Ill-conceived image fits a pattern, says historian of anti-Black racism

Ill-conceived image fits a pattern, says historian of anti-Black racism

· The Pulse

The Edmonton Police Service has apologized for releasing an image of a young Black man said to be derived from unidentified DNA found at a crime scene, but the incident shouldn't be forgotten, says writer Bashir Mohamed.

"It's straight out of a dystopian sci-fi book, but it happened, and it happened in our city. We shouldn't be able to forget about it," he told Episode 193 of Speaking Municipally. "It's just one chapter of our city's long and very disturbing history."

Police commissioned Parabon NanoLabs to generate the image, which they publicized in an Oct. 4 news release, then removed after a public outcry. The use of DNA phenotyping was framed as a historical first for the Edmonton Police Service and a last-ditch effort to identify a suspect in a 2019 sexual assault case that had gone cold.

The technology itself is dubious since DNA doesn't tell you a person's age or weight or the effects of life experience on their appearance. The police release itself says it's important to note the image is unlikely to be an exact replica. So, Mohamed asked, why release the image?

"No one's disputing the fact that the DNA shows that this is a black dude," he said. "The dispute is creating an image that represents an entire continent, basically just creates an image of a young Black dude and says, 'This is your criminal.'"

The intent of such images is to evoke emotion, he said, citing the work of anthropologist Amade M'Charek on the practices of organizations such as Parabon. The image conveys the idea of "Black criminality," and that kind of racial profiling has a long history in Edmonton, much of which Mohamed himself has documented.

Learn more about the historical context and implications of this incident in the Oct. 7 episode of Taproot's civic affairs podcast, which also digs into the single-use item reduction bylaw, rec centre naming rights, and police funding.

Photo: Bashir Mohamed has done extensive research on the history of anti-Black racism in Edmonton.