Racist violence before the law

French law understands racism through speech and not through actions. Based on 731 crimes, R. Brahim shows how physical violence is compounded by psychological violence when the legislative and judicial system denies the racist nature of the acts or minimizes it.

On August 25, 1973, an Algerian killed a bus driver in Marseille. This crime triggers a wave of racist attacks and murders targeting Arab men. In a climate already marked by racial tensions linked to the Algerian war, the murder of the bus driver reinforces the thesis of a “North African danger” and generates a series of punitive expeditions against North Africans. These attacks are part of the 731 racist crimes listed and studied by Rachida Brahim in Race Kills Twicewhere the sociologist analyzes the denunciation and institutional treatment of racist crimes in France from 1970 to 2000.

The originality of the work lies in the fact that the author goes beyond an examination of the motivations or ideologies of the perpetrators of these crimes, and extends the analysis to the legislative and judicial treatment of this violence, to demonstrate the dimension structural racism that underlies them. The central thesis of the book is that race – understood as “the act of placing people in a racial category in order to establish a relationship of power” (p. 12) – kills twice. It generates a first physical violence which is embodied in the blows dealt to bodies stigmatized as “undesirable” or “dangerous”, then a second psychological violence, which takes shape on an institutional scale, and which results from penal treatment which ignores the racist nature of the crimes tried and minimizes their seriousness. The sociohistory that Rachida Brahim proposes therefore makes it possible to make visible the links between the interpersonal dimension of racism, and the institutional dimension which contributes to legitimizing or obscuring the violence that results from it.

Rachida Brahim uses the notion of “race” in the sense of structural racism, “that is to say the idea according to which it is the very organization and rules of a society which create a system by contributing to legitimize racial inequalities and the corollary violence beyond their denunciation” (p. 214). For the sociologist, racial violence finds its origin in the construction, within society and in the judicial and legislative spheres, of a category of people associated with a danger against which one must defend oneself. “Stigmas particularize and expose people to violence. Because they make it possible to designate a group that poses a problem, they create a relationship of domination, a reason to discriminate and exercise force. By drawing an ethnic border, they draw within the social body a potential for targets and attackers” (p. 117). This operation of stigmatization is central to the process of racialization, because it assigns a negative value to physical, cultural or religious characteristics, thus creating a group whose members are inferiorized.

Race kills physically

Based on archives from associations, newspapers, and the Ministry of the Interior, Rachida Brahim draws up a list of 731 crimes denounced as racist between 1970 and 2000, including 353 fatal. From this database, it proposes a typology of racist crimes which distinguishes three categories: ideological violence, situational violence, and disciplinary violence.

The majority of crimes listed are ideological violence, motivated by the desire to preserve a territory against a presence deemed harmful and excessive. This category includes attacks claimed by far-right activists and targeting places held or frequented by North Africans, as well as punitive expeditions aimed at punishing any North African for an action committed by one of them. The second type, situational violence, occurs in a daily life situation where the perpetrator targets a North African because he is perceived as a threat to his property, his honor, or his peace. This is for example the case of the murder of Djellali Ben Ali by the concierge of his building in 1971. Finally, disciplinary violence is that committed by representatives of the State (police, gendarmes, soldiers) against a category of the population perceived as deviant and which would need to be disciplined. Among the most emblematic cases, Brahim relates the death of Mohamed Diab, killed by a brigadier at the Versailles police station in 1972, or that of Malik Oussekine beaten to death by acrobat squads in 1986.

This violence is not only the result of interpersonal relationships. For Rachida Brahim, it is part of the racialist logic that has guided French policy since the end of the Algerian War. Her analysis of the debates surrounding the evolution of French immigration policy reveals a central tension between republican principles and racialist principles. While advocating republican universalism, governments have implemented policies that particularize certain categories of immigrants. Indeed, immigration, integration, return, and housing policies reveal that it is not all immigrants who “pose a problem”, but more particularly African immigrants, described as unsanitary, prone to crime, and unassimilable. The children of these immigrants, born in France, have inherited this stigmatization, which has continued to be conveyed in the media and political fields. The figure of the “Arab worker” of the 1960s and 1970s was replaced by that of the “young suburbanite” in the 1980s and 1990s, but the stigma of a maladjusted and delinquent population persists, and continues to expose racialized bodies to specific violence.

