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Black people and criminal justice: ‘Target the system, not black culture’

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Last week saw the publication of a House of Commons home affairs committee report into young black people and the criminal justice system.
Issue 2056
The relationship between police and young black people has come under scrutiny in the recent home affairs report  (Pic:
The relationship between police and young black people has come under scrutiny in the recent home affairs report (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

Last week saw the publication of a House of Commons home affairs committee report into young black people and the criminal justice system.

It reveals that black people are discriminated against at every stage of the justice system.

Yet the word “racism” is hardly mentioned in the report. Instead its recommends a series of measures directed at young black people – as if they, rather than racism, were the real problem.

Claudia Webbe is an activist with the National Assembly Against Racism and vice chair of Operation Trident’s independent advisory group. She spoke to Socialist Worker about the report’s disturbing findings – and its wrong-headed solutions.

‘The home affairs committee report spells out something that we’ve long known in the black community – that we suffer from institutional racism.

The black community faces a “triple whammy” when it comes to criminal justice.

We’re discriminated against at every stage of the system, disproportionately likely to be victims of crime, and under-

represented as staff and decision makers in the police, prisons and courts.

The criminal justice system reflects symbolic racism in society – it’s about regulation and control of the black community.

That’s why the report is so significant.

Where it fails is the way it pathologises the black community and black young people in particular, by putting the blame for discrimination on black people or black culture.

The report spends an enormous amount of time examining black lifestyles and music.

It notes that black people are over-represented at all levels in the criminal justice system – for instance, getting longer sentences for the same crime as white people – but it tries to explain this by saying it’s something to do with the make-up of black culture.

But why didn’t the committee look at the criminal justice system – its policies, practices, processes and procedures? Those institutions didn’t get any detailed examination. Instead it’s black families, black young people and black lifestyles that are laid bare.


This emphasis on black culture as opposed to institutional racism was reflected in the way in which the media presented the report. The media focused on recommendations for “positive role models”, “mentoring”, “safe houses” and so on.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some areas of crime that disproportionately affect the black community.

But calling this “black on black” crime is the wrong phrase – these are crimes where the black community are disproportionately victims.

Reporters overemphasise issues such as gun crime at the expense of talking about what’s really going on in the criminal justice system.

Professor Roger Hood wrote a report on race and sentencing in 1992 that highlighting the sentencing disparity between black and white people. Some 15 years later, nothing has changed.

What’s the point of this research if nothing is changed and the real problem of institutional racism is left unchallenged?

Instead we get the home office appointing a board of white people to look through a glass at the nature of black youth.


But the vast majority of young black people are well rounded, working hard at school, going about their daily business.

We in the anti-racist movement need to keep putting out the facts about systematic racism faced by the black community – not just in the criminal justice system, but also in terms of unemployment, school exclusions and generally living on the margins of society.

We need to keep campaigning. It was campaigning, largely by the black community, that led to the removal of the “sus” stop and search laws in the 1980s.

And if we stop campaigning, we’ll see a return of those “sus” laws through the back door.

In fact, this is already beginning to happen – the police are picking up people based on no evidence using terrorism laws.

Today we hear that three quarters of black men are heading onto the police’s national DNA database.

Young black men in particular are getting stopped for the “crime” of “driving while black”.

There’s a triple nexus – the media, politics and the corporate sector – where black people are not represented at the decision making level.

In the last 20 years there has been no progress in society on these issues, and to say that there has been is a fundamental lie.’

Report reveals shocking levels of discrimination

  • Black people of all ages are three times more likely to be arrested than white people.

    Black people constitute 2.7 percent of the population aged 10-17, but represent 8.5 percent of all those arrested in England and Wales. Black people are just over six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.

  • Once they have been charged with an offence, black young offenders are significantly less likely to be given unconditional bail compared to white young offenders and black young offenders are more likely to be remanded in custody compared to white reoffenders.

  • Young black people and young people of mixed ethnicity, when sentenced, are more likely to receive more punitive sentences than young white people.

    Whereas black young offenders accounted for 6 percent of total offences in 2004-5, they received 11.6 percent of total custodial sentences.

  • From 1997 to 2003 there was an overall increase of just under 9 percent in all British male prisoners.

    However, black male prisoners with British nationality increased by 21.5 percent over this period of time, compared to a 5 percent rise in number of white male prisoners with British nationality.

    Source: House of Commons home affairs committee report into Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System. To download a copy, go to »

    Claudia Webbe will be speaking on gun crime alongside Dean Ryan at this year’s Marxism festival. Go to »

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