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Race, policing and criminal justice: Statement from BSC Race Matters Network on events in the USA
After recent events in the USA, culminating in the death of George Floyd, The Steering Committee of the BSC Race Matters Network wishes to express its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and those African Americans and other minorities whose presence is regularly violently threatened by the state itself.
The rage and anger spilling out onto American streets is the result of a chain of events that include the murder by white vigilantes of a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, while jogging and the filming of a white woman in New York maliciously and spuriously calling the police to arrest a black man complaining to her about her dog’s behaviour in Central Park. These events across a matter of weeks link the memories of black Americans through innumerable, unforgettable episodes of police violence and white hostility. The images of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1992, and the riots that followed the acquittal of the police. The fate of the Central Park Five, the black American children falsely convicted of an appalling rape in 1989. Their case was largely invisible to white eyes, certainly on this side of the Atlantic, until the Netflix series ‘When They See Us’ revealed the depth of white complicity in their fate amounted to a malicious conspiracy.
We do not wish to repeat the litany of innumerable incidents that extend this chain back through US history to the lynching and slavery of its plantation economy. In expressing our solidarity with the Black Lives Matters movement we draw attention to state violence and white hostility against black people and minority religious groups such as Muslims, in this country and ask people, especially white people in the UK, to reflect seriously on the meaning of that title, ‘When They See Us’.
In the USA the criminal justice system is rightly identified as a mechanism that destroys black lives and delivers more pain than protection to minority ethnic groups. In this country figures from arrest to incarceration reveal patterns of disproportionality that are similar to, and have at times been even greater than, those in the USA. The youth justice system in England and Wales reflects this trend: black, Asian, mixed and other minority ethnic children and young people represent more than half (51%), of the youth custody population and almost half (48%) constitute the population of those remanded in youth detention accommodation. The magnitude of the problem becomes clearer when we consider that black, Asian, mixed and other minority ethnic children and young people represent only 18% of the entire youth population.
The scale may be smaller, and no country on Earth has a prison population anywhere near the size of the USA, but the patterns are the same or worse. The history of the criminal justice and immigration system in the UK is littered with miscarriages of justice and deaths in custody where race has been an active ingredient. We remember Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Jimmy Mubenga, Gareth Myatt and Sarah Reed among others who have died in custody. All too often the appalling violence of the US system is raised as a defence of our own system; not even the lesser of two evils, but a paragon of virtue, the mother of parliaments, and so on. But racism and race are written through our system of government just as it is in the USA, with all the fatal and life-limiting consequences.
While the shadow of American race relations grows longer and darker, it is incumbent on us as academics whose work inevitably tangles with criminal justice systems, to face the arguments around race posed long ago by James Baldwin. Visiting Switzerland in the 1950s, the black American writer saw how white Europeans ducked the questions white America could not when they saw black people:
“It is an argument which Europe has never had, and hence Europe quite sincerely fails to understand how or why the argument arose in the first place, why its effects are so frequently disastrous and always so unpredictable, why it refuses until today to be entirely settled. Europe’s black possessions remained, and do remain, in Europe’s colonies, at which remove they represented no threat whatever to European identity. If they posed any problem at all for the European conscience, it was a problem which remained comfortingly abstract: in effect, the black man, as a man, did not exist for Europe” (Stranger in the Village, in ‘Notes of a Native Son’, 1955)
These are arguments that surface in the BBC’s new film, ‘Sitting in Limbo’ (01/06/20) that tells the story of Anthony Bryan’s expulsion from Britain in 2015 to the Caribbean island he had left in 1965 as an eight year old boy. The film tells of the Windrush generation of Black people who came to the UK at the invitation of the government to help rebuild its war-shattered country, and who subsequently became the victims of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. Criminologists in the UK can (and should) rage against the atrocities in the USA, but we must confront the UK racism that sees black people as secondary to white people; visitors, migrants, illegals, threats, and least of all citizens. In the USA Black people demand to be seen as American citizens. Here, on this side of the Atlantic, they are still seen as ‘in Europe, but not of Europe’. We must change this.
The Race Matters Network aims are to:
- Foster greater attention to the dynamics of race and racism in criminological projects and practice, including in the wider work of the British Society of Criminology;
- Offer support, solidarity and academic development to Black and minority ethnic scholars in criminology, as well as those working within the subfield of race and criminology;
- Engage with local communities, practitioners and policy makers to influence, listen and inform around questions of race and racism;
- Foster wider recognition of the contribution of Black and minority ethnic scholars to criminology, historically, nationally and internationally.
To achieve these aims the Network will engage in activities that include:
- Organising and hosting conferences (including panels at the BSC conference), seminars, and an annual Black History/Criminology Month;
- Disseminating information via email, scholarly publications, social media and other means;
- Responding to policy consultations and/or requests for information;
- Engaging in tendering and funding bids;
- Collaborating with members of the ASC People of Color and Crime division and the BSA Race and Ethnicity Study Group, and other networks of relevance.
(Co-Chair) Dr Bankole Cole, Sheffield Hallam University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Co-Chair) Dr Monish Bhatia, Birkbeck College (email@example.com)
Professor Peter Squires, University of Brighton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Rod Earle, Open University (email@example.com)
Dr Anthony Gunter , University of East London (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Zoë James, University of Plymouth (Z.James@plymouth.ac.uk)
Dr Suzella Palmer, University of Bedfordshire (email@example.com)
Dr Waqas Tufail, Leeds Beckett University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Patrick Williams, Manchester Metropolitan University (P.Williams@mmu.ac.uk)
Dr Tara Young, University of Kent (T.L.Young@kent.ac.uk)
Thursday 19 March 2020 6:30pm to 8:00pm,
LSE SHEIKH ZAYED THEATRE, NEW ACADEMIC BUILDING
Race Matters: theorizing democracy, state power, and citizenship in policed communities
Vesla Weaver (@VeslaWeaver) is Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology, John Hopkins University.
Future events will be announced here and in the BSC bulletin
Joining and staying in touch
Please contact Rod Earle (email@example.com)
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Websites of interest
A compilation of resources that can be used for research, teaching, and other outreach activities from the American Sociological Association: https://www.asanet.org/news-events/asa-news/resources-race-police-violence-and-justice