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It is becoming harder to be smug about being a Canadian. Racial profiling was supposed to be an American problem. So was "the black underclass."

A massive police database obtained by The Toronto Star, covering traffic stops and arrests, has provided evidence that the country's biggest city has its share of both problems. This should not be a great surprise. Inquiries in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Ontario have found systemic problems in policing and the courts for black people and aboriginals.

As for an underclass, a 1996 Ontario inquiry found that blacks made up 15 per cent of admissions to its provincial jails, though they were just 3 per cent of the population. And one Toronto activist, Dudley Laws, has put together a list of more than 100 black people killed by other black people in the Toronto area between 1996 and 2001.

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Toronto should look honestly at where it is and where it is going.

This is not to say the city's police force should be seen as redneck, abusive or overtly racist. The police union, which says it will sue the Star for $2-billion, is missing the point. David Harris, a U.S. authority on racial profiling, says that "most often this bias is unintentional; police officers by and large are good people who want to do a good job serving the public."

Hurt feelings and defensiveness will only make it harder to explore police practices. In the United States, several hundred police forces have voluntarily begun collecting data on traffic stops. Thirteen states have passed legislation requiring that race data be collected on traffic stops or other routine police encounters. The need for accountability is common to all government agencies.

The evidence from the Toronto database is troubling. On arrests for drug possession, 75 per cent of whites and only 62 per cent of blacks were released at the scene. Of those taken to the station, 15 per cent of blacks and 7 per cent of whites were held overnight for a bail hearing. The newspaper report said differences in criminal records of those arrested did not explain the discrepancy.

When drivers were stopped for traffic violations, blacks received 34 per cent of charges such as driving without a license or insurance, even though they make up just 8 per cent of the local population. This suggests black drivers are being pulled over more often than whites. However, in roughly one-third of cases when someone was charged, no race was recorded; there is no way of knowing the extent to which this skewed the result.

Late last month, four young black men were killed in one weekend in the city; in most cases their assailants are believed to be other young black men. This supports the database finding that 27 per cent of violent crime involved black accused, an issue that the director of the Jamaican-Canadian Association, for one, has recognized as a big concern.

Yet it would be a logical fallacy to argue that this disproportionate crime rate (or at least arrest rate) justifies racial profiling. Since most National Basketball Association players are black, a U.S. civil libertarian asks, would rounding up black Americans at random be a good way of organizing a team?

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The sine qua non of democratic states is that everyone is treated as an individual, not on the basis of presumed characteristics owing to group membership. What's more, skin colour is a superficial basis for a group; the "black community," made up of the Canadian-born and far-flung migrants, may be as artificial a construct as the "white community."

In our democracy, police are not permitted to stop individuals on the sidewalk and demand identification; if drivers are pulled over primarily because of their race, it amounts to the same thing. The potential for harm is enormous. The black drivers will experience the state as oppressive. It is no exaggeration to say that for them, the police will take on a totalitarian tinge. This can only deepen the alienation that is one of the root causes of so-called black crime.

This all sounds terribly familiar. Similar problems have created a spiral of fear and despair in U.S. cities. Denial will do no one any good. The issues belong to the entire community. Perhaps retired Ontario chief justice Charles Dubin, who has been asked by Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino to investigate police-minority relations, will help everyone, black and white, to find a way to talk about it.

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