Thursday, February 08, 2007

Review: Racial Profiling in Canada

[Carol Tator and Frances Henry. Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of 'A Few Bad Apples'. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.]

I had read about racial profiling before, but the first time I was really made aware of it in a personal way was while on a whitewater rafting trip at a fairly cushy, decidedly not-wild portion of the Ottawa River. We were a large group of mostly young people who were either part of the same workplace or had friends in that workplace, so some people knew each other well and others not at all. One evening, in amongst various sorts of partying-related activities, about ten from this larger group were sitting around a camp fire, talking -- eight young white women and men, and two young Black men.

The conversation turned to past interactions with the police. Can you guess who were the only two people to have ever experienced unsolicited harassment of one sort or another from the cops? Yes, of course you can. A number of those of us socialized into whiteness had encountered not-so-nice things with the cops, of course, but without fail that was in situations in which our actions could easily have been predicted to attract negative police attention, whether that was engaging in particular kinds of political action, doing dumb stuff while underage, or whatever. Neither of the young racialized men had ever had that sort of interaction with the cops but both had been targeted for spontaneous harassment because of their skin colour. One talked about a classic "driving while Black" situation -- he was in his late teens at the time, driving his mother's car in the mostly white middle-class neighbourhood in which they lived, and got pulled over and given an extremely rough time for no other apparent reason than he was a Black youth driving a nice car in a white neighbourhood. The other related an incident that was more of a "meeting the description" kind of scenario, in which he was just hanging out in a park in Toronto with some friends and out of nowhere this cop appeared and tackled him. Apparently, the cop had been running after a fleeing suspect who had a good head start, saw dark skin, and decided that was reason enough to bring the owner of that skin down and then into the station.

Now, lots of people -- lots of white people, that is -- will claim that this is a statistical anomaly and that it proves nothing, that white people have unsolicited problems with the cops too. On a certain level, of course that's true. I have posted items from time to time on this site related to a case of police violence here in Sudbury against two youth, one of whom is racialized (he's Metis) and the other white, where the visibility that resulted in targeting appeared to be (based on things overheard at the scene) the incorrect assumption by the police that they were homeless and therefore easy prey. But that does not take away from the fact that the evidence that racialized people, particularly those racialized as Black and Aboriginal, disproportionately experience profiling and targeting is overwhelming (unless you take refuge in denial). This book does not take its primary project to be convincing resistant white people that racial profiling happens. Nonetheless, the fact that every Black person who participated in qualitative research for this book, and everyone that participated in qualitative research for the book I reviewed recently, had had similar experiences should be extremely compelling evidence. How they labelled their experiences, how they contextualized them, and what they thought should happen to change things varied from individual to indvidiual, but every single one had experienced such negative police attention -- including, in their off-duty hours, those few African Canadians who were officers in the Toronto Police Service.

This book traces its origins to a series of articles that appeared in the Toronto Star starting in late 2002. The Star, Canada's highest circulation daily newspaper, had obtained a massive police data base detailing 480,000 incidents and nearly 800,000 charges laid over six year. They analyzed the contents of this database in consultation with a statistician from York University and demonstrated

significant disparities in how Blacks and Whites are treated in law enforcement practices. Specifically, they showed that a disproportionate number of Black motorists are ticketed for violations that only surface following a traffic stop. Furthermore, Black people who are charged with simple drug possession are taken to police stations more often than Whites facing the same charge. And once at the station, Blacks are held overnight for a bail hearing at twice the rate of Whites. [p. 5]

This series sparked both intense negative reaction from powerful elites in the police, government, and the media, as well as a flurry of activity from the affected communities and human rights bodies. This book is an academic treatment of the issue, and a very effective one, for the most part.

It begins by outlining the four theoretical perspectives which inform its analysis: Whiteness studies, Blackness studies, danger and racialization theory, and discursive analysis. It emphasizes that racial profiling is not just something done by the police but by all dominant institutions in Canada, though the police/judicial manifestations are of particular interest to the authors. In fact, a broad understanding of the kind of ubiquitous monitoring and responding in racialized ways that are at the heart of racial profiling allows them to be seen as fundamental to overall processes of racialization, i.e. the social processes whereby social relations that empower white people and oppress the people who are racialized (that is, social relations of white supremacy) are created and maintained.

