08/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

If Skip Gates Lived in China and Other Stories of Racial Profiling Around the World

If Skip Gates thinks he has problems with racial profiling here in Cambridge, MA, then talk to people of African descent living in Beijing. Walk in the shoes of Arabs and Africans in Paris, Roma (gypsies) in Rome or Palestinians in Tel Aviv. Racial profiling is rampant and increasing despite evidence that it does not work. Anywhere. 2009-07-30-torontoracialprofiling2.jpg

In many parts of China, without the protection of an American passport, Ivy League credentials, diplomatic status or fame, dark skinned people often find themselves branded as a drug dealers or worse.

Two weeks ago about one hundred African men and women surrounded a police station in Guangdong Province to protest the suspicious death of an African merchant. The man who has yet to be identified was rounded up as part of a regular sweep of an indoor African garment mall and placed in police custody. He then allegedly jumped from a second floor window.

Racial profiling in China is seen as a legitimate way of weeding out drug dealers and those involved in illegal currency trading. However, there has been no evidence revealed by police to show that the man who died in their custody had committed a crime. But in a country where blacks barely represent a ripple in the demographic pool, they are disproportionately targeted.

In one of the more brazen examples of racial profiling, bar owners in the area surrounding the Worker's Stadium in Beijing were asked by Public Security Bureau officials to refuse service to black foreigners in the run-up to the Olympics last summer. There's even a pecking order of blacks who are targeted. Dark skin in general is a sign of potential criminality in the view of Chinese public safety officials, but Nigerians seem to statistically land at the top of the list of those profiled as scammers, dealers and general law breakers. Nigeria's global reputation for corruption and internet con games has fueled a world of suspicion of anyone from Africa's most populous nation, whether they are professors, taxi drivers, garment workers or doctors.

Of course not everyone profiled in China has African blood running through their veins. Just ask Uighurs or Tibetans how they are perceived.

And Mongolians living in Beijing often find themselves "suspected" of crimes based on chicken and egg statistics. They are arrested at a disproportionately higher rate than Han Chinese, but they are arrested because they are more likely to be suspected of having committed a crime, and if suspected, thus the higher percentage of Mongolians arrested.

Racial profiling is a fact of life from Beijing to New York to Paris to Sao Paulo.


When my Italian friends in Venice, Milan and Sienna read about robberies in those storied cities, they almost universally and instinctively blame Romanians (usually gypsies) or Albanians. Often they are right. On several occasions they have been wrong.

A just released report by the Open Society Institute finds police officers in Paris stop Arab and African people on a regular basis, predicated not on suspicious individual behavior, but on the basis of ethnicity and dress. The study by Rene Levy and Fabien Jobard of the Paris-based Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris, examined documents relating to over 500 police stops over a one-year period and across five locations in and around the Gare du Nord train station and Chatelet-Les Halles commuter rail station. The results speak volumes about the fears of French citizens about the increasing presence of darker skinned immigrants and post-colonial citizens in the nation that introduced modern concepts of liberty and justice. Blacks, according to the data, were between 3.3 and 11.5 times more likely than Whites to be stopped; while Arabs were stopped between 1.8 and 14.8 more times than Whites. The study also found a "strong relationship between people's ethnicity, particular styles of clothing worn by young people, and the likelihood that they would be stopped."


There's always a bit of truth to any stereotype, but what makes stereotyping and profiling so dangerous is those assumptions are frequently incorrect. The results can be deadly as many recall with the police shooting of an unarmed African man from Guinea in New York in February 1999. Amadou Diallo was fired on 41 times based on a racially-driven hunch by police officers.

Yet there is no evidence that ethnic profiling actually lowers crime rates, or for that matter, root out potential terrorists. Israelis have over the years discovered why profiling can be problematic. Quite simply, things are not always as they appear or as we assume them to be. In 1986, for example, while police were checking the "usual suspects" as passengers were bearding a flight in London for Tel Aviv, a young Irish chambermaid almost succeeded, albeit unwittingly, in smuggling a bomb hidden in her carry-on-bag on the plane.

Today anti-terrorism experts around the world are increasingly aware that the next major terrorist act could be set off by people who look like a blond guy named Johansen in Berlin or a sandy haired white man named Daniel in Raleigh, N.C., a real life character who is alleged to be the ring leader of a group of men charged with conspiring to kill, kidnap and maim people overseas in the name of radical Islam.

Let me repeat that: Anti-terrorism experts around the world are learning that profiling can be problematic. For many police in the United States that lesson seems to be seeping in slowly. What about you? What have you learned?