Building a Systemic Lens: Widening the Gaze on Racial Profiling

MPP candidate James Samimi Farr weighs in on the need for a systemic perspective of racial profiling.

I’ve known two police officers in my life, both named Pete. One was a family friend from Ottawa, whom I consider a generally honourable man. He was kind to me when I was a child and was good to his family. But when he would talk about his work, a shadow would sometimes pass across his face as he described the “Vanier pukes”—referring to residents of a low-income neighbourhood in Ottawa—he had to deal with. The other Pete I knew from high school. He was violent, unpredictable, and cruel, perpetually seething with anger. Years passed, and I was glad to hear nothing of him until someone told me he became a cop, and my blood ran cold. For me, the two Petes represent a dichotomy in how the public conceives problems with policing. The issue is either that individuals who join the police are deeply flawed and violent— bad apples like Pete—or that bad systems impose their values on people who work in them—fundamentally good people like Pete. The existence of both Petes suggests to me that the dichotomy may be false. Systems and individuals are mutually corrupting.

When we talk specifically about racial profiling, the “bad apple” hypothesis continues to hold a great deal of power. The public often sees racial profiling as a deviation from normal, good policing. So-called random stops that disproportionately target Black and Indigenous people, excessive force, and overpolicing of communities are seen as outliers. This way of looking at racial profiling may persist simply out of habit. It’s a long-established explanation for why policing is the way that it is. Through this lens, racial profiling is a consequence of individual officers bringing their own biases to bear on police work. The responses to it are as predictable as they are ineffective: better training, better education.

Though reliable, this explanation is overly convenient. It’s uncomfortable to shift a discussion from the shortcomings of isolated individuals, from whom we can separate ourselves, to the racist design of institutions, in which we all are embedded, and the powerful are implicated.

What if the problem isn’t with individual police officers at all but with the institution of policing itself? Is the system of policing broken, or is it working exactly as it was designed to work?

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Anne-Marie Livingstone posed these questions during a panel on March 25th, as part of the “Racial Profiling and Policing” conference held by the Max Bell School of Public Policy. The conference included a broad range of voices, including survivors of racial profiling, academics, activists, and police officials. Livingstone’s contributions invited a systemic lens to a conversation that all too often stays at the level of individual reform and education.

Livingstone’s presentation, drawn from her years of research on the subject, was a provocative account of how racial profiling (and racism generally) is not an aberration but a central feature of policing. In Quebec, she focused on policies such as 2007’s Plan d’intervention sur les gangs de rue. The Plan resulted from a “moral panic” created by law enforcement and the media after three shooting incidents carried out by Black men over the course of a few years. In another paper of hers, Livingstone argues that the policy “effectively reproduces racial stereotypes of youth delinquency by implying there is something unique or deficient about [racialized] communities that make them more vulnerable to the most violent forms of delinquency, namely street gangs.”

In her remarks, Livingstone noted how this policy (and others like it), with its uncritical reproduction of racial stereotypes, helped inaugurate “an era of proactive policing,” which authorized officers to target Black and racialized youth on the pretext of preventative policing. Thus, officers have the discretion to explicitly target and profile racialized minorities.

In light of this objectionable practice, Livingstone highlighted the recent discourse around defunding the police, noting with regret that this idea was not represented at the conference. If practices like racial profiling are so deeply embedded in the institution of policing, it may be timely to redirect tax resources to other forms of public safety. The murder of George Floyd by police in the United States in the summer of 2020 expanded public appetite for defunding, even though the idea mostly remains ignored by policymakers in practice. Officials have thus far outright dismissed the idea or pivoted to a milder version of reform often referred to as “de-tasking” the police: delegating certain community responses to social workers, for example, rather than armed officers. The remarks of another speaker at the conference, Longueuil chief of police Fady Dagher, carried more of this flavor. Dagher noted that systemic change was necessary but situated it more in adjustments, some significant, to existing policing practices and procedures. As the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal also noted in a 2020 decision that implicated Longueuil’s department in a case of racial profiling, many of these adjustments involve voluntary participation from the officers.