Contributing author Charles Smith then compares statistics and histories of racial profiling in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He finds some specificities, of course, but also great similarities across the three societies.

Then comes a fascinating chapter on the culture of policing. It has, in fact, been a heavily studied phenomenon -- more so in the U.S. and U.K., but with Canadian studies showing that things are much the same here. I quote at length from the chapter's conclusion:

Our analysis has identified a number of dispositions that characterize police culture and that as a whole provide a fertile environment for both deviant behaviour and racism. These dispositions include social isolation; a siege mentality; high levels of cynicism and pessimism; and the need to maintain invisibility ('stay low and avoid trouble'). Another prominent feature of police culture is its paramilitaristic, authoritarian, hierarchical structure. Police view codes of secrecy and silence as necessary to protect fellow officers from management as well as the public.

These cultural traits and norms reinforce deep ruptures in the interactions between largely White police forces and racialized communities. These relations are characterized by constant tension and conflict. Much of police work provides significant opportunities for individual officers to exercise discretion in decisions about whom to stop, search, and arrest; this has had a grave impact on many law-abiding citizens. This discretionary power is informed by racially constructed stereotypes that can lead to racially biased practices against those identified as the 'other.'

Our analysis has been sharply critical of police culture. So it is appropriate to end this chapter by reminding readers that this subculture does not exist in isolation from the racialized beliefs, values, and norms of the dominant culture. The cultural dispositions in policing are reinforced every day by the social, cultural, political and legal institutions and systems within which police officers work and live.

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to discourse analysis. This includes a chapter defending the choice to use this approach, one looking at the discourse produced by elites in the aftermath of the Star series, and one looking at discourses emanating from racialized communities themselves, in particular African Canadian communities in Toronto. Overall, I think, this was a useful approach, though I have some reservations I discuss below. Certainly the careful dissection of elite discourse at the time was both damning and illustrative of some of the ways that white supremacy is put together, at least at the level of discousrse. Some of the gems from crypto-fascists Craig Bromell, the head of the police union at the time, and Julian Fantino, the chief of police (who cut his teeth oppressing gay men as the chief in London, Ontario) were enough to make me want to throw the book across the room. The discourse from the community, mostly amassed through qualitative research by contributing author Maureen Brown, is even more powerful. It's hard to even imagine someone being able to find a way to respond to such overwhelming shared experience by African Canadians in Toronto in a way that manages to claim there is no racial profiling while simultaneously avoiding supporting that claim with reasoning that is, at its root, racist; I don't think it's possible.

I had some reservations, as I said. I didn't feel them so much with the chapter on the community discourse, but more in the one on elite discourse. I'm not sure I'll be able to explain why, exactly -- something felt not-quite-right, as good as the content was, and I don't think I will take the time to give the chapter a second, closer reading to really pin it down. I think it has to do with what this particular approach to discourse analysis does and does not do, however. I'm used to seeing such things (often not explicitly labelled "discourse analysis" but the same basic idea) done in conjunction with more obviously activist kinds of analyses -- like of the institutions producing or propagating the discourse as socially organized human relations through which power is constituted and expressed. Also, though the chapter did some of this, I'm used to seeing more attention paid to where elite discourse is wrong, or at least weak and vulnerable to attack. The approach is, as I said, explicated in a chapter all on its own, and it is quite open about seeing social change as being about competition between discourses in some amorphous public consciousness. I think that's really important, but it is far from everything -- it is necessary to understand discourses in such situations, but it is hardly sufficient.

