Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Discrimination

Category Archives: Discrimination

Prison education: why it matters?

Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report.  Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic.  The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.   

In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage.  At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated.  We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners.  Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue.  Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas. 

The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not.  In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison.  They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail.  This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom.  This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes.  For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality.  In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society.  The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison.  This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some.  Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system. 

This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education.  We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.  Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle.  From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate.  Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s.  People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie. 

The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change.  The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances.  Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process.  For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.      

The final criminological issue is the prison itself.  What do we want people to do in them?  If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released.  When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult.  People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”.  This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality.  A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation.  The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly.  This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet.  If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary.  Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions.  This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does.  The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change. 

Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice.  This is perhaps a different topic of conversation.  At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.  

 

References

Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

The Chauvin verdict may not be the victory we think it is

Photo by Tito Texidor III on Unsplash

At times like this I often hate to be the person to take what little hope people may have had away from them, however, I do not believe the Chauvin verdict is the victory many people think it is. I say people, but I really mean White people, who since the Murder of George Floyd are quite new to this. Seeing the outcry on social media from many of my White colleagues that want to be useful and be supportive, sometimes the best thing to do in times like these is to give us time to process. Black communities across the world are still collectively mourning. Now is the time, I would tell these institutions and people to give Black educators, employees and practitioners their time, in our collective grief and mourning. After the Murder of George Floyd last year, many of us Black educators and practitioners took that oppurtunity to start conversations about (anti)racism and even Whiteness. However, for those of us that do not want to be involved because of the trauma, Black people recieving messages from their White friends on this, even well-meaning messages, dredges up that trauma. That though Derek Chauvin recieved a guilty verdict, this is not about individuals and he is still to recieve his sentence, albeit being the first White police officer in the city of Minneapolis to be convicted of killing a Black person.

Under the rallying cry “I can’t breathe” following the 2020 Murder of George Floyd, many of us went to march in unison with our American colleagues. Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council [NREC] organised a successful protest last summer where nearly a thousand people turned up. And similar demonstrations took place across the world, going on to be the largest anti-racist demonstration in history. However, nearly a year later, institutional commitments to anti-racism have withered in the wind, showing us how performative institutions are when it comes to pledges to social justice issues, very much so in the context race. I worry that the outcome of the Chauvin verdict might become a “contradiction-closing case”, reiterating a Facebook post by my NREC colleague Paul Crofts.

Vague statement, and seemingly have done nothing since last June #performativeallyship

For me, a sentence that results in anything less than life behind bars is a failure of the United States’ criminal justice system. This might be the biggest American trial since OJ and “while landmark cases may appear to advance the cause of justice, opponents re-double their efforts and overall little or nothing changes; except … that the landmark case becomes a rhetorical weapon to be used against further claims in the future” (Gillborn, 2008). Here, critical race theorist David Gillborn is discussing “the idea of the contradiction-closing case” originally iterated by American critical race theorist Derrick Bell. When we see success enacted in landmark cases or even movements, it allows the state to show an image of a system that is fair and just, one that allows ‘business as usual’ to continue. Less than thirty minutes before the verdict, a sixteen-year-old Black girl called Makiyah Bryant was shot dead by police in Columbus, Ohio. She primarily called the police for help as she was reportedly being abused. In her murder, it pushes me to constantly revisit the violence against Black women and girls at the hands of police, as Kimberlé Crenshaw states:

“They have been killed in their living rooms, in their bedrooms, in their cars, they’ve been killed on the street, they’ve been killed in front of their parents and they’ve been killed in front of their children. They have been shot to death. They have been stomped to death. They have been suffocated to death. They have been manhandled to death. They have been tasered to death. They have been killed when they have called for help. They have been killed while they have been alone and they have been killed while they have been with others. They have been killed shopping while Black, driving while Black, having a mental disability while Black, having a domestic disturbance while Black. They have even been killed whilst being homeless while Black. They have been killed talking on the cellphone, laughing with friends, and making a U-Turn in front of the White House with an infant in the back seat of the car.”  

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (TED, 2018)

Whilst Chauvin was found guilty, a vulnerable Black girl was murdered by the very people she called for help in a nearby state. Richard Delgado (1998) argues “contradiction-closing cases … allow business as usual to go on even more smoothly than before, because now we can point to the exceptional case and say, ‘See, our system is really fair and just. See what we just did for minorities or the poor’.” The Civil Rights Movement in its quest for Black liberation sits juxtaposed to what followed with the War on Drugs from the 1970s onwards. And whilst the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was seemingly one of the high points of British race relations followed with the 2001 Race Relations Act, it is a constant fallback position in a Britain where racial inequalities have exasperated since. That despite Macpherson’s landmark report, nothing really has changed in British policing, where up until recently London Metropolitan Police Service had a chief that said it wasn’t helpful to label police as institutionally racist.

