Racism versus Professionalism: Claims and Counter-Claims about Racial Profiling

Article excerpt


Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement or security officials, consciously or unconsciously, subject individuals at any location to heightened scrutiny based solely or in part on race, ethnicity, Aboriginality, place of origin, ancestry, or religion, or on stereotypes associated with any of these factors, rather than on objectively reasonable grounds for suspecting that the individual is implicated in criminal activity (Tanovich 2006: 13). Operating as a system of surveillance and control, it "creates racial inequities by denying people of color privacy, identity, place, security, and control over their daily life" (Cross 2001: 5).

A number of recent commentaries on racial profiling in policing in Canada have suggested that there ought not be any further debate about whether racial profiling exists (see, e.g., Tator and Henry 2006). They argue that there is credible statistical evidence from police jurisdictions in the United States, Britain, and now Canada that points to the existence of racial profiling as a routine and regular part of policing (see, e.g., Ontario Human Rights Commission 2005; Wortley 2005). Even more pointedly, commentators argue that, even if there are lingering controversies and disagreements over the methods used to collect and interpret the statistical evidence that points to the existence of racial profiling (Wortley and Tanner 2003; Harvey 2003), there is a substantial weight of anecdotal evidence, coming from individuals with minority backgrounds, that a wide variety of institutions and organizations in Canada engage in racial and/or religious profiling (Ontario Human Rights Commission 2005). The argument is that, because many members of minority communities believe that racial profiling exists, this belief in itself is reason enough for the police and other institutional authorities to take the issue of racial profiling seriously and to take steps to curb its use as a policing strategy.

A number of commentators have also noted that, generally speaking, police chiefs, police union representatives, and police boards deny that racial profiling is practised in this country (Wortley and Tanner 2003; Henry and Tator 2006). These denials are explained either as a form of democratic racism (Henry and Tator 2006) or, from the vantage point of Howard S. Becker's (1967) hierarchy of credibility, as outright lies told by those in power in order to protect their prestige and authority. In this paper, we want to suggest an alternative perspective on the issue of racial profiling.

Rather than interpreting police denials of racial profiling as a form of democratic racism, or as lies, this paper suggests that the concept of a police subculture offers the most credible backdrop for understanding what is commonly termed racial profiling. When contextualized in this manner, racial profiling is perceived by the police as one in a series of activities that define their work. We argue that, when seen in the context of police subcultures, such profiling occurs even in the absence of officers who may be inclined to prejudice or discrimination against members of visible minorities. As well, that subculture provides police with a powerful and convincing deflection rhetoric to neutralize claims that the policing institution has failed to root out the racist practices of its officers. Indeed, as our data based on interviews with police officers suggest, police officials feel confident that the organization's efforts to embrace diversity are to be applauded and that its critics should be condemned (Sykes and Matza 1957).

This paper is organized as follows. We begin by identifying some recent manifestations of racial profiling and attend to immediate reactions by the police. We then examine the claims advanced by the police we observed and the particular lens through which they evaluate the occurrence of profiling. In doing so, we examine the deflection rhetoric employed by the police to rationalize claims about their practices, rhetoric that serves to neutralize feelings of blame or guilt regarding the putative targeting of visible minorities. …