I echo Livingstone’s regret: though defunding may not be taken seriously by current policymakers, that doesn’t necessarily indicate total infeasibility. Radical ideas are always greeted by knee-jerk skepticism. More cynically, we might identify some measure of this skepticism with the problem itself: is it so hard to believe that the rot may run deeper than police departments but through to policymakers too? To many activists pushing the defunding conversation, this would certainly not be a stretch. Feasibility aside, the defunding conversation is useful because it is a creative conversation: It pushes the horizons of public safety, asking foundational questions about why the structures are the way they are, and proposes new pathways. Given the seriousness of the issue, policymakers can’t afford to dismiss these voices outright.

If the conference had happened a few years ago, Livingstone’s identification of systemic problems in policing may have elicited greater incredulity among some listeners. Previously, these ideas have been more or less restricted to small circles of academics and activists. Indeed, the whole notion of systemic racial discrimination and bias, previously contentious, has become canonical in large swathes of the public over the course of a few years. A recent survey from Abacus data showed that over two-thirds of Canadians believe that discrimination is common in Canada, and 61 percent believe that systemic racism exists too. Comparing to a similar survey from 2016 showed that the number of Canadians who believe Black and Indigenous people experience “a lot of” discrimination increased by nine percent and seven percent, respectively. Whether the final figures are encouraging or dismal, they nevertheless represent a change.

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Several sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms apply to practices like racial profiling. Canada’s highest courts have long recognized both the possibility and reality of systemic discrimination. In the 1987 case of CN v Canada, the Supreme Court acknowledged as much in the context of gender discrimination. The Supreme Court of Canada rendered two important decisions, the first in Quebec v Bombardier in 2015, which affirmed the legal recognition that discrimination can be systemic and developed a definition of racial profiling that is now used across Canada, and the second in R v Le in 2019 which called attention to the overpolicing of racialized communities. In its comments on the 2019 Policy on eliminating racial profiling in law enforcement from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Court noted that “Members of racial minorities have disproportionate levels of contact with the police and the criminal justice system in Canada.”

These cases are a national acknowledgement of racial profiling and systemic racial discrimination, and the Charter provides grounds to protect individuals. Then how do we account for policies such as the Plan d’intervention sur les gangs de rue? As the introduction to the conference notes, “there is no national law or standard in Canadian policing that prohibits random stops and similar practices that lie at the core of police racial profiling everywhere.” Indeed, despite a longstanding acknowledgement of systemic discrimination, cases like R v Brown in Ontario show that courts may (and do) exhibit “judicial resistance to the application” in allegations of racial profiling. As sometimes happens in horror films, it seems the call is coming from inside the house.

Laws and policies are effective in punishing and sometimes deterring behavior that society deems undesirable. But how does society make decisions on what is undesirable behavior? A law against random stops must be preceded by a deeper understanding of how racism permeates our institutions and social systems. Only then might we see the danger and injustice that practices like these pose for racialized people. As Livingstone argues, they may indeed be outright proxies for racism. Shaped by this vision, laws and policies may come to reflect what affected communities have known for a long time. George Floyd’s death and its aftermath increased awareness of systemic discrimination and racism worldwide but, sadly, his death was far from the first arbitrary killing of a Black man by the police.

Whether this awareness is a true example of social norms shifting to open a policy window or a brief stirring from a bad dream is a matter for future historians to decide. In the here and now, the optimists among us will continue to work toward the former.


James Samimi FarrJames Samimi Farr

Max Bell School MPP candidate

James Samimi Farr has worked for the last three years as the media discourse officer for the U.S. Baha'i Office of Public Affairs. In this work, he collaborates closely with journalists, striving to understand the norms of American media and evolve them to be more just, inclusive, and unifying. To this end, he holds a regular roundtable with writers and editors from outlets such as The Washington Post, The Atlantic, HuffPost, Mother Jones, and others.

He also advocates in the media for the persecuted Baha'i communities of Iran and Yemen, and he has coordinated coverage on this issue with various outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, AFP, Bloomberg, BBC, and several others. He has also written op-eds for such publications as the Religion News Service.

He grew up in Chelsea, QC, and is a semi-professional musician.

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