Photo by Jack Prommel on Unsplash

Scrolling the interweb after the ruling, it was telling to see the difference of opinion between my White friends and colleagues in comparison to my Black friends and colleagues. White people wrote and tweeted with more optimism, claiming to hope that this may be the beginning of something upward and forward-thinking. Black people on the other hand were more critical and did not believe for a second that this guilty verdict meant justice. Simply, this ruling meant accountability. Since the Murder of George Floyd, there have been numbers of conversations and discourses opened up on racism, but less so on White supremacy as a sociopolitical system (Mills, 2004). My White colleagues still thinking about individuals rather than systems/institutions simply shows where many of us still are, where this trial became about a “bad apple”, without any forethought to look at the system that continues enable others like him.

Even if Derek Chauvin gets life, I am struggling to be positive since it took the biggest anti-racist demonstration in the history of the human story to get a dead Black man the opportunity at police accountability. Call me cynical but forgive me for my inability to see the light in this story, where Derek Chauvin is the sacrificial lamb for White supremacy to continue unabted. Just as many claimed America was post-racial in 2008 with the inaugaration of Barack Obama into the highest office in the United States, the looming incarceration (I hope) of Derek Chauvin does not mean policing suddenly has become equal. Seeing the strew of posts on Facebook from White colleagues and friends on the trial, continues to show how White people are still centering their own emotions and really is indicative of the institutional Whitenesses in our institutions (White Spaces), where the centreing of White emotions in workspaces is still violence.

Derek Chauvin is one person amongst many that used their power to mercilessly execute a Black a person. In our critiques of institutional racism, we must go further and build our knowledge on institutional Whiteness, looking at White supremacy in all our structures as a sociopolitical system – from policing and prisons, to education and the third sector. If Derek Chauvin is “one bad apple”, why are we not looking at the poisoned tree that bore him?


Referencing

Delgado, Richard. (1998). Rodrigo’s Committee assignment: A sceptical look at judicial independence. Southern California Law Review, 72, 425-454.

Gillborn, David. (2008). Racism and education: Coincidence or conspiracy? London: Routledge.

Mills, Charles (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, George (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. London: Routledge.  

TED (2018). The urgency of intersectionality | Kimberlé Crenshaw. YouTube [online]. Available.

White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces. Available.

We are not the same…respectfully

Disclaimer: whilst I can appreciate that it’s Women’s History Month and it would be appropriate that we all come together in support of one another, especially in the notion of us vs them (men). However, I am undoubtedly compelled to talk about race in this matter, in all matters in that sense. I can only speak on the influence of the women who are around me and of women who look like me. Black women. So, to the lovely white girl on twitter who felt the need to express under my thread how disheartened she was by the racial separation of womanhood in feminism … from the bottom of my heart, I am not sorry.

Sometime last year I stumbled across a book called They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by the marvellous Stephanie Jones Rogers. The book protested against the belief that white women were delicate and passive bystanders to the slave economy due to masculine power in the 18th century. Instead, it explores the white supremacy of white women and the high level of protection they had which, which often led to the lynching and killing of many Black men and boys (Emmett Till, 1955). The book also looks at the role of enslaved wet nurses, as many white women perceived breastfeeding to be uncultured and therefore avoided it. However, while enslaved children were flourishing and healthy, many of the white babies were dying. As a result, Black mothers were forced to separate from their babies and dedicate their milk and attention to the babies of their mistresses.

Consequently, this led to the high rise of neglect and death of black babies as cow’s milk and dirty water was used as a substitute (Jones-Rogers, 2019). Furthermore, Rogers goes on to explain how the rape of Black women was used to ensure the supply of enslaved wet nurses. As you can imagine the book definitely does not sugar coat anything and I am struggling to finish it due to my own positionality in the subject. One thing for sure is that after learning about the book I was pretty much convinced that general feminism was not for me.

