Monday, April 30, 2007

What Is Racial Profiling?




For the past month or more i have been putting off reviewing this book about racial profiling. i've spent today hammering out some thoughts, but am not there yet - but it did occur to me that it would be useful to have some sketched out description of what the term means before i get going.

So that's what this is.

Racial profiling can be used the same way as "racial discrimination", though normally when people use the term we are talking about racial discrimination by police disguised as a scientific method of policing.

Some observations of my own, which have problems of their own, but which i'll put down as a first step:

Normally racial profiling involves low-level harassment of the kind that, on an incident-by-incident basis, is deniable and may strike middle class white people as trivial. Things like being pulled over while driving, or asked for ID when walking down the street, or singled out by police for doing something that other (white) people are doing without anybody bothering them.

As a white guy living in Montreal i’ve seen this many times.

Being in Dorchester Square having a late-night veggie burger with my partner – the police driving their car through the park, passing us, but stopping at each of the benches where Black people were sitting, and informing them that “the park is closed”.

Being at the local supermarket with a backpack on my shoulders (just like many of the other customers) watching the manager go through a Black man’s bag, telling him afterwards that it was his own fault as the sign said not to bring bags in from outside.

Following some Black kids down an escalator into the food court at the Eaton Centre after it had closed and having metro security guards run past me to tell the kids that it was closed, and that they weren’t allowed to be down there.

Of course those are just a few incidents – when it happens often, but it doesn’t happen to you, they fade from memory.

And then there are the countless times where i have certainly benefited from racial profiling even though there were only white folks around.

Like in high school when the police would catch us drinking in the park – or even smoking up – and simply pour out our booze, or even make jokes (i remember one who tried to ingratiate himself with us saying he didn’t want to be more of a pig than he had to be)... like other forms of racial profiling, this is deniable, not provable... they could have been going light on us because we were white, or because most of us were middle class or bourgeois in a ruling class neighbourhood, or whatever... but logic tells me that of those times a cop acted “nice”, chances are sometimes if i wasn’t so pasty skinned they would have been “mean”.

The point is that “racial profiling” has a few characteristics:

  1. It is a mass phenomenon. We are talking about something which is likely to effect every single member of targeted communities at one point or another, and to effect some of these people regularly and in a systematic way.

  2. It is diffuse. By which i mean that it goes on all the time all over the place, is normally not spectacular, and generally leaves no physical trace or paper trail. Indeed, one demand of various groups campaigning against racial profiling is to have police officers required to note the “race” of people they question, ticket, or charge with a crime, and in this way leave some trace of who gets treated how.

  3. On a case by case basis it remains deniable. If a cop or security guard denies that race was a factor, one can either believe them or disbelieve them, but in most cases one can’t prove it. In the case of low-level harassment, police are often legally said to have discretionary power, meaning that they don’t have to justify their decisions. In more heavy cases, for instance a police beating or murder, there are often alternate explanations other than simple racism, and these are what the entire police establishment insist must be the case.

  4. White people can benefit from racial profiling without having any reason to suspect it is even a factor. This is a possibility every time you may think “Gee, he was a nice cop”, “He could have been a bastard, we’re lucky he just gave us a warning”, etc.
We’re talking about things like police murder, but more often we’re talking about police asking you for ID, or what you’re doing in a neighbourhood or in a store. Of course, if you’re fed up and ask them why they’re not demanding ID from the white kids, it could end up in a case of police violence or murder – this is not hyperbole, it is documented tragedy – but in general we are talking about a random mass level of deniable State harassment.

There are problems with this concept as i have spelled it out here, but it does identify some important issues, and so it should be pushed further, not thrown out. i’ll touch on some of these limitations (amongst other things) in the following book review.



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