Anti-racist criminology? A recall

Rod Earle, The Open University

In November 2016 the Youth Justice Board announced that 47% of the custodial population of young men in England and Wales was composed of men and boys from black and minority ethnic groups. The reductions in the level of youth incarceration, from over 3,000 in 2006 to less than 900 in 2016, have been very unevenly distributed. It leaves a custodial population almost half of which is non-white, and which has barely reduced at all if you are from a black or minority ethnic group. In the United States, racial disproportionality is subject to sharp critical scrutiny partly because of the phenomenal scale of US imprisonment rates, but the disproportionality here is worse. Even worse is that this is neither new or news and largely escapes critical attention. Coretta Phillips’ book, The Multicultural Prison, reports as much and notes that clear racial disparities in British prisons date back to the 1990s. Why is race so obscure to criminology and criminologists and yet so blatant in criminal justice?

In both the USA and the UK there are stark racial disparities in policing and imprisonment. In both countries 2016 was heavily marked by racial politics and few people would deny that race was a dominant feature of the 2016 US presidential election. A White challenger to a Black incumbent was itself unprecedented, but the background was provided by the Black Lives Matter campaign protesting at the fatal neglect of black communities in the US and the lethal violence of their policing. Donald Trump emerged triumphant on the back of what some commentators referred to as a ‘whitelash’.

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Image source: RISE

 

In the UK, the successful Brexit campaign took a leaf out Enoch Powell’s 1970s racial rhetoric which, according to Stuart Hall and colleagues in Policing the Crisis, “spoke straight… to the fears, anxieties, and frustrations [of the white] national collective unconscious, to its hopes and fears”. The referendum result shocked many, and revitalised concerns about how racism circulates under the surface, only to emerge to fuller public view during periods of particular political turbulence. In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall and colleagues analysed how in the 1970s crime, race and policing were implicated in the configuration of a seminal political crisis.  Since then crime has risen to, and receded from, the political frontline and race has almost evaporated from mainstream political discourse. So, where’s the bad news?

The political consensus among white elites is that race is irrelevant. Because race does not exist at the biological level, and is thus ‘unscientific’, it is logically inconsistent to attribute harmful effects to it. The continuing, all-to-real, empirically unequivocal, distribution of harmful effects according to race are thus relegated from social, economic and historical processes to the personal realm of sentiments, such as fear, guilt and anxiety. Racism is understood as a residual problem of atavistic, ignorant individuals failing to sufficiently modernise themselves; a personal defect to be exposed and condemned rather than a structural feature of society to be dismantled.

In the rush to do away with the term ‘race’, a variety of competing terminologies, such as ‘implicit bias’ and xenophobia, focusing on fear of ‘foreigners’ or migrants, have drawn from concepts of ‘difference’, ‘culture’ and ‘alterity’. They often do so as if such fears were a natural human propensity, an evolutionary and thus innate predisposition to be wary of ‘strangers’ that is hard-wired into us. This euphemistic strategy proceeds innocently enough without acknowledging that concepts such as ‘difference’ and alterity, posit a normative (white, Eurocentric) state of being against which the “other” or the “different” stand out, usually with far from innocent or benign implications.

White disavowal of race, race-blindness, is frequently accompanied by a strategy of deflection that situates any residual symptoms in the ‘passions of the popular classes’. Where racism does manifest, according to this perspective, is among the fragmented white underclass; ‘chavs’ in the UK, ‘white-trash’ and ‘rednecks’ in the USA, ‘petits blancs’ in France. Among these sections of society, cut adrift from the relentless march of progress and ill-equipped to adopt the omnivorous, cosmopolitan appetites of the middle class, racism is conceded to be a problem: an irrational reaction based on the atavistic fantasies of the unsophisticated masses. Within this elitist perspective, the role of the state, the most powerful structuring force in society, and other powerful collectivities, are erased from the picture.

The value of insisting on race is that it connects the subject matter of human division to history and ideology, to theorising and to struggles for emancipation and egalitarianism. Retrieving race from the hostile post-racial miasma swirling around Muslims for example, or refugees and migrant populations can help to situate people in particular contexts that foster more active resistance and greater resilience. It can reanimate anti-racism.

Criminology is a discipline heavily implicated in racial projects. There is thus an urgent need to revisit race and re-present arguments that can challenge its enduring corrosive effects. One way of doing this is to ‘recall’ the concept of anti-racism.  The procedure of ‘recalling’ refers both to the process of memory as recollecting the past, but also to the procedures of commerce in which a manufacturing company might recall a product that has been identified as having a defect or being deficient in a way that can be remedied. The recall demonstrates a commitment to fixing the problem and returning it to its proper functioning. For some criminologists familiar with sentencing procedure, ‘recall’ will also be familiar as the process by which a prisoner released from custody is returned to their former state of incarceration because they may be at risk of disappearing while they continue to pose a risk of causing further harm. Perhaps this meaning is also appropriate, bringing ‘race’ back into view, and preventing its disappearance while there is so much work still to be done proving that it is has ceased to exist as a threat.

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Source: Socialist Worker

Recalling anti-racism is an urgent critical task because the neo-liberal reconfigurations of racism have become exceptionally vigorous. Post-racial delusions, white privilege, indifference and impunity conspire against an effective anti-racism. There is a lot of work being accomplished that has pushed anti-racism to the margins and reduced race to an individual moral failure or a fantasy from bogie wonderland. Criminologist cannot turn away from race, particularly while there is so much mounting evidence of its corrosive presence in criminal justice, and so little understanding of how racisms produce race. The sporadic or ambivalent attention to race within criminology relegates the issue to the supplemental sidelines when it needs to be recognised as central and constitutive. Anti-racism in criminology can produce the wished-for non-racism, but non-racism cannot produce anti-racism. For criminologists recalling anti-racism, going back to the drawing board, can involve creating new and public spaces for questioning the relationship between race, prison and punishment. The evidence is out there.

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