It is probably good that I finished the book over a week ago but didn't have a chance to write the review until now, because it has given me a little bit of distance from the unfortunate fact that the weakest chapter in what is otherwise a compelling and important book is its conclusion. The focus on a "competing discourses" model of social change is restated. Such a perspective is not useless, of course. In a situation in which state relations are liberal-democratic in character, especially at the less openly oppressive end of that range, and social movement mobilization is fairly low, such a model can approximate reality in some cases -- media-focused struggle can push an idea or agenda into a kind of scattered, inactive, but still real (and detectable via polling) public consciousness, and lead to institutional response. Change can be seen as being connected in important ways to ideas and images propagated by the media. The problem is not so much the analysis of discourses -- however much expressions like "the duel between dominant and oppositional narratives" and "dominant and counter narratives are now contesting each other" [p. 195] might misplace agency onto abstractions and erase human beings -- but how it is contextualized. And the conclusion to the book reveals a shockingly shallow frame. The limits of the competing discourses model are not examined. A benign essence to the liberal-democratic state form is assumed (even cheerfully declared) despite th fact that the development of "race" as a basis for oppression and the liberal-democratic state evolved historically in tight relation to one another, and in connection with the development of capitalism and of the European empires that bequeathed us much of our current world. Change originating in the mobilization of actual human beings organized into communities and movements is not directly considered.

On a more practical level, I think the authors take far too much encouragement from shifts in political climate at the municipal and provincial level towards the less blatantly reactionary end of the mainstream spectrum between the initial publication of the Star series an the writing of this book. Certainly there are some modest signs of movement on the profiling issue, but the assertion that "Clearly, Ontario is abandoining the neoconservative/neoliberal politics that had dominated it for nearly a decade" [p. 194] demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of what neoliberalism actually is and/or of what the McGuinty provincial government in Ontario and the Miller regime in Toronto have actually been doing. Which isn't to say that the space their presence opens up in very real ways for at least some oppressed people in some limited ways is unimportant in terms of human suffering. But neoliberal politics have not been disturbed in any basic way.

Another issue that is dealt with but not adequately is the range of different experiences of racialized people who are racially profiled. There is nothing wrong with a book that focuses on the Black experience of racial profiling, and leaves the experiences of other groups to other books. This book by and large does exactly that. What I wish, however, is that it was a little bit more explicit about its focus and its reasons for making those decisions. It does not deal at all with the profiling of people read as South Asian, West Asian, Muslim, or some combination thereof, which has been an increasingly serious issue since 9/11. That's fine, but I don't remember reading an explicit statement in the book owning and explaining this. Of course, it is by and large Black and indigenous people who have been most affected historically by racial profiling by law enforcement in Canada. But even the presence of indigenous experience in the book is very inconsistent without really explaining what and why -- it is treated substatively in a couple of places, in a token way in a few more, and completely ignored in much of the book. Again, it is not a problem for authors to choose a focus, but it should be more open (perhaps even in the title).

I want to begin the end of this review by stepping back from some of the criticism in the last few paragraphs and reaffirming my belief that this book is very useful and important. It is still all too easy for liberal white Canadians to believe that racial profiling happens in New York and LA but not even consider that it might happen here, and this book makes it much harder for anyone who reads it with an open mind to maintain that semi-willful blindness.

Finally, I want to close by quoting a couple of paragraphs about the views of a group who probably, on the whole, are much more sympathetic to police services than I am, and have rather different understandings of what needs to be done with respect to how policing is socially organized, but whose wholehearted affirmation of the oppressive reality of racial profiling I still found powerful:

In October 2003, at the height of the racial profiling crisis, while Chief Fantino was still in a state of total denial that racial profiling was happening, he authorized a focus group of thirty-eight Black officers, led by four of the service's most senior Black officers. The group came together to discuss what it was like to be a Black officer on a force that was facing allegations of racial profiling. They also discussed how racial profiling influenced their own professional and personal lives.

The documents and notes generated by this focus group were obtained by the Star [in 2005]; overall, they demonstrated that racial profiling was consistently experienced on the force. In fact, most of the focus group's participants said that they themselves had been inappropriately stopped while off duty. Three said they had been stopped more than once in a single week. There was a strong consensus within the group that racial profiling was a serious problem and that the Toronto Police Service would have to deal with it internally if anything was to change.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


rabfish said...

i can't believe how much you read

Scott said...

You can probably blame it on living in Sudbury...not much else to do here, after all! ;)

SR said...

Yes, because you didn't read very much before we moved to Sudbury. :P Reading prolifically is sooooo out of character for you.

rabfish said...


its hard to keep up with reading even just the reviews of the texts you've read

thanks for putting them out there