When I think about the capitalisation and intersectional exploitation that black women endured. I lightly emphasise the term ‘history’ when I say women’s history, because for Black women, it is timeless. It is ongoing. We see the same game play out in different forms. For example, the perception that white women are often the victims (Foley, et al., 1995) and therefore treated delicately, while Black women receive harsher/ longer sentences (Sharp, 2000). The high demand of Black women in human trafficking due to sexual stereotypes (Chong, 2014), the injustice in birth where Black women are five times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women in the UK (University of Oxford, 2019) and the historical false narrative that Black women feel less pain than white women (Sartin, 2004, Hoffman et al, 2016).

So again, we are not the same…. Respectfully. 

It is important for me to make clear that we are not the same, because we are viewed and treated differently than white women. We are not the same, because history tells us so. We are not the same, because the criminal justice system shows us so. We are not the same, because the welfare system and housing institutions show us so. We are not the same, because of racism.

This year’s women’s history month was more so about me learning and appreciating the Black women before me and around me. As I get older, it represents a subtle reminder that our fight is separate to much of the world. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging that, without having to feel like I am dismissing the fight of white women or the sole purpose of feminism in general. I am a Black feminist and to the many more lovely white women who may feel it’s unnecessary or who are disheartened by the racial separation of womanhood in feminism, I am truly, truly not sorry.

P.s to Nicole Thea, Sandra Bland, Toyin Salau, Blessing Olusegun, Belly Mujinga and Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong. I am so sorry the system let down and even though you are not talked about enough, you will never be forgotten.

References:

Chong, N.G., (2014). Human trafficking and sex industry: Does ethnicity and race matter?. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(2), pp.196-213.

Foley, L.A., Evancic, C., Karnik, K., King, J. and Parks, A. (1995) Date rape: Effects of race of assailant and victim and gender of subjects on perceptions. Journal of Black Psychology, 21(1), pp.6-18.

Hoffman, K.M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J.R. and Oliver, M.N. (2016) Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(16), pp.4296-4301.

Jones-Rogers, S.E.(2019). They were her property: White women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.

Sartin, J.S. (2004) J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology: Hero or villain?. Southern medical journal, 97(5), pp.500-506.

Sharp, S.F., Braley, A. and Marcus-Mendoza, S. (2000) Focal concerns, race & sentencing of female drug offenders. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 28(2), pp.3-16.

University of Oxford. (2019) NPEU News: Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Why? {Online}. Available from:https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/mbrrace-uk/news/1834-npeu-news-black-women-are-five-times-more-likely-to-die-in-childbirth-than-white-women-why {Accessed 29th March 2021}

I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people.

I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who doesn’t speak about race in mixed company, at least not casually, and certainly not in any space not specifically determined for such a conversation. If the invitation doesn’t say ‘race’ in the title, then I most assuredly won’t be bringing up sexism, racism nor classism, nor religious chauvinism – even if social status is evident and apparent by the time we get there. It’s too complicated, and I’ve been the unwitting sounding board too often for too many illiberals, or just folks who hadn’t ever really taken any time to (attempt to) put themselves in anyone else’s shoes – not even as a mental exercise to forward their own understanding of our world and its complexities. 

Hurt people hurt people

I am an empath, and so shifting through perspectives is more organic to me than seems ‘normal’. Empaths more naturally take that Matrix-style 360-degree snapshot of any given scenario, distinct from neurotypical folks. I am also ‘a black man in a white world’, a gay man in a straight world, a Buddhist man in a Christian world, so I supposed I have made it a survival tactic to see the world through other’s eyes, knowing full well most hadn’t even considered I’d existed. It’s only other empaths who aren’t so surprised how we all got here across our differences. I have not had the luxury of surrounding myself with people just like me, and yet this has rarely made me feel unsafe. 

This snapshot is also a means of connection: I like people and usually see similarities between people where they usually show me they’ve only ever seen differences. This isn’t to imply that I am colorblind or don’t see across differences. Naw, it’s that I am more interested in sharing hearts, no matter how deeply one has learned to bury and conceal theirs. Hence, I usually respond with “why” when told something ridiculously racist or sexist, and ask “how come you think that,” when something homophobic is said; and then I patiently listen. I genuinely want to know. I’ve observed that this response can throw people off balance, for they’ve become accustomed to people either joining in or ignoring their ignorance. Really, no one ever purely inquired how’d you become so hate-filled!?!

I wear my heart on my sleeve for I know how to recover from the constant assault and barrage of disconnection. Yes, it saddens me that so many have been so conditioned, and convinced for so long that we are so disconnected.

