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Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime
Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime

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1 Why race and racism matters

This is a photograph of a group of people holding up a banner which says ‘Black Lives Matter’.
Figure 2 Black Lives Matter is a campaign, originating in the USA, against racism.

What are we talking about when we talk about racism and why does it matter? Racism may seem to be a simple concept that is widely understood to be abhorrent, but it remains a powerful feature of society, shaping everyday experience for white people and people of colour.

Oddly though, it seems to be everywhere and nowhere and, depending on whether you are white or not, you are more likely to believe it is one or the other (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). As Priyamvada Gopal (2019) puts it ‘people believe that not “seeing” race, or being “colour-blind”, is progressive when it is merely evasive’.

The idea that there are several different races has been discredited but the implications of there being only one race, with no racial hierarchy – the human race – have not been dealt with (Neiman, 2019). The political system that placed ‘the white race’ above all other so-called races remains largely intact and race remains a central organising feature of modern society. Although the extremes of European racism and nationalism that thrived as fascism in the middle of the twentieth century was defeated in 1945, the broader political matrix from which it emerged survives (Valluvan, 2019). It shapes educational opportunities for young people, and affects labour markets, housing choices and attitudes to sport. Race influences our ideas about crime, criminals, mental health, madness, music and leisure. And these ideas have consequences. In the UK, according to Anoop Nayak:

Black Caribbean pupils are more than three times more likely to be permanently excluded than the school population as a whole; those who identify as Black or Black British are four times more likely to be stopped by the police than their white counterparts; and in 2016 for young people aged between 16 and 24 years, the White ethnic group had the lowest unemployment rate of 12 per cent, a figure which more than doubles when it comes to youth of Black (25 per cent) and Bangladeshi/Pakistani (28 per cent) backgrounds respectively. What these figures, and many more besides impart, is that while race may be a discredited concept it still structures society.

(Nayak, 2018)

Few people will openly defend racism but many people continue to misunderstand and underestimate it. They see racism as a personal moral failing or misplaced belief in a discredited concept. These perceptions may be part of the story but race and racism are structural features of our society and the world economy, established and entrenched over the last 300–400 years. They are not just failings of an individual character, and race has never relied on science to be believed as real.