An article written in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper last weekend pushed the idea that ethnicity and crime are linked.
Headlined “Violent inner-city crime, the figures, and a question of race” it claimed “the majority of men held responsible by police for gun crimes, robberies and street crimes are black”.
It added this would “permit an informed debate on a sensitive subject for the first time”.
Note that these figures are not for people actually found guilty but those proceeded against—people deemed to be potentially guilty by police.
They would have been arrested but might never end up in court, or be convicted.
It can’t be ruled out that in a city like London young black males are slightly more likely to be involved in some types of street violence than young white males. However there’s plenty of other evidence pointing another way.
The most recent Home Office study showed levels of offending and drug use were lower among young men of non-white ethnic identities.
If it is the case—and it’s a big if—that some offences are carried out disproportionately by black people, you’re not going to find out why in their genes or in their skin tone. It’s to do with social position.
The fundamental role of policing in any developed capitalist society is basically the maintenance of order and the management of “problem populations”.
Young men seen as problematic will attract police attention. But just because the police treat black men as more criminal than white men, it does not mean that they are.
We’ve known for many years that the police operate in a racist manner and make all sorts of racist assumptions about young black people and young black men in particular.
Police racism explains why black and ethnic minorities are more likely to be stopped and searched for example.
Is anyone asking if there a link between the whiteness of boards of directors of banks responsible for the economic crisis and the chances of their banks failing?
Is it of any significance that most are white and should we be introducing that into our analysis of the global financial meltdown?
You’d be dismissed as a crackpot for suggesting it. So why is it that race and ethnicity continue to be explored as a possible explanation for crime?
Ethnicity is a filter through which class and social positions are defined and realised.
There is very strong data that in the 1980s and 1990s the levels of homicide were falling overall. People in the richest parts of town saw it fall, but the poorest saw it go up six fold.
This tells us important things about how social processes determine lived experience.
Instead of talking about race, ethnicity and class, a more interesting and important discussion is over levels of vulnerability and risk.
This would be much more fruitful than continuing down this tedious, and frankly useless discussion, based on spurious logic, that certain groups are more prone to crime.
Some racists clearly hold the view that there is a genetic basis for crime—that black children are born with a predisposition to violence.
It is an old argument about intelligence and what is coded in our genes. This is all quite dangerous rubbish.
The mainstream media are not doing this, but articles are written in such a way that leaves it open to inference. This can give credence to a set of very unpleasant, pseudo-scientific-racist views, which have real life consequences.
Hopefully if we continue to set the record straight we’ll reach a point where articles about ethnicity and crime simply don’t get written any more because they are understood to be the claptrap that they are.
Richard Garside is the Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies based at King’s College London.