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Ethnic profiling

“I was innocent. They caught me and locked me up for no reason. I know it was because of the colour of my skin. They even called me a ‘black bastard’. They looked at me and thought I was trouble, but I didn’t do anything wrong”—A victim of discrimination due to ethnic profiling

Submitted 11/10/2005 By zkliko Views 40129 Comments 17 Updated 10/20/2008

Photographer : detritus

What is the issue?

Ethnic profiling is one of the more disturbing and controversial issues currently confronting law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

Ethnic profiling is discriminatory treatment based on racial or ethnic background. It involves actions such as stopping people on highways or stopping and frisking people on the street. It can also happen in other situations where police interact with residents.

Since September 11, concerns over terrorism have increased and incidents of discrimination based on perceived ethnic background or religion are gaining public attention.

Who does it affect?

Ethnic profiling affects many different marginalised groups within society; however there are some communities which have become bigger targets than others.

The Australian-Muslim community have suffered acts of discrimination due to ethnic profiling. This discrimination can be linked to the way the media reports on acts of terrorism in countries around the world. The media often focuses on the religious and ethnic background of perpetrators – creating a collective public image of what a terrorist might look like or how they might behave.

The Australian Indigenous community is also affected by ethnic profiling. In February 2004, 17-year-old Thomas 'TJ' Hickey died after he crashed his bike and was impaled on a fence. It was alleged that the police were chasing Hickey at the time he crashed his bike and that they were responsible for causing the accident. Hickey’s death caused riots in Redfern, Sydney. This tragedy later caused tension between police and the Indigenous community in the local area. Residents felt that the incident was a result of ethnic profiling and discrimination on the part of the police. Ethnic profiling is thought to be a contributing factor to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons.

Skin colour and styles of dress are also factors in the issue of ethnic profiling. Indigenous, African-American and Latin American people are just some of those who have suffered from acts of discrimination due to their appearance and skin colour.

Where is it happening?

Ethnic profiling is a global issue. In Australia, acts of discrimination that are linked to ethnic profiling can happen anywhere. However, they are particularly common in low income, inner-city neighbourhoods or areas where drug use, drug sales, or other criminal activities are common.

Why is it happening?

Ethnic profiling has a long and sordid history. Past studies conducted in the United States showed that African-American drivers are 10 times more likely to be targeted by the police than Caucasians. In addition, one in five Latin American and Asian males also reported being stopped unfairly by police for no reason other than discrimination. This treatment creates substantial resentment and fear of law enforcement among ethnic minorities – which seems to perpetuate the practice of ethnic discrimination among authorities.

The controversy around this issue has been heightened by the present war on terrorism. Stereotypes of Muslims (particularly those of Middle Eastern appearance) have come to be based on the fanatics who masterminded the tragic acts of September 11.

Is ethnic profiling necessary?

Some people believe that ethnic profiling is needed for safety reasons, because “we’re living in a new world where we have to rebalance freedom and security” (Constable Richard Gephardt). It’s better to be safe than sorry and people with nothing to hide should have nothing to fear. Being extra suspicious could save thousands of lives.

Other people feel it is discriminative and dangerous, and that innocent people often pay the price of gross mistreatment. To be suspected of a crime because of the colour of your skin is a very offensive and hurtful assumption for those involved. In 2005 a Brazilian man names Jean Charles de Menzes was mistaken for a terrorist by British police. He was killed purely on the basis of his appearance. This event caused global outrage.

NSW - ethnic descriptors:

The use of ethnic descriptors in the media is one example of racial profiling in Australia. This happens when a particular race is mentioned in relation to a crime. National standards dictate that police can no longer use racial terms such as ‘Middle Eastern’ when describing suspects in media reports. NSW is the only state that doesn’t follow these rules.

The Australian Middle Eastern Christian Council believes that the common use of the term 'Middle Eastern' worsens racial tension by creating a false link between race and crime. The way racial descriptors are used in NSW has been criticised by other states as racist and unnecessary. But the Minister for Police disagrees, claiming that ethnic descriptors help identify people quickly and effectively.

Police have also defended the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, which was created in NSW in May 2006. The aim of MEOCS is to target organised crime in Middle Eastern communities. Many people believe this fuels racial tension, and want the squad to change its title. But NSW police believe the squad exists because there is a need for it. They maintain that many of the victims they seek to protect are also Middle Eastern, and that the Squad helps to keep up good relations with the community.

This page was updated by kate elise

How do I know this?

