Culture and ethnic profiling

By Hugo van Lent

Nathan Nunn argues how cultural norms and values have to be taken into account when studying institutional development in time. Different cultures, which are essentially different heuristics or rules of thumb, may therefore be used to explain institutional divergence in time.

Racial or ethnic profiling – singling-out individuals on the basis of their skin colour – is a widespread and institutionalised practice in the United States; the American police is often accused of racism and many consider racial profiling a violation of human rights if not of the American constitution. Others, however, argue that, because African-Americans have a higher-than-average crime rate, racial profiling is simply the most effective way to reduce crime, and that reasonable suspicion might be warranted when one sees a black man stalk one’s car at night. In any case, American popular support for racial profiling tends to be high.

In Germany, on the other hand, racial profiling as a policy is not as widespread and often disputed; in fact, racial profiling was declared unlawful in 2006. Instead of in the United States, where racial profiling is used often and is even defended by officials as if it were official policy, ethnic profiling in Germany is considered improper. Indeed, comparing such policy to that of the SS was decided legal.

The latter ruling is key; it explains why racial profiling is not institutionalised in Germany, even though it would arguably be more effective there than in the US, which have a much larger population of non-whites. Unlike in Germany, because of how blacks were traditionally disadvantaged in the US, being black has been associated with poverty and crime as a heuristic – a rule of thumb. Instead, Germans have a heuristic tendency to associate profiling with their national-socialism because of their past and are therefore vehemently opposed to it. Hence this example of institutional divergence can be understood as the product of cultural differences rather than efficiency.

Of gangs and guards

By Hugo van Lent

Thelen and Mahoney’s theory of actors and endogenous change can easily be applied to the dynamics inside a prison

The general prison regime – which determines which goods are considered contraband, how severe the punishments are et cetera – may be considered the primary formal institution of the prison. Gang leaders, of course, do not wish to follow these rules, and aside from setting up their own informal institutions, one would expect them to behave as insurrectionaries by openly opposing the prison regime, or as subversives by opposing the warden without open revolt.

It is obvious, however, that those particular strategies would result in the gang leaders losing the game; their sentences would just be increased. Instead, gang leaders operate as parasites within the system. They use the fact the prison environment to sell drugs at higher prices than on the street and expand the influence of their gang – you’re in for life after all. They are able to do so because the prison regime is very difficult to enforce, and they are therefore the main actors behind drift.

However, everyone wants to be the gang leader or start his own, and we may therefore find many opportunistic gang members, waiting for the ideal moment to strike. This often causes a lot of chaos and violence, and this ultimately benefits neither individual gang leaders nor the guards.

Therefore, the prison administration and individual gang leaders are in a – arguably unhappy – mutualistic relationship with one another. Aside from profiting from corruption, guards cooperate with gang leaders to keep opportunistic gang member in check and thus keep the peace. Therefore, the interaction between these three actors keeps the gang system in place, even if it directly contradicts for what prisons are designed.

Is slavery a European invention?

By Hugo van Lent

This is certainly a question worth asking. However, its answer is not that simple. Was the trans-Atlantic slave trade first initiated by European merchant companies? Yes, sine dubio. Was the majority of those slaves transported to and made to toil the soil of European colonies? Yes. Was it European states that were responsible for displacing people on an unprecedented scale? Plausibly. Is it therefore reasonable to call slavery a European invention? Not necessarily.

Slavery, as defined by Paul Lovejoy in his book Transformation in Slavery, is not only based on the fact that its victims were chattel – property to be bought and sold – or that they were employed as forced labour; a third crucial element is that slaves were considered to live outside of civil society and therefore were not deserving of the rights and liberties of the citizen.

European philosophical and political thought during the Age of Slavery was very much set out to define the nature of the citizen and his natural, inalienable rights. Slaves, of course, did not have these rights – they were not considered citizens. Societies exclusively based on institutionalised chattel slavery – what Lovejoy calls “slavery society” – did not exist in Europe; they were meant as a model for the colonies, not for an enlightened European state or a “New-Europe”.

When enlightenment ideas were finally put into practice, Europeans realised their hypocrisy – that their political thought was utterly incompatible with what was happening in the colonies – and the international slave trade was banned. Only in the colonies, such as the American South – did slavery continue and was it institutionalised.

So did Europeans practice slavery on a scale much greater than before? Yes. But may slavery be considered uniquely European? Not at all. If anything is could be called European, it is the abolishment of slavery.