Archive for police
We’ve blogged here before about the issue of racial discrimination in the stop-and-frisk policing practice in New York City. There is lots of data that shows stop-and-frisk is discriminatory, harmful to communities and is not effective at “getting guns off the streets,” as is frequently claimed by advocates of the policing strategy. And, it’s very likely unconstitutional.
Bill diBlasio, the newly elected mayor of New York City, has promised to end stop-and-frisk and that means there is a new future ahead for the city and the communities most affected by this policy.
In an effort to assess where we are with stop-and-frisk, what the data shows, and how scholars, activists and journalists have worked to change this policy, JustPublics@365, a project of the Ford Foundation based at the CUNY-Graduate Center (and that I lead), recently curated a series on this topic. And now, that series has been compiled as an all-in-one guide to stop-and-frisk (pdf)
The Information Guide is structured around three levels of social justice outcomes:
- Make Your Issues Their Interest: Raising Awareness About An Issue with an Audience
- Make Your Issue Their Issue: Getting an Audience More Deeply Engaged in An Issue
- Make Your Issue Their Action: Moving an Audience Towards a Specific Action
If you are teaching a class or training people in your organization, you can also use this Information Guide as a tool for teaching and learning about stop-and-frisk.
You can download the guide(pdf) and reuse it for teaching, research, activism or media.
After Trayvon Martin was killed, in February of 2012, protestors gathered across the nation asking for justice for Trayvon Martin. The protestors rallied around the slogan “I am Trayvon Martin,” with people wearing hoodies and carrying bags of skittles. The rallying cry called attention to the fact that young black men are overly-surveilled and viewed with suspicion, considered criminal on sight, and thus frequently in the position of being the target of police or vigilante violence. The “I am Trayvon Martin” protests called attention to the terrifying reality that all of us with black sons could be in the position of Martin’s parents: awaiting a decision concerning the culpability of a man who shot and killed our babies because he assumed he was a criminal—but knowing that regardless of that decision, his life was over. In July of 2013, while the jury was deliberating, I saw a meme posted on facebook that flipped the frame of the “I am Trayvon Martin” slogan. It was a picture of a middle aged white man in a black hoodie, and the caption read:
I am not Trayvon Martin. When I was 14 I was caught in the middle of the night by a neighborhood watch setting fire to a stack of newspapers. Trayvon Martin was walking home with a bag of skittles. I was taken home to my parents. Trayvon was shot and killed.
The message resonated with me, because although there are many young black boys who I love, and often fear for, I am not Trayvon Martin: as a white woman, I have a lifetime of experiences that illustrate what a difference race makes.
Just to share one particularly relevant example, one night when I was 17 years old I was spending the night with a friend, another 17 year old white woman. She lived in a white middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. That night, after her parents went to bed, she and I snuck out of her house on a mission to creep through the neighborhood and find ourselves some fun, and probably some trouble. We were up to no good. At about two o’clock in the morning, after running the streets for hours, we were walking down a street which was lined with boutique shops and small businesses. One of the businesses on that street was a local investment company, The Johnson Company. My friend and I had a mutual friend—a boy who we were excited to impress—named Calvin Johnson, and in our mischievous mood we decided that we should steal the company’s sign so we could give it to Calvin–the was made of wood, it was about two feet long by four feet wide, and “The Johnson Company” was printed across it in huge red letters.
After prying the sign loose from the hooks that held it, we began the walk back to my friend’s house – with me carrying a two foot by four foot sign in my arms. As we were walking we were approached by a police car, which stopped beside us. At that moment, I knew for certain that we were going to jail. Of course we were. I was holding a huge sign that said “The Johnson Company,” and we were less than two blocks away from said company. My only hope was to attempt to concoct some story, some lie that explained my having the sign for a reason other than sheer criminal mischief, and my brain was working furiously as the officer driving rolled down his window. But I was surprised. Stopping me in my tracks, the officer simply asked “where are you young ladies headed?” My friend said “we’re on our way home right now.” I said nothing. I concentrated on keeping the surprise (and even indignation) off my face. The officer said, “where do you live?” She told him her address, which was approximately four blocks away, and, astounding me further, the police officer said, “well hurry and get home, and be careful, its late for you girls to be out.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.
I was not Trayvon Martin that night. I was a young white woman, walking through a white upper-middle class neighborhood at 2 a.m., so even though I was holding a stolen sign, my presence was entirely unproblematic, except to the extent that I might be in danger. The officer assumed that we were not engaged in wrongdoing – even though we were, in fact engaged in wrongdoing. He had clearly seen the sign I was carrying, since it was more than half as tall as I was, but he also clearly assumed I had that sign for a legitimate reason. So on that night, a police officer showed us, two young white women, human kindness and empathy. He advised us to hurry home, letting us know that it was too late for us to be out, he was worried about our safety, not for the threat we may pose to others or the neighborhood.