‘Community praised as Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad marks 1st anniversary’, NSW Police Force (2007)  

Crabb, A. 2006, ‘The look of a terrorist? It was a police fantasy’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August  

Farrim, K ‘Ethnic Profiling: Ethnic Barbarians at the Gates’, The Wharton Journal, 11 November 2002,  

Florida Police Chiefs Association,  

Kamel, K.M., ‘Two Years After September 11, Two Worlds at War’ (2003)  

Siggins, P., ‘Racial Profiling in an Age of Terrorism’, Santa Clara University (2007)

Tadros, E. ‘Police urged to change ethnic labels’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2007,,  
Wainwright, R. 2006, ‘Which faces fit Middle East tag?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July,

Discuss Now

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*dani* 12-May-2008

I remember reading about an ex journalist who did a study about the way Muslims are portrayed in the media, via the method of content analysis. He counted the amount of defamatory words, and it was clear that Muslim Australians suffered the most by way of media vilification. It is also important to note that "people of middle eastern appearance" is a label the media often uses, and yet it is so not important to the article's content, especially when related to crime. Yet people of non-anglo saxon background are always identified. I don't like it!



adrienne 11-Feb-2008

we still have to learn that the world is made up of all kinds of people, different races, different beliefs, different life experiences. Of course every race will have a couple of their own bad apples but we should not judge or stereotype the entire race because of that one person/group's bad behaviour.



Pete 02-Nov-2007

I think the media has a huge part in curbing and influencing the way we think. “A nation’s media control the minds of that nation's citizens because the media represents, expands, and creates social reality” (Herbert Schiller). Every day we are bombarded with racial and ethical stereotypes, even from the most innocent shows. Border Security is one the highest rating domestic shows on television, and it deals with the very patriotic message of protecting our nation. Every person that is questioned on the show is in harm of endangering us as Australians. But what we really get bevy of Asians and Africans exploited because of their lack of knowledge of the English language. To add to this there are currently hundreds of Australians imprisoned overseas. Yet all we see on our television screens are Shappelle Corby and the Bali nine and not all of the Bali nine, just the “White” ones. Meanwhile the others are instantly labelled the masterminds.

It pretty sickening to think that just because I am of ethnic background, if any was to happen to me overseas that the media would react in such a way.



Acaura 05-Jun-2007

As Australians we have built a false illusion around ourselves that we are a tolerant multi-cultural society. There is still much discrimination against people of ethnicities other than of European descent. Many of us have an image of Australia as being a multi-cultural country that is tolerant of people regardless of appearance. Well sadly I had the same thoughts when I was younger; I realized that like Santa, a racially tolerant Australia was a fantasy presented to me by people European decent who had no first hand experience.

As an adolescent I have experienced racism 1st hand which is disturbing. I was born here in Brisbane Australia and have always regarded myself as Australian, however day in day out when ever I am asked the question, “Where are you from?” I always reply with “Australia mate” I am met with response “No, I didn’t mean it that way.” As innocent as it sounds such small thing such as that does add up. If I was of European decent, such an answer as “Australia mate” would be met with “Oh yeah cool.” Being of Asian decent I am also met at school with stereotyping of the norm. I am regarded by my peers and even sometimes my teachers!!! to be smart and nerdy, though it may be a complement to be regarded as smart, it degrading to think that you will always be regarded as such to people in society.

As a young teenager I will say this:

Step up Australia! Make a difference! Dare to be different!



Kim 07-May-2007

And this is what we have become! I find this truly upsetting that there are people in Australian that believe that they can be judge, jury and executioner, just because of a person's skin colour. But I don't even think it's that now, it's how you dress, how you speak, how you address others, what your ambitions are, if you have ambitions (because if you don't then you HAVE to be a terrorist! Note sarcasm!), what you do with your spare time, where you hang out...what you believe?

Unfortunately, although ethnic profiling has been around for many decades, it has been hyper-excelerating ever since 9/11, the Bali, and London bombings, amongst other occurences. There is a true climate of fear developing, and this has also been provoked by the media, and the government (remember the anti-terrorism bill that is now in place!), because we don't know who's is going to be behind an attack! Anyone can be a terrorist! PROFILE! PROFILE! PROFILE!

Personally, I think it's crap. We don't know if terror attacks will ever happen. There have been so many stories circulated that it's now at the point of ridiculous. Therefore, I'm going to continue enjoying the wonders of Australia's indigenous and multicultural diversity, because it is beautiful, enriching and colourful!!