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Scholarly Debate on Racial Profiling: To What End?

Article excerpt

This note is a contribution to a dialogue on the exchange between Satzewich and Shaffir's (2009) paper on racism and professionalism and Henry and Tator's (2011) rejoinder. The originating article and rejoinder take up an issue central to the practice of racial profiling--do cultural elements of police work facilitate (or potentially inhibit) racist tendencies on the part of individual officers; or relatedly, is police culture itself racist? One of the important questions posed by the exchange is whether the presence of an underlying racism--as in overt hostility to minorities - is a necessary criterion for calling a practice racial profiling, or whether profiling is a cultural characteristic of the organization. I will not attempt to answer this question, which is probably unanswerable in any case. I will focus instead on the broader policy implications of the exchange. First, I will briefly review the papers.

Brief review of papers

How does one define racial profiling? Satzewich and Shaffir (2009) define racial profiling as "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" (200). However, they do not directly attribute it to underlying racism--rather, it is a behavioural consequence of police culture. Profiling emerges from "attentiveness to particular signals and 'unusual fits'" (200). Profiling is, consequently, situated within the broader context of police work. A vocabulary of actions enables police to perceive profiling as normal and routine to their everyday work.

Satzewich and Shaffir (2009) develop a notion of "deflection rhetoric" (201)--defined as "how the police attend to the charges against them of being racially motivated" (211)--that is used to justify racial profiling. The three elements of deflection rhetoric are the intolerance of intolerance ("denying the existence of racial profiling by referring to recent changes in organizational structures that reflect the police's commitment to diversity, tolerance, and fairness"; Satzewich and Shaffir 2009: 212), the discourse of multiculturalism ("the claim that the police could not possibly engage in racial profiling because their recruitment mechanisms are better than they were in the past"; 215) and the discourse of blaming the victim ("if there is a problem, the problem lies elsewhere, particularly in the individuals and organizations who claim that racial profiling is a problem"; 217). Police, however, do not view a selective focus on minorities as a racial issue. Rather, they "tend to view racism through the lens of personal responsibility and look at the legal architecture of motive and degree of culpability to determine criminal responsibility" (Satzewich and Shaffir 2009: 220).

Henry and Tator (2011), in a rejoinder to Satzewich and Shaffir (2009), argue that racism should be studied from the point of view of its consequences, not from the perspective of the motives of individuals. They note that human rights law looks at racism from the point of view of its consequences to the victim, not the intent of the perpetrator, which "need not be proved" (Henry and Tator 2011: 66). Citing R v. Brown, they note that "The police officer need not be an overt racist. His or her conduct may be based on subconscious racial stereotyping" (66).

In an effort to develop a concept of racism, the authors argue that one should look, not only at overt behaviour, but also at "the unintentional and sometimes traditional normative practices that result in serious inequalities" (Henry and Tator 2011: 67). In police organizations, "[w]hiteness is constructed as normative, informal social behaviour, the culture of the organization or department may render minority group members as second class citizens" (67). Hence, racism may result, not from one's conscious decision making, but as a cultural phenomenon that is pre-conscious. …