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.

“Unaddressed Racism” : Alice Walker on Travyon Martin’s Killing

This is a long (45 minute), but good, interview from Democracy Now with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist Alice Walker about the root causes of the Trayvon Martin killing. Worth a listen:

Walker observes that “We are a very sick country. And our racism is a manifestation of our illness and the ways that we don’t delve into our own wrecks. … As a country, we are a wreck.” Powerful words.

Daily Texan Political Cartoon on Zimmerman/Martin Case



UT student Stephanie Eisner, a white Latina from Houston is the cartoonist behind a controversial political cartoon concerning Trayvon Martin. This is a description of the cartoon:

A woman sitting in a chair with “MEDIA” on the headrest is reading a book titled, Treyvon Martin and the Case of Yellow Journalism to a young child. Eisner reads the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case with this caption: “And then…the BIG BAD WHITE man killed the sweet, handsome, innocent COLORED boy.” The child’s mouth is wide open in shock at the portrayal of the characters in the media. (see here for cartoon).

Eisner’s use of “colored” and the fonts/capitals deployed by Eisner demonstrate her white racial framing of the Trayvon Martin case. Eisner perpetuates racism in the media and appears to assume Martin was at fault and Zimmerman not a serious suspect.

The white racial frame (WRF) is “an organized set of racialized ideas, stereotypes, emotions and inclinations to discriminate.” This white racist framing is normalized by systematized processes of racial oppression in various realms (economic, justice system, education, political, etc.) which artificially naturalizes white dominance in those sectors. The consequence is a material reality which justifies and synthesis the abstract WRF and ideology systemic racism to produce reality, white supremacy. White supremacy becomes “common sense” to whites due its cyclical occurrence in society which reproduces the dominance of whites not only in these life-determining sectors, but also the portrayal of whites and people of color in the media.

Mass media are a primary facilitator of this concept of synthesizing the WRF and racism perfecting white supremacy. Elite white men mostly own the media markets so they much of who people see themselves and the world. Media constitute a cultural object of human production which shapes our worldviews. W.E.B DuBois believes media shapes and reinforces the dichotomy of “Black” and “white”: “bad” and “good” respectively, which subconscious becomes subscribed in our daily thought “with a thoroughness that few realize.” Eisner’s cartoon also perpetuates this dichotomy with her racist language toward Trayvon Martin.

The text of the cartoon is important content for analysis of Eisner’s WRF for two reasons: differentiation of emphasis and exaggeration of the adjectives used to reference Martin and Zimmerman and the usage of “colored” to describe Martin’s race. Zimmerman’s adjectives were only bolded and in all capital letters in one font, while Martin’s were in different fonts in different sizes of varying degrees. This technique of “font play” between Zimmerman and Trayvon shows her likely racial bias toward Zimmerman instead of creating an “ambiguous cartoon,” her stated intended goal.

The use of “colored” to address Martin’s race is racist when used by whites. “Colored” is presented in all capitals and bold. Eisner, a “white Hispanic,” felt the need to use a racist term in her poorly executed tactic to make her case. Her biracial background does not give her a “I cannot be racist” pass, but only points to how “race” and “racism” are constructed within the WRF.

Eisner could not escape her WRF of the Trayvon Martin case. The synthesizing of the WRF and racism has resulted in a white-framed narrative of the Trayvon Martin case. I have demonstrated her “font play” of the text and use of “colored” both show WRF influence on her worldview. (See #IAMTRAYVONMARTIN)

Eisner, since the initial posting of her political cartoon, has apologized and been relieved of her position as a cartoonist from the Daily Texan. However, a petition at change.org is asking for the reinstatement of Eisner.

