usually white men, who control the legal, political, and policing systems. Notice how almost all of this discussion/research/reporting never does not call out as such these elite white men with power who are acting out of more than racial bias, but indeed a broad white racial framing of society — a framing with racist images, stereotypes, narratives, emotions, ideologies, and inclinations to discriminate. A framing designed to serve white interests, again and again…. The key question is why these controlling white (male) oppressors are not targeted with constant discussion in and out of policy and academic research circles as the principal ‘problem’ of policing and much other everyday white racism in all Western societies. Until they are the focus and challenged by large scale, organized civil rights movements, these profiling oppressions will not change — as Stephen Steinberg clearly implies in regard to the white man in control in NYC , Bloomberg.


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

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