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Race, ethnicity and crime
Race, ethnicity and crime

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Contexts of criminalisation

Taking a critical perspective on the problems of disproportionality outlined in the figures previously discussed and in the interview with Deborah Peterson Small, means locating the causes behind these figures within wider social and political contexts. Anxieties about social order and urban conflict can be understood as arenas in which connections between race, ethnicity and crime have been potent and longstanding. Serious urban disorder has been a particular feature of race politics in multicultural societies such as the US, the UK, Australia and France since the 1950s. This is not to say social unrest did not happen before then, but rather that since the 1950s it has been possible to analyse urban conflict within a wider sociology of race and ethnic relations.

In the UK context, the widespread urban conflict that characterised inner-city areas such as Bristol, London, Manchester and Liverpool during the early and mid 1980s was explained in competing ways. Some put emphasis on socio-economic factors, others on racism and others on criminality and cultural pathologies. However, even in the political mainstream there was some limited acknowledgment of the problematic nature of the policing of BME communities (see Scarman, 1981). This acknowledgement was extended in The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson in 1999, which described the policing of the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence as a failed investigation due to the institutionalracism of the Metropolitan Police. This was defined as the systematic and ‘collective failure of the organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’ (Macpherson, 1999, para. 6.34). Crucially, the Report noted that the racism was institutional because of the failure of leadership and managers of organisations to recognise and take effective steps to address racist practices and behaviours. However, the significance of this intervention (and the subsequent amendment of the 1976 Race Relations Act, 2000) was lost in outbreaks of sustained urban conflict mainly involving young Muslim men, far right political groups, and the police across northern towns in England in 2001.

Again there were competing accounts of why this 2001 unrest happened but mainstream policy and political responses were articulated around concerns as to the ethnic polarisations between White English and Pakistani English residents in urban areas like Bradford (e.g. Ouseley, 2001). Community cohesion came to dominate an agenda in which local Muslim communities appeared to be blamed for the polarisation and cultural withdrawal that had occurred. As criminologist Eugene McLaughlin (2009) notes, there is an inherent contradiction in the combined emphasis on community cohesion on the one hand and the emphasis on national security on the other. This contradiction was to become more apparent as the events of 9/11 in the US, Bali in 2002; Madrid in 2004; and London in 2005 – were read as further confirmation of the ‘threats’ Muslim culture posed. As with those involved in urban unrest in the UK in the 1980s, the urban unrest of 2001 and the impact of political violence saw the configurations of notions of dangerous criminality – criminal figures and criminal practices – being ethnically rewritten around young Muslim Asian and Arab men (see, for example, the rising stop-and-search figures for Asian people cited earlier).