Judah Oppressed in the U.K.
AROUND THE GLOBE | EUROPE | JUNE 2015
Figures published today show black people are up to 17.5 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police in certain areas of the UK. This enormous disparity is no great surprise. The issue of stop and search has dogged the police service for decades, sparking riots in Brixton in 1981 and in various parts of the country in 1985. Despite Theresa May, the home secretary, pledging to tackle the issue, there has been little faith that much would change. What is surprising about these figures, however, is which police forces are the worst offenders.
Police forces in large urban areas such as London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester have received a myriad of complaints and protests over their dealings with black communities. It is in these areas that tensions and resistance have sparked, creating uneasy relationships between the police and the community, which go beyond stop and search to include issues such as deaths in custody and harassment.
Urban police have, at times, been compared to an occupying force, overseeing black communities. But in the latest figures, while black people are still two to three times more likely to be stopped by police in cities, it is in rural areas that the biggest disparities are found. In Dorset, black people were 17.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched, in Sussex 10.6 times and Norfolk 8.4 times. Given that the last response to stop and search figures by some forces was to attempt to stop collecting the data, some will suspect urban results might reflect forces being better able to massage the figures. But whatever the case, the rural numbers are illuminating.
The urban environment has long been at the centre of moral panics over the black community and crime. In 1978, in the classic book Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, the New Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham examined the role of the media, the police and the judiciary in creating the panic around “mugging”. Mugging has never been a crime on the statute book; instead, it is a word used to define a violent offence committed by black people in the city. Areas like Handsworth, in Birmingham, became stigmatised as breeding grounds for “muggers” from their broken, immigrant homes. This idea of black criminality is central to understanding the over-policing of black communities, which leads to such realities as the stop and search figures.
The problem with conceiving the issue in this way, however, is that it can transform an issue of institutional racism into one of urban policing. A focus on urban conditions has worked to legitimise high rates of stop and search and other measures, as they can be explained as the police having to work in difficult, disadvantaged areas that require more policing. A perfect example of this is theMet’s Operation Trident, which focused on black-on-black gun crime; its creation in 1998 openly proclaimed that there was more crime in black communities that needed to be policed than in other communities. As the latest figures show, however, over-policing is not down to the tensions and conditions in urban areas. It is not just forces like the Met that are institutionally racist and in need of reform. The entire system of policing in this country is infected with structural racism.
Over-policing of black communities in urban areas is important because it reinforces what Professor Elijah Anderson calls the “iconic ghetto” in the popular imagination. Anderson explains that “the ghetto is where ‘the black people live’, symbolising an impoverished, crime-prone, drug-infested, and violent area of the city.” The importance of the ghetto taking on iconic status is that it comes to define black people even when they are far from the inner city. In the US, the young black man Trayvon Martin was seen as a threat when he visited a gated community in Florida because he represented, for some, the menace of the iconic ghetto. In the UK, the power of the symbol is just as important and frames how the police deal with black people even in areas where there are very few of us.
The disproportionate rates of stop and search for black communities continue to demonstrate institutional racism in British policing. These stops are just one part of a wider criminal justice system in which black people are more likely to bearrested, charged and to receive a custodial sentence. As the latest figures show, this is a national problem that cannot be dealt with by focusing on the problems of a few urban police forces. It requires wholesale reform of the entire criminal justice system.