04:46, January 30 73 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-30 04:46:13
Britain criminalising BME young people could spark a new crisis on the streets

The latest figures to emerge showing racial inequality are sadly as unsurprising as they are shocking. Reading that more than half of the people locked in young offender institutions in England and Wales belong to an ethnic minority should be a cause for national alarm. Somehow things are actually worse than in 2017, when the Lammy review put the figure at 41%. But we have become so desensitised to institutional racism that the nation is numb to the reality. We are sleepwalking into the next crisis on the streets for a generation of black and brown young people.

A rise in violent crime involving young people has brought with it the expected hyperventilation of the rightwing press, as well as hollow words of concern from politicians, and calls to strengthen the powers of the police against the “gangs” who are supposedly to blame. Let’s ignore for a moment that most knife crime is committed by white people, making the idea that this is somehow a black issue absurd. Even if the sentiment behind these responses really was in an effort to help black communities, it would be entirely misplaced. Rather than blaming the family, community or music we should address the real cause of the problems in our inner cities, which is that successive generations are being marginalised from society.

It is no coincidence that violent crime is on the rise as the impact of almost a decade of austerity bites. Social research is usually the last place to look for general laws governing society (one of the reasons we should stop pretending to be scientists), but on the causes of crime the evidence is clear. The young black male unemployment rate across London is 29%, masking far higher figures in the most deprived areas. This unemployment crisis demands more well-paying jobs and not more police. When the government attacked the social safety net it, surely knowingly, set in process the chaos we are seeing on the streets.

In response to the moral panic about crime in the “ghettoes”, the government response just makes the situation worse. More police, disproportionate use of stop and search, and locking up increasing numbers of minority people, both young and older, only increases the marginalisation. It’s like we are stuck in a feedback loop, where the criminal injustice system is continually offered as a solution to a problem that it is one of the principal forces in creating.

Relations with the police continue to be marked by suspicion and distrust. Campaigns for justice for people who have died in custody or after contact with police, continue to fall on deaf ears, with the case of Kingsley Burrell being the perfect example. Following his death in hospital days after being forcibly detained by police in 2011, one officer was sacked in 2019 for lying to an inquest – but all the police officers involved were cleared of causing his death. Making things worse, organisers of a protest recently called off the march because of concerns over police surveillance and interference. When the police are seen as an occupying force, it only further alienates the community and its most disadvantaged from society.

Since the 80s, when the first mass generation of black young people who were born in the country expected our birthright to command equal treatment under the law, we have seen the result of racist policing. Frustration with the police boiled over in different parts of the country in 1981, 1985, 1995 and in 2011, with people taking to the streets in acts of either rebellion or riot, depending on your perspective. The latest stats on the make-up of the young offender institutions is just more fuel added to the impending crisis. History tells us that it only takes one spark to turn anger into disorder. In 1981, it was caused by Operation Swamp 81 flooding police on to the streets of Brixton. The death of Cynthia Jarrett after a police search set Broadwater Farm ablaze in 1985 and the police killing of Mark Duggan in 2011 also led to nationwide mayhem. By continuing to harass, arrest, charge and incarcerate ethnic minority young people at excessive rates, society is creating what Malcolm X called a “racial powder keg” in our cities.

It impossible to predict what will ignite the next explosion of frustration and resentment – but it is undeniable that the acceptance of racist treatment of minority young people in the criminal justice system – and beyond – makes another crisis inevitable.

Kehinde Andrews is professor of black studies at Birmingham City University

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