They want our RHYTHM but not our BLUES

Now, with my elite education and global aspirations, I often gain access to spaces that explicitly work to exclude people from any non-elite backgrounds. It’s not that I want to pass as anything other than myself, it’s just that I am often surrounded by folks who rarely seem to have considered that someone could – or would – simultaneously exist in a plethora of boxes. I can’t fit into any one box other than human. Yet, I used to try to fit in, to avoid standing out as a means to shield myself from the bullying or peering eyes and gossip as folks try to figure out in which box I reside – a classic tactic of projection. 

I am a dark-skinned Black person with a nappy head and a stereotypical bubble butt. I neither bleach my skin nor straighten my hair, so I am identifiably Black up-close and from afar. I don’t even hide my body under baggy clothes, so even my silhouette is Black. I’ve lived, worked, studied and traveled in North America, western Europe, west Africa as well as north, south and southeast Asia, so I’ve taken 360-degree snapshots of radically different societies ‘seeing’ a Black man, and oh how radically different the reactions. I’m becoming one of those Black people who notices this, but won’t speak about race in mixed company because as an empath, one sees how defensive people become when raising race. I went through a phase where I would more readily speak about gender, then draw the parallels to race and class, for most folks can only handle one form of oppression at a time (fellow Audre Lorde fans may appreciate that pun).

Me, looking at myself being looked at as ‘different’. Hoi An, Vietnam. January 2021

Hello, my name is: Diversity.

I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who never questions people when they describe their backgrounds as ‘good’, when all they really mean is moneyed, racially and religiously homogenous. Many get all defensive when I reveal that my entire education was radically diverse by design, from second grade through my master’s. I know I had a “better” education than them because I was taught inclusion alongside people who were similar and different from me – and we went to each other’s homes.

I don’t look in the mirror and say ‘hey diversity’; I just see the face I was given, and do with it what I can. Yet, I have often been called upon to speak on behalf of many people. I offer my opinion, or relay my observations, and suddenly I am a spokesman for the gays, or the Blacks, rarely just me. So, what’s it like being on the inside of cultures of power? Darnit, I shan’t ask that either! 

Your god is cruel #BlackAsiaWithLove

Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” depicting Ruby Bridges – the first black child to attend an all white elementary school in the South. Image from the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

I don’t trust your god

Your god is cruel

Your god is mean

Your god allowed generations of your people to enslave mine

Your god made it okay to look into the Bible and see white power.

You prayed to your god with every slave you took.

You prayed that your catch would be bountiful, and

Your enslavers safe.

You’ve prayed that you would gain money, and fame, and power.

And you did.

Your god gave you everything.

Thanks to your god-given wealth,

You built church after church, and

Cathedral after cathedral, all around the globe,

So that everyone could worship your god.

You prayed that we’d all pay homage to a mean and cruel god.

Your god’s played a trick on you,

Convincing you slavery was god-like, that white was right!

That dark was evil, and so

Your god’s given you moral dominion over the darker peoples of the world.

You and your god dominate.

Don’t you know,

Your god’s cross was used to conquer the Americas, and

A church sits smack in the middle of west Africa’s biggest, extant slave castle!?!

Yes, your god was right there with you as you captured human cargo, and

Stored them right next to your church so they could hear you pray, and

Marched them out of the door of no return, onto feed your greed that your god sanctioned.

You grew fat, bloated with power,

Thanks to your god.

I don’t trust your god.

Nor should you.

Now, with every attempt we have to take back our humanity, you resist.

We say “Black Lives Matter,” and you pray they don’t.

You pray for a champion – a big man – to come down from above and save you.

And when that big, rich, powerful man does descend,

And threatens to shore off all apologists for your god’s cruel past,

You treat him as heaven-sent!

And call out all defectors from your church,

All those so-called Liberals who’ve turned away from your god.

You pray that this big man and his family will bask in the gains of your god’s glory.

That somehow this big man’s glory attests to your god’s power.

You cheer when that big man waves a bible at you, in front of any church, and

You tell yourself: “My God is good,” and

You run-n-fetch your god every time the big man blows the dog-whistle,

Which you hear clear as day.

Run. Stay. Sit.

You follow your god’s orders.

Free yourself from your old god.

To erase that history, to look away from those facts, you must also erase yourself…

Because slavery, and continued subjugation is not just my problem, it’s…

The Problem We All Live With.

It’s in you, too.

“I can’t breathe”: Criminology, Science and Society

Sometimes the mind wanders; the associations it produces are random and odd, but somehow, they connect.  In the book of Genesis, there is reference to the first murder.  Cain murdered Abel with a stone making it the original murder weapon.  After some questioning from God, who acted as an investigating officer, and following a kind-of admission, God then assumed the role of the judge and jury, sentencing him to wander the earth.  This biblical tale is recounted by all three main monotheistic religions, a what to do in the case of murder.  The murderer is morally fallen and criminally dealt by with a swift punishment. 

