Racism, discrimination, and criminal justice

Abi Amey
Thursday, 12 February 2015

On 28 January I attended a roundtable event held at the Centre titled: 'Justice Matters for young black men: tackling the ethnic penalty'. The term ‘ethnic penalty’ in this context means the disadvantages a certain ethnic group faces, even when they have a similar socio-economic background as other ‘majority’ white groups. Young black men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system – and this event was about widening the debate to discuss the social context and the factors that might be causing this. 

The event was kicked off by three introductions:

After the presentations, attendees discussed their own views on why young black men face an ethnic penalty in Britain today. One recurrent theme in the debate was the idea of community 'breakdown'. In particular attendees felt that young black men have no voice in society, and that they are frustrated by the injustices experienced at the hands of the criminal justice system.

Institutional racism was a key issue that was discussed at length. It was agreed that the most of general public find it hard to accept that British institutions are racist. Similarly, those in power will usually only admit to it being a problem in the past; for example, officials claim that the police racism identified in the Macpherson Report has now been dealt with. This is contrary to the experiences of many people at the event who had themselves been being victims of police racism.

These discussions prompted me to consider how useful the concept of ‘institutional racism’ is as a way of understanding the ethnic penalty. While we cannot deny the prevalence of institutional racism in Britain today, it may not be best to simply limit our focus to this concept when racism is embedded in all areas of society, including in individuals who are not always directly linked to institutions.

The classification of many young black men as ‘gang members’ by police was identified as problematic (Patrick Williams discussed this in more detail here). It is clear that the issue of gangs in society has been exaggerated by law enforcement and the media, who have presented us with a sensationalised version of the issue that has little bearing on reality. This means that young men now face the burden of the ‘gang member’ stereotype among many others. Due to this, they are more likely to be convicted under Joint Enterprise laws (where someone not involved in a crime can face conviction if they are in the same area, and classified as being in the same gang as the perpetrator) than young white men.

When considering solutions, the focus was on creating stronger grassroots movements to give young black men a voice. There was a feeling of disillusionment in the room when considering traditional political avenues, and scepticism about whether greater representation of ethnic minorities in parliament has ever translated into change, as racism is still a part of many people’s every day experience.  

The UK has various pieces of legislation that set out measures to prevent racial discrimination, particularly in the workplace – but many felt that the impact of these laws in reality is minimal. For legislation in this area to be effective, organisations must make more of a commitment to ensuring equality, rather than simply meeting the minimum legal requirements.

This event illustrated in my mind that the ethnic penalty is a complex problem made up of many interrelated social issues faced by young black men today. One simple solution is therefore unlikely. However, those who met with us at the Centre suggested the possibility of creating stronger grassroots movements to help build a fairer society.

Some of these issues were discussed further by Rebecca Roberts and others at our subsequent 'Police corruption, spying and racism' conference held on 6 and 7 February with The Monitoring Group.