Race kills psychically

Physical violence is accompanied by a second psychological violence, which occurs in the victims’ confrontation with the legislative and judicial system, when the latter denies the racist nature of the crime, minimizes its seriousness, or reverses responsibilities. Rachida Brahim borrows the concept of secondary victimization highlighted by feminist studies on sexist violence: as with victims of sexist violence, victims of racist violence suffer a second victimization during confrontation with the media or judicial system, which tends to blame victims for their own victimization (p. 138).

This secondary victimization appears in the criminal treatment of racist violence. Rachida Brahim shows that with the exception of ideological violence, racist violence is most often punished as misdemeanors rather than crimes, with light sentences, often accompanied by suspended sentences, or even dismissals or acquittals. This is what lawyer Jacques Vergès called the “crime of arabicide,” noting that murders of Arabs most often result in sentences of less than five years in prison – a misdemeanor sentence. Furthermore, during criminal hearings, the racist dimension of the violence is hidden, even when the perpetrators are explicit, for example by declaring to the police that they “did not like North Africans” or by admitting their intention to “scare the Blacks and Arabs” (p. 178-9). In short, in the courts, the racist nature of the violence is evicted.

This denial of the racist dimension of crimes finds its origin in the fact that racist crime has no legal existence. One of the most interesting parts of Rachida Brahim’s work is her analysis of the evolution of anti-racist laws in France since the 1970s. Based on parliamentary debates, she shows that French legislation has focused on criminalization of the racist words (incitement to hatred, negationism), while refusing to criminalize racist violence.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which France ratified in 1971, requires member states to criminalize incitement to racial hatred, discrimination, as well as racist violence. However, when France joined this convention, the legislator created new offenses of incitement to racial hatred and discrimination (Pleven law 1972), without criminalizing violence committed with a racist motive. Until the 2000s, despite international provisions to this effect and militant and diplomatic pressure (notably from the Algerian embassy), parliamentarians rejected the idea of ​​increasing penalties for crimes committed with a racist motive. , with the argument that common law is sufficient, and that it would be contrary to republican principles to create a specific right for a category of people. Thus, anti-racism laws criminalize racist speech and discrimination – understood as the denial of a good or service on the basis of a discriminatory criterion – but not racist violence. For Rachida Brahim, “within the legislative arena, racism ceases to be an act of physical violence and is only an element of discourse leading to phenomena of defamation, insults, provocations, incitements to hatred or discrimination” (p. 166).

It was only in 2003 that racist motive was included in the law as an aggravating circumstance, at the instigation of MPs. UMP who wish to anticipate a request from Community law. However, the reasons given for this legislative change “testify to a fight against racism which paradoxically fuels ethnic boundaries” (p. 204). Indeed, the deputies justify the law by the rise of anti-Semitism, which they attribute to “young North Africans” in a context of resumption of Israeli-Palestinian clashes. During the debates, they prioritize racism, with on one side violence targeting North Africans and blacks (who remain in the majority), and on the other anti-Semitic violence, considered more worrying, and above all as mainly attributable to North Africans. Furthermore, if the racist motive is finally included as an aggravating circumstance, the law stipulates that, to be proven, it must have been expressed verbally or in writing by the perpetrator. In other words, “racism can only exist criminally if it is expressed verbally by the perpetrator” (p. 211), which considerably restricts the acts that can be judged as racist crimes.

The law thus produces a second violence, since at the moment when people denounce the differential treatment to which they are subjected due to racialization, the principle of universalism comes to deny the particularism which creates this violence. Rachida Brahim speaks of a “double movement of racialization and deracialization”: racist violence, migration policy, and anti-racist legislation “racialize while denying race” (p. 215). This denial of the racist dimension of the violence maintains a feeling of impunity for the victims and their loved ones, who have been mobilizing since the 1960s to denounce both the racist violence and its criminal treatment. A denunciation which echoes today’s mobilizations against racist police violence and the de facto impunity enjoyed by the police.