Racial and economic justice are two sides of the same coin

Liz Fekete
Monday, 11 December 2017

What’s in a word? Or two words in this case? When it comes to ‘racial disparities or disproportionality’, what is understood depends on the eye or ear of the beholder. For anti-racists, ‘ethnic disparities’ or ‘racial disproportionality’ are investigated as a way of understanding deeper structural processes. But for cultural racists - all those whose thinking is infected by cultural stereotyping – the over-representation of BAME people in arrest and incarceration figures is proof of cultural deficit – the dysfunctionality of the Black family, the religious fanaticism of the Muslim community, the nomadic lifestyle of Gypsies and Travellers, etc, etc.

I start here because although the title of the event is ‘The Lammy Review: only one half of the picture’, I think we need to pause and ask ourselves whether the discussion we are having on disproportionality is in danger of becoming lopsided in ways that open up spaces for cultural racist thinking. Two things concern me. First, the complete lack of any mention of institutional racism in either the Lammy review or the government’s Race Disparity Audit. Second, the de-contextualisation of the statistics on racial disparities from history. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has brought us here (29 November) to discuss the pathways prior to criminal justice involvement that prefigures the likelihood of arrest – the processes ‘upstream’, as they put it in the advance publicity. But to understand the statistics, you have to go back to the source. And the source is in history.

The policing of ‘suspect communities’

As long as I can remember, neighbourhoods, where BAME communities live, have been treated by the police as a ‘threat’, with ‘suspect communities’ subjected to a different style of policing – not so much policing by consent as policing by enforcement. We are still living with the consequences of policies and procedures that started in at least the 1960s when policing was informed by racist stereotypes about the rebellious or un-integratable nature of former colonial subjects.

This was well documented in a number of reports and books, such as Policing the Crisis, Blood on the Streets, Policing Against Black People, the first major report I worked on after starting work at the Institute of Race Relations in 1982, soon after what was, in effect, uprisings against the police in Brixton, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and other cities. At that time, Sir Kenneth Newman, the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, had been drafted in to lead the Metropolitan Police, with the specific purpose of bringing the lessons of public order policing from Belfast to London. He immediately introduced ‘targeting’, drawn directly from anti-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland, under which police resources were concentrated in black areas with particular estates, clubs and meetings places regarded as ‘symbolic locations’, subjected to intense surveillance and military-style operations. It may be true that the overt racist stereotyping that informed a colonial-style public order approach to BAME communities is a thing of the past, but the logic of Sir Kenneth Newman’s approach of targeting BAME neighbourhoods as ‘high crime’ areas persists in policing today. I am reminded of its logic each time I look at the Prevent programme or the Gangs Matrix. Nothing has changed. The logic of policing is still to treat poor, BAME neighbourhoods as a ‘threat’, as suspect communities – to criminalise their inhabitants.

Just look at measures like the 2010 Birmingham covert counter-terrorism operation Project Champion which was only dismantled following the threat of judicial review proceedings by Liberty. It involved a £3 million surveillance initiative to install 200 cameras and automatic plate reading cameras in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods of Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath. And we should also remember that only recently the Metropolitan Police were planning to trial automatic facial recognition at the Notting Hill Carnival. As a number of organisations pointed out in a joint letter to Cressida Dick, ‘The choice to use Notting Hill Carnival to trial, yet again, this invasive technology’, which can ‘carry racial accuracy biases’, ‘unfairly targets the community that Carnival exists to celebrate.’ ‘This is not policing by consent’.

The consequences of decontextualisation

A couple of weeks ago I went to a research symposium about improving outcomes for young black men in one London borough. It was very well-meaning and there were many academic papers which ran through the statistics on disproportionality. But, soon, some people in the audience were getting angry about an abstract discussion that seemed ‘far too cosy’. One man said that as an academic he saw the importance of amassing evidence on disproportionality, but as an activist and as a father he was incensed that we were discussing the same data  and talking about the same malpractices that we have been working to end for 20 or 30 years.

Despite all the heroic struggles that have been mounted against racism in the criminal justice system - the abolition of SUS, the fight to get racist violence treated as a crime, the abolition of the Special Patrol Group, making racism in the police a disciplinary offence – it feels as though we are having to reinvent the wheel all over again, as JENGbA is doing with its campaign to abolish the joint enterprise laws. But the danger now, with the ‘explain or reform’ recommendation within the Lammy Review, is that opportunities could be afforded for retrograde research, instigated or influenced by that sector and those politicians which have campaigned for years in the pages of the Daily Mail and the Sun against the findings and recommendations of the Macpherson report. We should not forget that it was these voices which described those who rioted in Tottenham after the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 as ‘feral youth’, inhabiting a subversive culture that ignores ‘civilised boundaries’ where ‘whites have become black’. Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism might be improved upon, but no one should be allowed go back on the report’s pathbreaking findings.