Walking While Black: The Senseless Killing of Trayvon Martin



The recent slaying of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin is yet another reminder of the every day presence of racism in the United States. I find it necessary to remind everyone that this is not an isolated incident, but one that occurs daily across America for most black men. The difference here is that the normal threats and harassment that Trayvon would typically encounter on any given day as a black man, turned into his innocent death. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent black man in New York City who was mistakenly shot 19 times by 4 police officers (who fired a total of 41 shots), the decisions that George Zimmerman made about Trayvon Martin were done in a “blink of an eye”. His actions, on the other hand, were done in justification of his already conceived (and likely subconscious) thoughts about this young man rather than in response to Trayvon’s clearly non-threatening behavior. Any one of Zimmerman’s compilation of actions that fateful evening, if terminated, would have likely resulted in a different outcome, one where Trayvon would still be alive today. But Zimmerman is operating on societal-based stereotypes and assumptions of anti-black racial frames about black men that has been around since the mid-1600’s and continues in today’s white-dominated society.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would be foolish enough to discount the continuing assault on the black male presence. Black men have always been public enemy number one in white America, and that has not changed much in 400 years. Since slavery times, African American men were seen as threats to white manhood. Unrelenting white racial stereotypes around black male bodies provided the perfect justification for the incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working for his master in the big house.

Black men were clearly not on equal footing with other men, especially white men for centuries. The conditions, stories, received wisdoms and other discourses created by whites about black folk constituted predictable cognitive road maps or frames that white folks enacted on black bodies. Frames are patterned ways of thinking about human differences such as race that apply generally to people at large and influence our legal system, schooling, healthcare, unemployment and housing to name a few. The white racial frames created around “Black” were and remains anathema, which is certainly the case with Trayvon’s senseless death. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a man of apparent Latino heritage and self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain, mystifies many white observers. Given that both black and brown people in American are oppressed, how could this be? What’s happening here is that Zimmerman is acting on the existing white racial frames that operate as unconscious scripts on how to interact with racial “others” in our society.

White racial framing of black male bodies is a large-scale centuries-old undertaking that not only affects white behavior toward Blacks, but black and Latino behaviors toward each other and themselves. These racial understandings have existed ever since Europeans first stepped foot on the Western shores of Africa and began a long and tortuous relationship with Africans. And this continues today where the steady stream of media portrayals of young black men as “dangerous” predators is too prolific in our society to ignore. Anyone reading this blog can certainly think of one or more stereotypes about black men. When you think of the face of crime, it is easy to conjure the image of Trayvon or another young man of color as the scary and dangerous “other” or the boogey man. Minorities are not immune to this frame or thought process. Latinos, Blacks and other Americans of color receive and act on many of the same white racial stereotypes and impulses, and Mr. Zimmerman is no exception.

Now, take the context of white society from its historical vantage point and see how it continues the play out (albeit less overt at times). Floridians have instituted a law that has resurrected the Wild Wild West, which allows an individual to take the law into his/her own hands. A law seemingly provoked by the looting that occurred following several Florida hurricanes. After filtered media images following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the assumption is that the people looting are black. Thus, the law can be interpreted such that if a black man is stealing, a white man can shoot and kill him. And the onus is placed on the victim from prove he was innocent of a crime before being shot. We have now gone even beyond the egregious “eye for an eye” and moved to a place where a heart can be taken for the loss of a finger, but no one seemed to care that the law implied it was the heart of a black man until it was taken literally. What results is that someone like Trayvon Martin has become caught in the crosshairs of a nation that has yet to truly reconcile its profoundly racist past.

While the nation continues to mount an all out and justifiable assault on the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death, let’s not forgot the conditions that gave rise to this young man’s death in the first place: white supremacy, or to put it nicely, a white dominated society. Rest in peace Trayvon Martin; may your death not be in vain.

Please sign this petition and forward to all concerned stakeholders.

How Does it Feel to be a Problem? A Reflection on Trayvon Martin



My heart has been heavy since I heard about Trayvon Martin. I’ve read all the coverage and signed all the petitions. I’ve talked about it with family and friends and sat my own teenaged son down for yet another “talk.” I have read the commentary of a lot of very smart people on this case that make the historical and social intellectual connections better than I could have. Like Mark Anthony Neal, here. R. L’Heureux Lewis here. And the Crunk Feminist Collective here.

