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.