The expansive nature of criminal justice

We have to bear in mind the history, while also taking account of what is different today from in the 1980s and 1990s. Here, the first thing I would like to point out is that multi-agency policing, which includes the embedding of police in schools and local authorities, means that the criminal justice system now has a longer reach. The criminal justice system today is not just what is experienced on the street, in the police cell, the courts and the prison- you can end up on the Gangs Matrix after a visit to the job centre, or be referred to Prevent by your school teacher or be reported to the Home Office as an immigration offender by your landlord, your employer or your bank! The criminal justice system is all pervasive in that society has moved from criminalising acts to detecting pre-crime risks and threats through algorithms (based on racist presumptions) for instance.

The second thing I would like to say is that if we are seriously considering pathways to criminalisation, we also need to look at the expansion of the law. From 1997 to 2006, New Labour brought in over 3,000 new criminal offences, nearly one for each day in office. And it was under the same government that use of stop and search underwent a truly massive expansion, not to mention the escalation in immigration policing, the fastest growing and least accountable form of policing in Britain today. How many of these new crimes, bringing into the scope of the law behaviour that was previously not considered criminal, have ended up criminalising BAME communities? I think that that figure would be very high, given that the increase in so many criminal offences are in the fields of immigration, youth culture and countering extremism.

For example, it is now a criminal offence to drive while in the country illegally, for landlords to let properties to undocumented migrants, or to camp in an unauthorised site (while the government cuts back on authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers). I remember a few years ago, when I was living in East Ham, someone from the Council knocking on my door and asking me to take part in a crime survey ranking the importance of crimes committed locally, the last one listed being young people congregating on street corners. I pointed out to the man on my doorstep that standing on the street corner wasn’t a crime and shouldn’t be included in the survey, and he said that was a very interesting point of view, Madam! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised given the creation of ASBOs and Public Space Protection Orders, breach of which is now a criminal offence. Only last week, we read that Stoke-on-Trent council has started a consultation on a public space protection order that will make it an offence for a person to ‘assemble, erect, occupy or use’ on public land a tent unless part of a council-sanctioned activity.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed local authorities, schools, nurseries and social services departments under a specific duty to report signs of radicalisation. Just last week we heard that OFSTED was instructing its inspectors to question primary school girls who wear the hijab, to see whether this was a sign of ‘sexualisation’ or whether schools are failing to uphold the Equalities Act. The idiocy of these policies beggars belief, and you have to laugh or you would cry. But we cannot let this pass. Can you imagine the stress to young BAME people that the expanded logic of criminal justice causes, whether in the field of Prevent, gangs or policing immigration. In 1994, IRR, which was already working with Gerry German at the Communities Empowerment Network, wrote ‘Outcast England: how Schools Exclude Black Children’. We warned about the racist stereotyping of black culture that was used to legitimise school exclusions of black children that were casting children out of school and into crime. Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed, in fact, it has got worst. Cultural racism towards Muslims has the imprimatur of the state, thanks to Prevent

The same with Black youth 'criminality' thanks to the Gangs Matrix. Racism and Islamophobia, stigmatising people because of their colour or their religion, are stress factors in young people’s lives, and the stress of racism engendered by the extension of criminal justice in schools, is just one factor that could lead to alienation or even mental health issues amongst young people. Many other factors affecting both young people and adults are identified by Justice in its latest report which reveals the many ways in which defendants with learning disabilities and mental illness have been repeatedly failed by the criminal justice system. There may be, as Justice welcomes, renewed efforts ‘to create an integrated criminal justice and mental health sector’, but this should not preclude us from questioning the ways in which economic injustice, racism, criminal justice expansion and immigration enforcement exacerbate stress.

Racial justice and economic justice go hand in hand

Poverty, mental illness, unemployment, poor housing, immigration status, homelessness, debt, if these are divorced from questions of economic justice, they can be recast as personal failings – and the best we can hope from government is that they will just ever so slightly ease off the pressure, so to speak, reduce the time for the universal credit rollout from six weeks to five, as if that will keep people out of debt and despair.  The stresses placed on all poor people in this market economy are phenomenal, and unless we direct the racial disproportionality discussion towards, yes, a discussion of institutional racism but also an awareness of economic injustice – one that broadens us out to the white working class too - then we risk opening up the terrain for cultural racists and the kind of ‘Victorian’ thinking that does not understand the relationship between crime and poverty but in fact blames the poor for its own poverty and for crime.

It’s time for us to come out and say boldly that a range of factors, including school exclusions, unemployment, poverty, the legal system, racism and incarceration are bound up with the political economy and a failed economic model. Racial injustice and economic injustice are two sides of the same coin.

Liz Fekete is the Director of the Institute of Race Relations