Why is a black man driving Joel Debellefeuille’s car!?

Debellefeuille

In Longueil, across the shore to the south of Montreal, a situation something like this unfolded in July of 2009…

A man is driving to get ice cream in a new black BMW. A police officer notices the car (it’s sleek! it’s hard not to!), and runs the license plate through his database. He sees that the name the car is registered to is that of Joel Debellefeuille.  He also sees that the driver is black.  Even though he doesn’t know Joel Debellefeuille, the office wonders, “Why is a black man driving Joel Debellefeuille’s car?!”  So, he turns on his siren, and for the fourth time in ten days, the man driving the new BMW is stopped by a police officer.  Frustrated, the driver refuses to produce his identification and he is charged with failure to do so, plus another minor infraction.

If you’ve been following this story, you’ll already know that the driver is Joel Debellefeuille.  And that he’s black and he owns a really nice car (both the man and the car are pictured above.)

You may also know that the case isn’t as “simple” as that of racial profiling: Mr. Debellefeuille wasn’t stopped just because he was a black man driving an expensive car.  (It’s not quite the same as when Henry Louis Gates Jr., also black, and a Harvard professor, was detained for what appeared to police to be  break-and-entry into a Cambridge, Massachusetts home, which turned out to be Dr. Gates’ own home: that was pure racial profiling.) 

Apparently in Debellefeuille’s case if, when the plate was run, it had been registered to someone with a “black-sounding” name, he wouldn’t have been stopped. But, what makes a name sound black, and what makes one sound Quebecois? Is a Quebecois name always French-sounding? Honestly, I’m not enough part of mainstream Quebecois society to know how common the surname Debellefeuille (or de Bellefeuille) is, or how most residents of Quebec would associate it. I’m guessing it’s not as common as Tremblay, but that it occurs.  And I’m also not sure how names sound “black” in Quebec. (Though the authors of this study have a sense for Boston and Chicago.) There are a number of Quebec residents of Haitian origin in Montreal, so maybe the police officers expected a Haitian-origin name? Or an African-sounding name, if one can generalize that there is such a thing as a name-type common to a whole continent?  Whatever the thought process, the officer(s) wrote at the top of the report that the driver was a black man with a “Quebecois name.”

In his defense, one constable stated that name incongruities are a basis for pulling drivers over (from the CBC website.): 

“If I run the plate and it comes back ‘Mr. Jack’ and it’s a woman driving, you know for sure she’s not the owner. That means I’ll stop her…. If I have an ‘Ebrahim’ and it’s a white man, a Quebecer who’s driving, yes. Or if it’s an Arab who’s driving and it comes back ‘Dubuc,’ ya I’m going to stop him and check.”

This scenario, which began more than three years ago, was in the news this week because in a Longueil municipal re-trial (ordered by the Quebec Supreme Court), Judge Tremblay(!) acquitted Debellefeuille and apparently chastised the officers involved.  In his decision, Judge Tremblay states, “The fact of falsely or ignorantly believing that the family name ‘Debellefeuille’ can’t be the surname of someone with black skin can only show a flagrant lack of knowledge about Quebec society.” And Fo Niemi, at the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, contextualizes the ruling in this way: “We’ve never seen a municipal court judge going this far in reviewing the state of Canadian jurisprudence and Canadian case law on racial discrimination, racial profiling.” (Quotes from the CBC website.) In these ways, and for Debellefeuille, the ruling is a victory.

Of course, I’m completely pleased with Judge Tremblay’s decision, but I don’t think the police officer’s mistake is that of a fool; rather, this is a common oversight in a culture that reads too much into names, often discriminating based on them, just as we do when we racialize people.

If a surname is the basis of a judgment, then that name is being relied on too heavily as an indicator of information about its bearer.  Part of the beauty of a name is that it is not a regular word: we can’t look up its definition in a dictionary once, and then expect it to mean the same thing every time.

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