Ethnic and race profiling, unconscious bias

On 29 July 2020, while promenading, my son and I were stopped by French Police asking for our IDs. Unlike in Australia and other western countries, in France, we are legally obliged to show our photo identification if we are stopped and asked to by a police officer. This is called the identity check “Contrôle d’Identité”. Pretending to be having a conversation with my son, I commented in English: “ethnic profiling”, “why us”, and “I wonder what criteria they use to decide who to stop”. I was hoping they would understand what I was saying; after all, English is taught widely in elementary, secondary and tertiary institutions in France.

Ethnic or racial profiling is the act of suspecting or targeting a person based on assumed characteristics or behaviour of a particular ethnic or racial group rather than on individual suspicion. I’m a Filipino-born Aussie and have a typical south-east Asian appearance. My 18-year-old son is 178 cm tall and has physical similarities with his white French-Australian father. They probably thought we were not together because I was some steps behind him trying to fix my hat while picking up my mask. Whereas, my son was in a hurry to avoid the soaring heat and was already under a shrub. When I called him back and he turned around, there was a change on the face of one of the police officers. His eyes became amiable, and he handed back my ID. At least we were not searched during this “contrôle”. We had our identification cards with us; otherwise, they could have taken us to a police station to establish our identity (“vérification d’identité”).

Ethnicity is a social grouping based on common and distinctive culture, religion, or language. Race, however, refers to the person’s physical appearance; for example, Black, White, Asian, or Indigenous. An individual can be Asian but, ethnically, German.

Western countries’ statistics show that non-white people are more likely to be stopped by the police on the street. It is widely known that Australian and Canadian Aboriginals are more likely to be charged with crimes. In the USA, there is sufficient information on how African Americans and members of other minority groups (Hispanic and Latino Americans, Middle Easterners and South Asians) are suspected of criminal activities. In Germany, there was a court ruling concerning racial profiling in its policy allowing police to use skin colour and “non-German ethnic origin” to select persons who will be asked for identification in spot-checks for illegal immigrants. Of course, non-western nations are not exempted from this bias. The media have reported the Chinese government’s use of a facial recognition technology to track down and control its Muslim minority.

“Racial profiling” occurs when government and law enforcement people target those of colour for a humiliating and often frightening stoppage, detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of an illegal behaviour but based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. Racial profiling must not be allowed in countries where the core promise of its Constitution is equal protection under the law for all and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Is racial profiling effective? Studies and consultations show that this jeopardises law enforcement because police officers lose credibility and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve.

Is racial profiling discriminatory? The general principle of equality and non-discrimination is a fundamental element of international human rights law.

Anti-/non-discrimination law refers to legislation that prevents discrimination against particular groups of people based on sex, age, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, mental illness or ability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, sex characteristics, religion, creed, or individual political opinions. It is designed to hinder discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other areas of social life (this includes being in the streets or elsewhere). However, “not every distinction or difference in treatment will amount to discrimination. In general international law, a violation of the principle of non-discrimination arises if: a) similar cases are treated differently; b) a difference in treatment does not have an objective and reasonable justification; or c) if there is no proportionality between the aim sought and the means employed.” (source: Icelandic Human Rights Centre, ''Substantive Human Rights - The Right to Equality and Non-discrimination'')

In other words, with such international human rights legislation, we have the right to pursue our material, spiritual and social well-being in conditions of freedom, dignity and equal opportunity.

Discrimination is unproductive. In employment, it is economically unwise as victimised employees are unable to focus their energy on performing their tasks fully. Their feeling of negative vibes from a supervisor or colleague not only adversely impacts their job performance but causes absenteeism and ill-health.

France, for example, stands to gain some €150 billion over 20 years (i.e. a 0.35% increase in GDP per year) by increasing women’s and minorities’ access to skilled jobs and their overall employment rate (source: France Stratégie, ''The Economic Cost of Workplace Discrimination in France - Billions of euros in lost potential'').

How can prejudice and discrimination be dealt with? Employers, big or small, should have anti-discrimination policies and procedures in place that include regular training on cultural awareness and unconscious bias. In the case of police departments, there should be a preference for community policing over strategies of power and fear.

(This article also appears in my website Rolade Societal Blog - roladesocietalblog.com)

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