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What is racial profiling?

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While many of the existing definitions of racial profiling, primarily originating in the United States, focus on law enforcement, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Terms of Reference define racial profiling more broadly to include any action undertaken for reasons of safety, security or public protection that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin rather than on reasonable suspicion, to single out an individual for greater scrutiny or different treatment. The Commission has noted that profiling can occur because of a combination of the above factors and that age and/or gender can influence the experience of profiling.

At the same time, the Commission has emphasized that racial profiling differs from criminal profiling which isn’t based on stereotypes but rather relies on actual behaviour or on information about suspected activity by someone who meets the description of a specific individual. In other words, criminal profiling is not the same as racial profiling since the former is based on objective evidence of wrongful behaviour while racial profiling is based on stereotypical assumptions.

The Commission selected a broad definition of racial profiling for several reasons. First and foremost, it is the Commission’s view that racial profiling is primarily a mindset. At its heart, profiling is about stereotyping people based on preconceived ideas about a person’s character. As such, its practice is not limited to any one group of people or particular institution.

Stereotyping can be described as a process by which people use social categories (e.g. race, ethnic origin, place of origin, religion) in acquiring, processing and recalling information about others.

Practical experience and psychology both confirm that anyone can stereotype, even people who are well meaning and not overtly biased. Indeed, a frank exploration of each of our own assumptions and biases would lead many of us to realize that at some point or other we have stereotyped someone. We do this because it allows us to organize and simplify complex situations and give us greater confidence in our ability to understand, predict and potentially control situations.[2] But, while mental categories are absolutely essential in simplifying and understanding our information-rich environment, stereotypes are not appropriate, as they do not correspond to reality[3]. Because stereotyping may be subtle and unconscious, in many cases the person engaging in it may not even realize that it has occurred.

While it may be somewhat natural for humans to engage in stereotyping, it is nevertheless wrong. And, it is a particular concern when people act on their stereotypical views in a way that affects others. This is what leads to profiling.

Profiling can occur in many contexts involving safety, security and public protection issues. A few of the examples of profiling we heard during the inquiry include:

  • a law enforcement official assumes someone is more likely to have committed a crime because he is African Canadian;
  • school personnel treat a Latino child’s behaviour as an infraction of its zero tolerance policy while the same action by another child might be seen as normal “kids’ play”;
  • a private security guard follows a shopper because she believes the shopper is more likely to steal from the store;
  • an employer wants a stricter security clearance for a Muslim employee after September 11th;
  • a bar refuses to serve Aboriginal patrons because of an assumption that they will get drunk and rowdy;
  • a criminal justice system official refuses bail to a Latin American person because of a belief that people from her country are violent; and
  • a landlord asks a Chinese student to move out because she believes that the tenant will expose her to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) even though the tenant has not been to any hospitals, facilities or countries associated with a high risk of SARS.

Although anyone can experience profiling, racialized persons are primarily affected. The Commission mostly heard of experiences of profiling from people who identified as Aboriginal, African Canadian, Arab, Chinese and South East Asian, Latin American, South Asian and Muslim. A number of people who described themselves as Caucasian or White also participated in the inquiry and recounted witnessing incidents of profiling or experiencing profiling as a result of their relationship with a person from one of these other communities.

Typically, but not always, profiling is carried out by persons in a position of authority. Persons who are in a position to engage in racial profiling need to be especially vigilant to check their assumptions and biases. And, organizations need to acknowledge that just as each of us can stereotype, so too can their members, even if there is no institutional policy that allows the use of, encourages or even tolerates profiling. Discussing a concern with profiling is not the same as saying that every member of an organization profiles, that profiling is an intentional policy of the organization or even that it is an intentional action of those who engage in it. While profiling can be intentional, it can also be inadvertent. Therefore, saying that profiling occurs should not necessarily be interpreted as an accusation that those who engage in it are racist.[4]

In fact, many participants in our process discussed the difficult job that those in a position of authority, especially the police, have. They nevertheless emphasized that racial profiling can occur because of the challenges of the job. Similarly, many acknowledged that many persons in an organization may be doing their job admirably but that others, who are stereotyping, are having a significant impact on the community and its perception of the organization as a whole.

“The police have a tough job to do.... We all have built in stereotypes and instincts that sometimes we count on.” (S.P.)

“Well, I think there are a lot of damn good men on the force, but I think there are people who are not good. Prejudice is in all of us and if you are in a position of power you can wield it.” (N.S.)

“I do not think that all the individuals that are in this organization display racial profiling characteristics or stereotypical judgments. However the ones that do it manage to give the entire organization a negative image.” (R.G.)

“I do believe that this was profiling by two individuals and not the entire police force. I believe that generally the police do a very professional job under often difficult conditions.” (L.R.)

“I know that police are there to help and suffer a lot of abuse in the jobs they do - however they are still humans with thoughts and opinions - You cannot put them on a pedestal and expect them to always leave personal life opinions out of their duties.” (M.N.)

“The cops should not judge us all the same and the public should not judge all police officers the same.” (N.W.)

It is also important to note that concerns with profiling relate directly to the concepts of discretion and power. Persons in society who hold positions in which they exercise a large degree of discretion have more of an opportunity to engage in profiling and are also more likely to be perceived to be engaging in racial profiling in the exercise of their discretion. Similarly, those in a position of power may consciously or unconsciously exercise that power differently when dealing with racialized persons. And, because these individuals are entrusted with power over others in society, it is particularly important that they be accountable when widespread concern is being expressed about the way in which that power is exercised. This was recently acknowledged by one of Ontario’s top law enforcement officials at the 98th annual conference of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.[5]

[2] Public Service Commission of Canada, “Stereotyping” Monograph Issue 3 (October 1995), online: Public Service Commission of Canada <>.
[3] J.A. Bargh & T.L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” (July 1999) 54 American Psychologist 462-479.
[4] The fact that racial profiling may occur on a subconscious level has been recognized, for example by the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Brown (2003), 64 O.R. (3d) 161 at 165: “The attitude underlying racial profiling is one that may be consciously or unconsciously held. That is, the police officer need not be an overt racist. His or her conduct may be based on subconscious racial stereotyping.
[5] B. Powell, “Police Chiefs Told To Help The Helpless” The Toronto Star (26 August 2003). The article quotes Bill Currie, Deputy Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police as having said:

We do not provide equitable service to marginalized people. [The Association’s Policing and Aboriginal Peoples Committee] analyzed statistical, investigative and anecdotal information from across the country and we had no choice but to come to this regrettable conclusion. ... When you are dealing with marginalized people, you exercise power differently than you do with those who are advantaged or have status in society.

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