What is compelling me to write is much more personal than academic. I have a 15-year-old son. He’s 5’11” and football linebacker size (left guard, actually). He is sweet and kind and mild mannered. He is polite to adults and more courteous than your average teenager. What breaks my heart is that it’s not enough. There isn’t enough kind or polite or courteous in the world to outweigh the skin he’s in. This marker that he carries with him every day, that in his adolescent daze he is only partially aware of, sometimes… is everything. It was all there was when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon was suspicious. It was everything when Amadou Diallo was gunned down in New York City, there was nothing more when Andre Burgess was shot in the city carrying a candy bar, it was THE thing when Jordan Miles was beat down in Pittsburgh. It is what led WEB Dubois to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The fact that my son walks through the world looking suspicious just because of who he is, because of his body, just destroys me sometimes. It makes me want to hold him close, to limit his movements, to tell him, no…you can’t go out.

“Mom, why? Don’t you trust me?” “It’s not you baby… It’s not you.” How many mothers and fathers have had this talk with their sons? Did Trayvon’s mother have that talk with him? “Son, when you’re out in the world, people don’t just see you as you are.” “Boy, when you’re in a store, make sure you don’t look like you could be stealing anything.” “My son, if the police stop you, make sure you cooperate.” “Baby, when you’re in public…not too loud, not too fast, not too slow, don’t look at them in the eye, step off the curb, shuffle your feet, cooperate, lay down, smile—but not too hard or too long, put your hands behind your back, pull your pants up, take your hood down BECAUSE THEY ARE KILLING BLACK BABIES OUT HERE.”

Most of the parents of black children I know have had that conversation with their children. “You’re black honey…and that means certain things to certain people.” We do it to protect them, to give them a lens so that when they’re treated out of line they don’t think they’re crazy, or that something is wrong with them. We do it so they can survive this world that encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies. And yet, there’s Trayvon, there’s Jordan, and hundreds of others beaten and killed because they wear the ‘suspect’ suit as their birthright. It’s not new—of course. It’s old. It’s Emmett Till old. It’s slavery old. Both the racism and this talk, this lesson, is as old as black dirt.

And despite the fact that I’m a sociologist and generally avoid individual level tomes on race, what I’m really thinking about right now is “How does it feel to be a problem?” How does this knowledge affect our sons? The ones we have left. What we know is that our children go to schools that look more and more like prisons. That have punitive cultures where sagging pants, facial hair and braids earn behavior demerits. Where they are asked to walk along lines painted on the floor. Where they are more likely to be disciplined, suspended and labeled special needs than their white classmates. (This study has the data and more references.)

I’m thinking about all of the potential mindspace that is stifled or lost because of the need to not draw suspicion or negative attention from school or legal authorities. I wonder what it must feel like to walk through the world without so many damned unearned restrictions. I’m also thinking about how tragic it must be to not be able to see Trayvon Martin’s humanity. How limiting it is for someone like George Zimmerman to walk through the world in fear of black children. How truly sub-human it is to not be able to see humanity. And how the entrenched anti-black sentiment we live with every day is to blame.

I guess today I’m thinking of these two sides of the coin, what would the world look like if black boys had all of their available ideas and dreams and hopes and could walk through the world in a way that reflected them? And what if the rest of us could open up to our full humanity by being able to see these sons in their full humanity?

But mostly, my heart is heavy and I’m having trouble sleeping, and I have a headache because my son is Trayvon Martin. Because I have participated in limiting my child because I know that George Zimmerman exists, and that some of them have badges and the authority of the state behind them when they kill black boys. Because, “It’s not you baby…It’s not you.”

So please sign the petitions, go to the protests, call the Sanford County chief of police—I’m sending him Skittles at Chief, Bill Lee. Sanford Police 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, Fl 32771. I also invite you to join me in thinking creatively about parenting as activism and activism as parenting in a way that combines the lessons we teach our children with the larger struggle against media misrepresentation, racism in the criminal justice system, unequal policing, racial inequality in education and the rest.

Documented Discrimination in Arpaio’s Arizona



Self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio has made the news again for his treatment of undocumented immigrants in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. On December 15, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report that details unlawful and inhumane abuses carried out by Arpaio and his underlings against “illegals” between 2008 and the present. It details violations in community policing and in the County detention facilities. Below are some excerpts:

• Latino drivers are four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.

