Racism Review: Racial Profiling in France and the U.S., (Pt.1)

by , under Trica Danielle Keaton

By 

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.

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.

Read original blog entry here.

Related blog entry on Migrant Tales: The scars of ethnic profiling

*In Europe we tend to use the term “ethnic” as opposed to “race” as in the U.S.

 This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

~ 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. JusticeDemon

    …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…

    It seems that the French are even less aware than the Finns of what the word “racist” means.

    It’s a very safe bet that these “receipts” will be reduced to a tick-box form in which at least one box will be so vaguely defined that almost anyone could be stopped under almost all circumstances.

    This recalls the sus law in the UK, which was eventually repealed in 1981 after its arbitrary use against minority populations had been identified as a factor in serious social disorder. The offence of “being a suspected person” was then replaced by a new offence of “interfering with vehicles”, and of course it wasn’t long before young black males were apprehended for “interfering with vehicles” even in places where there were no vehicles.

  2. Sasu

    Eurooppalaisten kannattais kyllä alkaa käyttää sanaa rotu koska sitähän me tarkoitetaan kun sanommen etnisyys. Se on vain kierto tie joka sekoittaa vain ihmisten päät

    • Jssk

      Olen samaa mieltä, asioista pitäisi puhua suoraan. “Monikulttuurisuus”-terminkin ja sen palvomisen voisi jättää pois ellei sitä oikeasti tarkoiteta.