On that night my life could have been changed forever. The sign we stole may have been worth enough money to make me eligible for a charge of felony theft. I may have gone to jail or prison instead of college; I may never have gotten the opportunity for an undergraduate education, much less graduate school. I certainly would have had trouble becoming a lawyer since the American Bar Association engages in strict background checks and resists admitting people with felony convictions to the bar. None of that happened because my whiteness never produced a moment of suspicion in that police officer; because I am not Trayvon Martin. I did not lose any aspect of my life as a result of my desire to go creeping that night; Trayvon Martin lost his entire life because he walked to the convenience store in a white gated neighborhood.
Throughout my youth I found that I was often viewed by that police officer as someone to take care of, to show concern for. By contrst, African Americans, especially African American men are viewed as potential criminals. African American men, of all ages, from young teens to elderly gentlemen, from every background, from high school students, to college professors to judges, experience the humiliation of being systematically surveilled and considered suspect—so much so that even a self-appointed vigilante neighborhood watch person, with no legitimate authority, feels entitled to follow a young black man who is merely walking home from the store. But more than that, it is this air of suspicion that leads people to the conclusion that it was reasonable for George Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin. The tacit, never fully considered or admitted, assumption that an African American young man in a hooded sweatshirt (as opposed to a white young woman holding a stolen sign) is a potential criminal. And through this nearly axiomatic presumption of black male criminality people can come to the outrageous conclusion that Zimmerman chasing after Martin and confronting him with a gun could lead to a scenario in which Trayvon Martin was viewed as an aggressor.
Several days ago a jury acquitted George Zimmerman (failed, even, to find him guilty of manslaughter, which would have only required recklessness in the shooting). The legal basis for the acquittal was the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves with force from an attack without having to attempt to retreat or escape the situation. Evidently the jury decided that after Zimmerman chased Martin down, Martin’s defensive physical response meant that Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Metrotrends analysts John Roman and Mithcell Downy have discovered that in the 29 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, shootings are more likely to be legally considered justified. More insidiously, Roman and Downy found that the shooting scenarios that have the highest likelihood of a ruling of justifiable homicide in Stand Your Ground states result when white civilians shoot black civilians. This racial disparity is not surprising to social scientists who study race, the pattern of racial disparity exists in every segment of the criminal justice system in the United States. Moreover, legal scholar Michael Tonry, in his 2011 book Punishing Race, notes that research indicates that when white people are made aware of the racial disparities that affect African Americans in the criminal justice system, their support for punitive criminal justice policies actually increases. (See pp. 91-97).
At this moment the Justice Department is in the process of considering charges against George Zimmerman for civil rights violations (civil rights violations!), and the Stand Your Ground law will not save Zimmerman from a civil suit. But whatever the outcome of that case, Trayvon Martin’s killing must become the motivation a critical systematic interrogation of the criminalization of African Americans in all its insidious forms. We must acknowledge that we are living in a police state in which the lives of young African Americans (especially boys and men) are threatened by extreme surveillance and suspicion, police and civilian harassment, mass incarceration, and even execution. The time has come to stop casually using the words democracy and freedom, and start interrogating what those words should substantively mean.
Dr. Wendy Leo Moore is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a sociologist and a lawyer and is the author of the award-winning book Reproducing Racism, White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality.
Authored by Tobias Hübinette and L. Janelle Dance
Since May 20, 2013, mass vandalism, material damage and outbursts of rioting in the poor and non-white suburbs of Greater Stockholm have dominated Swedish and international news media. This civil unrest was sparked when, on May 12, the police shot and killed a 69-year-old man from Husby, one of the marginalized suburban communities of metropolitan Stockholm. The shooting is still under investigation. The burning of cars, other types of arsons, and attacks on the police erupted in Husby on the evening of May 19th and quickly spread to many other similar suburbs of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen and Skogås. As we write this post, after six nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Gothenburg, Örebro and Linköping. Although the US and UK embassy warnings to keep out from such districts are clearly exaggerated—the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to similar previous waves of riots in for example the US, the UK or France—a feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining ground in the political debate as leading government officials and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urge a stop to the material damage.