• Our investigation uncovered a number of instances in which immigration-related crime suppression activities were initiated in the community after MCSO [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] received complaints that described no criminal activity, put rather referred, for instance, to individuals with “dark skin” congregating in one area, or individuals speaking Spanish at a local business.

• Individual accounts regarding MCSO deputies stopping Latinos on the basis of their appearance corroborate the use of discriminatory policing practices.

• MCSO detention officers discriminatorily punish Latino LEP [Limited English Proficient] inmates who fail to understand commands given in English by, for example, locking down their pods (which increases the risk of inmate-on-inmate violence), or imposing disciplinary segregation (solitary confinement).

• MCSO detention officers refuse to accept forms completed by Latino LEP inmates in Spanish. Such forms include tank orders, which enable inmates to request basic daily services, and grievance forms, which enable inmates to identify and address alleged mistreatment. Even in instances when Spanish language requests are accepted, Latino LEP inmates face delays in services for not submitting requests and grievance forms in English.

Arpaio is popular among (mostly white) voters not only in Arizona but also in the rest of the nation, to such extent that several GOP presidential candidates sought his endorsement, which he eventually gave to Rick Perry.

At first blush, it is hard to believe that these injustices were perpetrated so unabashedly, but when one remembers how “illegals” are so very negatively viewed in the dominant White Racial Frame, it makes perfect sense.

Local Rioters Speak of Crimes at the Top of British Society

Reuters had a very interesting set of comments on the racial and class riots in Britain, titled “Riots shake faith in UK austerity, stability.” The journalist quotes an establishment figure, Pepe Egger, an analyst of London’s consultancy called Exclusive Analysis:

I don’t think the implications of this have been fully thought through or accepted yet . . . . What we have here is the result of decades of growing divisions and marginalization, but austerity will almost certainly make it worse. Yes, the police can restore control with massive force but that is not sustainable either in the long term. You have to accept that this may happen again.

When even some in the elites can see that decades of great inequality can bring down Western political and economic systems, it really suggests to me just how far we are into the decline of Western nations and empires. The article then adds the views of the young people, most of them people of color presumably, in the streets. They add that the “division” involves real wealth inequality and racial prejudice:

Speaking to Reuters late on Tuesday, looters and other local people in east London pointed to the wealth gap as the underlying cause, also blaming what they saw as police prejudice and a host of recent scandals.

By scandals, they mean the massive financial scandals that have created near Depressions in Western countries. The article goes on to suggest for some British folks (maybe even Reuters journalists?) the scandals and crimes of the wealthy outshine what many see as the crimes in the streets from rioting. Fairly insightful for mainstream media? And very interesting that people in the streets are quite aware of the white collar crimes at the top of British society. Are folks in the US as savvy?

Racial and Class Revolts (“riots”) in Britain

An article in the Grio by Lola Adesioye, a Black British writer, is titled “Riots were a long time coming for black Britons,” and helps to explain some of what is going on in the London and other urban rioting. She notes that

The riots have been ferocious. Buildings have been burned down, shopping centers looted, police and firemen attacked. People are afraid for their lives and their livelihoods.

And that many people there are calling even for the British army to come in and put down the rioting. We might note that the U.S. used military units to put down black revolts in the 1960s in several major cities, so this public and political orientation is not new.

Adesioye points out that the rioting started in the Tottenham area of North London, where conflict between the mostly white police and young black men has been at a high level for decades. Indeed there was another major riot in that area some 26 years back, involving earlier generations of white police and black Britons. The riot in 1985, as with these riots, started because of an apparent police malpractice incident. The Tottenham rioting reportedly started when a mostly white police unit called Trident shot and killed a black man, father of two, and nonviolent protests over that killing turned violent. The Trident unit had been started as a community-generated attempt to deal with black-on-black killings in the area, but she notes that many in that community now see it as “just another way in which the police can oppress young black men,” much like they do in the United States.

Adesioye summarizes her view of the causes of the riots by black Britons this way:

This violence is as a result of . . . unexamined racial issues, a crumbling sense of community among black people with no real leadership, unresolved class issues, social exclusion coupled with a lack of opportunities, a deep recession in addition to an extremely high cost of living, a new government who has been cutting back on services for youth, disenfranchised young people, and a dependency culture. . . . Black people are underrepresented in all areas of public British life from politics, to economics. . . . and we are overrepresented in crime and incarceration.

