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.

Criminal Alien Program Results in Racial Profiling

“A top priority for ICE has been to target the “worst of the worst” in the illegal population—criminal aliens incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails; those who may pose a threat to national security or public safety” ICE Annual Report FY 2008 [pdf].

Sounds reasonable, right? Of course Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should ensure national security and public safety by deporting criminals. No wonder the Homeland Security Committee allocated $180 million to this program in 2008 to ensure that incarcerated non-citizens are deported.

However, a new report from the UC Berkeley Law School finds that ICE “is not following Congress’ mandate to focus resources on the deportation of immigrants with serious criminal histories.” Instead, it is encouraging local police to engage in racial profiling and to arrest and deport people who engage in minor infractions of the law such as kicking over traffic cones or public urination.

Racial Profiling? Under the Criminal Alien Program, local police have the authority to call immigration on anyone who they suspect to be undocumented. Turns out that Hispanics are the ones police are most likely to suspect are undocumented. In a study of arrest patterns in Irving, Texas, the UC Berkeley Law School found that 96% of the people held under this program were Hispanic. Moreover, police were more likely to arrest Hispanics for minor offenses once the city began to participate in the Criminal Alien Program.

Not all Hispanics are undocumented. In fact, most Hispanics living in the United States are legal permanent residents or citizens. In Irving, Texas, however, once police began to co-operate with ICE, discretionary arrests of Hispanics for minor traffic offenses rose dramatically.

In 2006, ICE began a partnership with the city of Irving, which enabled ICE to investigate the immigration status of people held at the Irving Jail. Under this partnership, if Irving police arrest someone they suspect to be undocumented, they contact ICE to determine their immigration status. Of course, police officers can’t tell someone’s immigration status just by looking at them. In fact, in September 2007, of the 269 individuals Irving police officers referred to ICE, only 186 were turned over to ICE. The others were lawfully present in the U.S.

“Worst of the Worst”? Most of the people detained under the Criminal Alien Program in Irving, Texas were arrested for misdemeanors. In fact, only 2 percent were charged with felonies. The Berkeley report provides “compelling evidence that the Criminal Alien Program tacitly encourages local police to arrest Hispanics for petty offenses.” For example, in Irving, Texas, in April 2007, ICE agents began to offer 24-hour access to their services to the local police. Immediately thereafter, the rate at which Irving police arrested Hispanics for minor arrests began to rise. In April 2007, Irving police arrested 102 Hispanics for Class C misdemeanors. That number rose continuously until September 2007, when they arrested 246 Hispanics for Class C misdemeanors – minor offenses for which the maximum fine is $500.

It looks like the $180 million Congress appropriated to ICE is not enhancing public safety. Instead, it is encouraging local police to arrest Hispanics for petty offenses and deporting people for offenses as minor as driving with a broken tail light.

This study of one city in Texas resonates with work I have been doing with deportees in Jamaica and Guatemala. Deportees I have spoke with consistently tell me that they were stopped by police for a minor offense and subsequently placed in deportation proceedings.

A deportee I met recently in Guatemala told me this is exactly why he does not plan to apply for re-admission to the United States, even though his daughter still lives in the US. He does not want to live in a country where he will be arrested for minor traffic violations and hassled by police on a regular basis. Who does?

[Note from blog admins: ~ This is a re-blog from here.  Professor Golash-Boza will be joining Racism Review as a regular contributor, writing about her research in Jamaica, Brazil, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic where she is interviewing people who have been deported from the U.S. for a book she is writing. ]

International Racist Hate Crimes: American Export?

Stop hating (all way)There are two hate crimes in very different parts of the world, one in the UK the second in Russia, that have me wondering about how much of American-style racism gets exported overseas (Creative Commons License photo credit: sylvar ).

In Britain recently Nathan Worrell, a neo-Nazi who waged a racist campaign against a mixed-race couple and was stashing loads of bomb-making materials in his flat, was arrested, tried and convicted on charges related to the case.   He was sentenced to seven years in prison on two charges: “possession of material for terrorist purposes,” and “racially aggravated harassment.”   Among the materials found in Worrell’s flat were a video showing how to make a bomb from household items, and what police described as “a significant amount of far-right propaganda, as well as membership cards for groups such as the Ku Klux Klan….”

In Russia, last week Stanley Robinson, an 18-year-old African American exchange student from Providence, Rhode Island, was stabbed by unknown assailants in Volgograd.   Russian n an attack officials say may have been racially motivated.  Robinson remains in grave but stable condition.  According to published accounts, the student’s mother, Tina Robinson said:  “I believe it happened because he is a person of color. It was completely unprovoked.”

Some may chalk up such horrific stories as just another example that “the whole world is full of inequality, injustice… “ [as Robert Berger suggested in his comment on this blog awhile back]; and, others may erroneously suggest that racism is overblown and that efforts to call attention to racism are part of a “racism industry.” I, however, have a different perspective on these incidents.   To me, these suggest that American-style racism may be exported from the U.S. to other countries with deadly consequences.   The fact that Worrell in the UK had propaganda from the KKK, a U.S.-based racist organization, certainly suggests this.   Of course, Worrell also had material from British far-right groups as well and the UK is no Johnny-come-lately to racism.    And yet, the fact that there are materials from the U.S. that are tied to the racist actions of a neo-Nazi in the UK suggest that there are global flows of racism.   Add to that the fact of America’s cultural and political hegemony in the world today (although quickly fading if recent shoe-tossing incidents are any indication of the nation’s standing in the eyes of the world), and it suggests that American-style racism may be seen as the “standard bearer” for racists around the globe.

The second example, of the African American exchange student attacked in Russia, also suggests that the American-style of racist hate crime has been exported to regions far beyond the borders of the U.S.   If, as this young man’s mother suggests, he was in fact a target of a racially-motivated assault this raises some puzzling questions about how this is possible.   Russia is a country with a completely different history than the U.S. when it comes to race and racism.   So, the question becomse, how is it that this young African American teenager is even “seen” as a target of a hate crime?   That he was even fathomable as a target of such an assault suggests that this young man had to first be recognizable as a racial subject.    To put it plainly, he had to be viewed by his attackers as a young black man.   And, his racial subjectivity, his “blackness,” if you will, had to be interpreted through the lens of the white racial frame.   Within this frame, a young black man gets read simultaneously as a dangerous thug and as a racial target.    Without this interpretive lens,  Stanley Robinson would just be another exchange student exploring another culture.   Within the white racial frame, Robinson became a target.

It would be bad enough if America were simply exporting racism if we, as a country, were also doing something in the international community to combat racism.  But, alas, this is not the case.   In forum after forum in the world arena, the U.S. is the notably absent guest not seated at the table to discuss how to resolve racism globally.  Sometimes this is couched as a concern about free speech rights, sometimes in terms of defending the right of the state of Israel to exist, both worthy concerns.  Even so, the point remains that the U.S. is not in involved in these discussions at the same time that the country is exporting American-style racism.    It’s analogous to the U.S. environmental policy in many ways.  As a country, we’re about 4% of the world’s population, yet we’re responsible for something like 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, yet the U.S. government under Bush refused to sign the Kyoto treaty which would have held accountable for reducing those emissions.    Now, I realize that reducing carbon emissions is not going to do anything to eliminate racism,  but it seems to me that part of the change we need to see in the U.S. is to try to rejoin the international community as responsible global citizens.   A big step forward would be to stop exporting American-style racism and sit down at the international table to discuss how to address global racism.