This is not the first time that Sweden is experiencing a series of riots; the last time was between 2008-09. However, it is arguably the first time when voices from the suburbs are entering the public debate as a new nascent social movement. At the helm of this movement, which has gained the spotlight in recent years, are teens and young adults who are also usually born and raised in Sweden (the so-called second generation). More than ever before, these youth are denouncing police harassment, the declining social welfare services in the suburbs and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor—a development which is heavily racialized as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5% while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers around 35-45%. Representatives from this movement have, for example, alerted the media to the use of racial slurs among the police who patrol the suburbs, and above all they have been able to express an unprecedented analysis of a New Sweden, which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.
For decades Sweden has proudly viewed itself as the most progressive country in the world, as “the conscience of the world”. Furthermore, Sweden’s antiracist image and radical anti-discrimination, migration and integration legislation are well known all over the world. However, recently Sweden has also become the OECD country showing the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born Swedes, while its big- and mid-size cities are characterized by one of the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation patterns in the Western world. Thus, it is not in the context of the old Sweden of exceptionalism but in the wake of the New Sweden of exclusion that we must understand the frustration, the desperation and the rage that can be found particularly among young people in the suburbs. This second generation has grown up in Sweden but due to stigmatized postal addresses and “non-Swedish” appearances they are not accepted within the majority society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.
There are also other political groups that are exploiting the current suburban unrest. A fact overlooked by the media is that these other groups do not live in the suburbs yet exacerbate the unrest. While ignoring these instigators, the media focuses on spectacular videos and photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. Firstly, there are indications that white Swedish leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something that also happened in 2008-09. Their sole political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism at the expense of an even stronger stigmatization of the poor and non-white suburbs among the white majority population. Furthermore, Swedish extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards”, a popular yet loaded discourse that the media all too often buy into. Saturday night for example, around 200 Nazi activists more or less invaded Tumba in Southern Botkyrka in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and started to hunt down and beat up any youngster who was deemed to be a “rioter”.
However for ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the suburbs are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats (a former Nazi party which has transformed itself into a populist anti-immigration party and which, according to opinion polls, is the fourth or the third largest party in Sweden) will maybe become the biggest political winner due to the suburban unrest. Now, the Sweden Democrats will most probably gain even more support among the voters. Of course, representatives from the party have already made use of the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state of emergency measures in certain urban districts.
Once “exceptional” Sweden is no longer the exception to the general Western rule of blaming the racialized victim. On the contrary, white Swedes are remarkably unexceptional as they behave like racist and conservative white Americans. Ordinary white Swedes, who claim to embrace antiracism, equality and social democracy, look at the riots in Stockholm and blame marginalized youths for the institutional discrimination, political marginalization, and structural racism that have become common place in the former “conscience of the world”.
Tobias Hübinette is an Associate Professor and researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, Sweden. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Dance is currently living in Sweden.
On October 01, 2010 Sam Houston State University (SHSU) student Aman Abdulaziz was stopped by campus police for a parking violation that quickly escalated into a police brutality incident as shown in the officer’s dash cam (and in the image below).
(Aman Abdulaziz image from here.
Used with permission from Isiah Carey of Fox 26 News, Houston)
Abdulaziz is battling the charges against him and suing SHSU for civil rights violations and failure to train its officers properly. Below, students from Sam Houston State University react and offer their analysis.
As a structural phenomenon resulting from racism and other biases deeply engrained in U.S. society, we connect this incident with the larger national racialized landscape as a social issue focused on the following questions, 1: Whose interest’s does law enforcement and security serve ? And 2: Is law enforcement and security as it currently operates in everyday operations qualified to work with diverse populations and adequately serve and protect all people? Read More→
This short video (3:51) presents data of stop-and-frisks in an interactive, visual format:
This video was created by the really amazing Morris Justice Project. The Morris Justice Project brings together people affected by the NYPD policing practices together with academic researchers to resist criminalization in new ways. This map is just one of those ways.
The Morris Justice Project is an initiative that is part of the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY. You can follow updates on the Floyd case at the Morris Justice Project Tumblr, and on Twitter, @public_science.
On April 12, 2012 the San Francisco Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on “The Human Rights Impact of the War on Drugs in San Francisco.” I attended upon the request of the Commission for a report authored with Mike Males (Research Fellow, CJCJ) for the Center for Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The pews of the hearing in SF City Hall were packed, and the room charged with howls and cheers immediately upon the first testimony of the evening by California NAACP President, Alice Huffman: “I will submit to you that the War on Drugs has destroyed many African American men and women and has not protected us at all.” Notably, the NAACP solidified their fundamental and universal opposition to the drug war in a 2011 resolution.