She further notes that the rioting has spread to other areas and involved nonblack young people, especially working class white youth, who also face major economic and social class barriers, especially under the new austerity policies of the new conservative British government.

What is entirely missing in Adesioye’s article, however, as in almost all research on U.S. rioting in the 1960s-1970s (and most research on racism and racial inequalities today), is a clear focus on the white, mostly male elite decisionmakers who are immediately or ultimately responsible for most of the underlying conditions of these British riots. These “racial issues” seems a very tame and deflecting way of saying “white racial oppression.” The white elite’s drive to keep British (and U.S.) society highly unequal lies behind most items in her list, yet even she does not call out these powerful whites. The beginning of wisdom on these matters is the what Michael Parenti calls the “reality principle,” that is the necessity of calling out and making transparent the underlying oppressive reality and the main agents in that reality. Race riots are always about oppressive underlying conditions, and often triggered by precipitating incidents caused by the police.

And do look at the individual comments made by people after the end of her article. Numerous whites make extraordinarily racist comments. And there are several comments about the possibility of racial riots in the United States. Of course, we as a country hold the record for the number of race riots over a few years in the 1960s and early 1970s—more than 500, with many lives lost and many people injured.

Given the extreme and growing economic inequality in this country between white and black Americans, and indeed between rich and working class whites, how long will it be before we see similar urban rioting in the United States?

Black Migration South: Economic, Racial, and Emotional Reasons



The New York Times has an interesting overview of the many African Americans moving back to the South:

The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south. About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state… Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South….

The article strongly accents economic reasons, but is there more here? One professor quoted in the article cites many African Americans’ spiritual and emotional (family) ties to the South as reasons for the reverse migration.

Recounting police abuse of her in New York, one black resident who has left suggests that the white racism now in New York is often as bad the old South:

“My grandmother’s generation left the South and came to the North to escape segregation and racism,” she said. “Now, I am going back because New York has become like the old South in its racial attitudes.”

She is likely right. Social science research shows that whites’ everyday racism does not really know geographical boundaries. Is it the case that the white majority in the South did not so much as catch up with the rest of the “liberal” country on racial matters, but rather that much of the rest of white America seems to be acting more like the racial ways that too many in the white South have long been famous for?

What do you make of the reasons given for the large African American migration back to the South?

(Note: Isabel Wilkerson, pulitzer prize winning NY Times journalist and now professor, has a major and fairly new book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration that I have just started looking at, and it may be of interest on the migrations north and south.)

Attacks and Expulsions: French Governments against the Roma, Again



The BBC has a news reports on organized French human rights protests against French government expulsions and other negative treatment of French Roma people (so-called “gypsies’):

Thousands of people have been attending rallies in Paris and 130 other French towns to protest at the government’s policy of deporting Roma people.

A majority of French respondents in polls support the government expulsions and other apparent “cleansing” of these mostly working class residents of France:

About 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) returned to Romania and Bulgaria from France last month, while official figures record that 11,000 Roma were expelled from France last year. The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations, said it wanted to counteract government “xenophobia” and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.

French President Sarkozy has apparently expanded these high-profile campaigns for political reasons, even against opposition in his presidential cabinet:

Prime Minister Francois Fillon hinted that he disliked the crude links being made between foreigners and crime, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he considered resigning over the issue.

There have been violent encounters between the Roma and non-Roma police in some cities:

In mid-July, riots erupted in Grenoble after police shot an alleged armed robber during a shootout. The next day, dozens of French Roma attacked a police station in the small Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan, after police shot dead a French Roma man who had allegedly not stopped at a police checkpoint.

French politicians’ expulsion and other policing actions have seen dissent and criticism from international sources like the Vatican and the United Nations, even the European Commission.

The article largely ignores the large scale racialized discrimination that targets the Roma, something Jessie detailed here. I am not very familiar with these recent French events, or the background. Perhaps some of our viewers can add some savvy comments on the situation in France.