President Huffman, along with many others offering community and expert testimony declared their agreement with the 2011 Global Commission Report on the War on Drugs. The Report explicitly labels drug war policies utter failures, and calls for an immediate pivot toward legalization and regulation of illicit substances, and for public policy to define and treat drug abuse, addiction, and overdose deaths as public health issues. Further, the report recognizes legalization as a viable strategy to combat the violence and state corruption that regulates the illicit drug trade, as was the case in the (alcohol) prohibition era recently illustrated in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
In my testimony with CJCJ’s Selena Teji, we summarized the findings of my report with Dr. Males:
• African Americans experience felony drug arrest rates 19 times higher than other races in San Francisco, and 7.3 times higher than African Americans elsewhere in California.
• San Francisco’s explosion in drug felony arrests of African Americans, during the 1995-2009 period, did not occur elsewhere in the state, nor for other measured racial categories in the city.
• The city’s African American female youth account for over 40% of the felony drug arrests of African American female youths in California, and have arrest rates 50 times higher than their counterparts in other counties.
• More than half of all youth drug felonies involved African Americans, who constitute 9% of the city’s youth; and one-third Latino males, who comprise 11% of the city’s youth.
• Despite disproportionately high drug arrest rates among young African Americans in San Francisco, of the more than 2,000 residents and nonresidents in the city who have died from abuse of illicit drugs in the last decade, 6 in 10 were non-Latino Whites, and more than 7 in 10 were age 40 and older.
• Such stunning and socially destructive practices and disparities arguably constitute human rights violations against African Americans in San Francisco under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the anti-discriminatory clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In agreement with social scientific research on contemporary systemic racism that recognizes the institutionalization of racial privilege and oppression and the role of “color-blind racism” in the post-civil rights era (Feagin, 1977, 2006, 2010; Feagin and Vera, 2001; Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Alexander, 2010; Ostertag and Armaline, 2011), international law does not require proof of conscious, explicit racial animus in the legal definition of racial discrimination as do U.S. courts—discriminatory results suffice (see also Fellner and Mauer, 1998).
Though a full report from the hearing in April awaits decision, that if adopted by the Commission would initiate review and public response by SFPD and the Board of Supervisors at the very least, the report’s adoption and publication are currently stalled. Populations of color, victims of the drug war, and the civil society that pays for this long expensive policy failure deserve an end to the drug war—perhaps faster than the system can or will deliver absent considerable resistance and political pressure.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow. New York, NY: The New Press.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2003). Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the US. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Feagin, Joe. 1977. “Indirect Institutionalized Discrimination: A Typology and Policy Analysis.” American Politics Quarterly 5(1):177-220.
______. (2006). Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
______. (2010). Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New
Feagin, Joe, Hernán Vera, and Pinar Batur. (2001). White Racism. 2nd ed. New York:
Fellner & Mauer. (1998). Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States. Washington D.C.: Joint Report from Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project. Retrieved on 03/30/12 from http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/File/FVR/fd_losingthevote.pdf.
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination [ICERD], 660 UNTS 195, entered into force Jan. 4, 1969. The United States ratified ICERD on October 21, 1994.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, Art. 25. The U.S. ratified the ICCPR on June 8, 1992.
Ostertag, S. & W. T. Armaline. (2011). Image isn’t everything: Contemporary systemic racism and anti- racism in the age of Obama. Humanity and Society, 35(3).
William Armaline is the Director of Human Rights (@SJSUHumanRights) and an assistant professor in Justice Studies at San Jose State University.
I feel frustration and disgust when I hear racial epithets and see stereotyped images of rage thrown at President Obama during the pre-election period. Political cartoons worse than Thomas Nast’s nativist drawings appear almost daily in regional newspapers and on Facebook pages in south Texas. Pictures dominate the Internet depicting him with ape like features and some with huge ears and crossed eyes in awkward positions. Letters to the editor are filled with lies and hate about Obama with pledges to vote him out of office. Racist jokes and snide remarks are repeated in social settings, as well. Full – length ads in newspapers depict him as a socialist enemy and someone who is important to eliminate. What is happening to our society?
The Republican Texas Legislature wants to suppress voting with what Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Chairman, says is modern day poll tax and modern day Juan Crow laws and, “Republicans say to the Hispanic Community: Here’s your border wall: show me your papers now: and the dreams of your youth are illegal.” Furthermore, Texas Governor Perry says he will not honor President Obama’s decree opening educational opportunities to thousands of undocumented young people. Hinojosa says what keeps Texas Republicans up late at night is that Hispanic Texans make-up 28% of the eligible voter population, and that percentage keeps growing. And overwhelmingly Hispanic voters vote Democratic. He also points out that in a short time, Texas will change from a red state to a blue state because of these demographic changes.
In the past few weeks, Lubbock has experienced a high level of vandalism targeting Democratic yard signs. Hundreds of Obama signs have either been stolen or marked with the letter N, some wrapped with double chains, others sprayed with mustard or shot. This past week a Hispanic young man waited late at night to capture the vandals on his video camera. A group of young white men saw him and chased him in an attempt to take away his camera. Then he was assaulted. The following is a film of the event captured on camera and released by the police.
Gilberto Hinojosa is appalled at this behavior and says that while sign stealing is not unusual, what has happened in Lubbock is a violent statement and is racism. Racism, “we also saw when an Austin man lynched a chair after the Clint Eastwood talk at the RNC.” It drives voter suppression as does Voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. The Republicans deny that the vandalism and hate crimes are happening. They say the Democrats are doing it themselves. However, it is interesting that last week’s non-partisan AP poll found that 79% of Republicans harbor racist views, compared to 32% Democrats.
Voter suppression is happening in other southern states. Is it a coincidence that the same red states are those that were confederate states 150 years ago? In these same states, Jim Crow laws and violence prevented minorities from voting until 1965 when Congress passed The Voting Rights Act. Now Republican state governments are pushing to rescind the Voting Rights Act, they say is no longer relevant. However, George W. Bush enthusiastically approved its renewal a few years ago. Why are Republicans now against it?
Considering the AP poll above which points out that negative racial attitudes have failed to improve the past few years and could manifest in policy we definitely should renew The voting Rights Act (1965). To understand why this is happening and we continue to see racism in this society, we need to look at the history of the “White Racial Frame.”
The “White Racial Frame,” according to Joe Feagin, is the manner in which whites view themselves, and was firmly set with the founding of this country. With the history of American slavery it’s become “systemic racism,” Feagin reveals. First centered on African Americans, the oppression by the dominant white hierarchy continues to use racial stereotypes, metaphors and images of other people of color, as well. The purpose is to stir emotions that create prejudice and bigoted discrimination so whites can remain on top of the hierarchy. Today, with the demographics favoring the Hispanic population, propagation of discrimination is occurring toward the Hispanics. The AP poll found that 52% non-Hispanic whites had anti-Hispanic attitudes and with the threat of whites becoming a new minority racism will not go away anytime soon. It’s happening in Texas and it is very disturbing to Republicans. To understand better “The White Racial Frame,” please refer to Joe Feagin’s article.
On June 3, 2011, three plainclothes New York City Police officers stopped a Harlem teenager named Alvin, one of 600,000 mostly Black and Latino young men who are stopped for no reason except their race (and gender) each year in New York.
The stop and frisk of would have been unremarkable, except that Alvin secretly captured the interaction on his cell phone, and the resulting audio, part of a new video released by The Nation, is one of the only known recordings of stop-and-frisk in action. When Alvin asks why he is being threatened with arrest, the other officer responds, “For being a fucking mutt.” Later in the stop, while holding Alvin’s arm behind his back, the first officer says, “Dude, I’m gonna break your fuckin’ arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face.”
The video about stop-and-frisk (13:15) is here:
The audio was recently played at a meeting of The Morris Justice Project, a group of Bronx residents who have organized around the issue of stop-and-frisk and have been compiling data on people’s interactions with police. Jackie Robinson, mother of two boys, expected not to be surprised when told about the contents of the recording. “It’s stuff we’ve all heard before,” she said at the gathering. Yet Robinson visibly shuddered at one of the audio’s most violent passages. She had heard plenty about these encounters, but had never actually listened to one in action.
Although perhaps not surprising, part of what is compelling about this short video clip is that includes interviews with two members of the NYPD. With their identities disguised, two officers from two different precincts in two separate boroughs speak about the same types of pressures put on front line police from higher-ups to meet numerical goals or face disciplinary action and retaliation. Most chillingly, both officers use the word “hunt” when describing the relentless quest for summonses, stops and arrests.
The racial pattern of these stops – something like 87% of the stops are of Black and Latino young men – and the utter lack of effectiveness in terms of ‘policing’ – only 1% yield any weapons – highlight the stark racial policing of these practices. It seems clear that the NYPD’s policing is intended to exercise control over young men of color in the city, and that these policies are guided by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg. These unjust, racist police practices will remain in place until those at the highest levels of city government decide to take action to dismantle these policies.
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.