There is no reason to explore the accuracy of the tale because that is not the point.  Religion, in the absence of science, acted as a moral arbitrator, sentencing council and overall the conscience of society.  In a society without science, the lack of reason allows morality to encroach on personal choices, using superstition as an investigative tool.  As scientific discovery grew, the relevance of religion in investigation was reduced.  The complexity of society required complex institutions that cared for people and their issues.   

When the Normans landed in England, they brought with them a new way of dealing with disputes and conflict. Their system of arbitration, using the King as a divine representative, was following Roman tradition and theology but it soon became apparent that a roaming court may not be as efficient. The creation of the magistrates and the statutes on legal representation introduced the idea of bringing professionals into justice. The creation of new institutions fostered the age of the scholar, who uses evidence-based practice.

This new approach removed more religious practices, instead favouring the examination of facts, the investigation of testimony and the study of law.  It was a long way away from the system we know now as the witch trials can attest to; a number of whom took place in East Anglia (including Northampton).  In the end the only thing that has been left from the early religious trials is the oath witness take when they submit their testimony.* 

The more we learn the better we become in understanding the world around us. The conviction that science can resolve our problems and alleviate social issues was growing and by the 19th century was firm. The age of discovery, industrialisation and new scientific reasoning introduced a new criminal justice system and new institutions (including the police). Scientific reasoning proposed changes in the penal code and social systems. Newly trained professionals, impervious to corruption and nepotism, were created to utilise a new know-how to investigate people and their crimes.

Training became part of skilling new mandarins in a system that reflected social stratification and professionalism. The training based on secular principles became focused on processes and procedures. The philosophy on the training was to provide a baseline of the skills required for any of the jobs in the system. Their focus on neutrality and impartiality, seemed to reflect the need for wider social participation, making systems more democratic. At least in principle that was the main idea. Over centuries of public conflict and social unrest the criminal justice system was moving onto what people considered as inclusive.

Since then the training was incorporated into education, with the new curriculum including some BTECs, diplomas, foundation studies and academic degrees that take on a variety of professions from investigative fields to law enforcement and beyond. This academic skilling, for some was evidence that the system was becoming fairer and their professionals more educated. Police officers with knowledge of the system, akin to lawyers to the probation service and so on. So far so good…but then how do we explain the killing of George Floyd? Four officers trained, skilled, educated and two of them experienced in the job.

If this was a one, two three, four, -offs then the “bad apple” defence seems to be the most logical extrapolation on what went wrong.  If, however this is not the case, if entire communities are frightened of those who allegedly serve and protect them, then there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”.  Whilst this case is American, it was interesting to read on social media how much it resonated, in communities across the globe of those who felt that this was nothing more than their own everyday experience with law enforcement.  For them, police is merely a mechanism of repression. 

Since the murder I have read a number of analyses on the matter and maybe it worth going a bit further than them. In one of them the author questioned the validity of education, given than two of the officers in the Floyd case hold a criminal justice and a sociology degree respectively. There is a vein of truth there; educators have some responsibility to forge and promote professional conduct and ethical practice among their alumnus. There are however some other issues that have not been considered and it is time for these to be brought to the surface.

Education or training alone is not adequate to address the complexities of our society. Social awareness, cultural acceptance and the opportunity to reflect on the rules using problem solving and insight are equally important. Foucault has long argued that the justice system is inherently unfair because it preserves privileges and blocks anyone outside from challenging it. Reflecting on that, all major constitutional changes took place after a revolution or a war, indicating the truism in his observation.

If we are to continue to train people on procedures and processes the “bad apples” are likely to strike again. The complexity of social situations requires an education that ought to be more rounded, critical and evaluative. If a doctor takes an oath to do no harm, then so should every other professional who works in their community. If the title of the office is more appealing than the servitude, then the officer is not fulfilling their role. If we do not recognise equality among all people, then no training will allow us to be fair. Suddenly it becomes quite clear; we need more education than less, we need knowledge instead of information and we need more criminology for those who wish to serve the system.

*Even that can now be given as an affirmation

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Mary Adams, recent Graduate and mature student.

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: I would have to say they are all equally important for understanding different aspects of Criminology. In first year I loved The Science of Crime which showed how things have evolved over time, and that what we now see as funny was actually cutting edge in its day. True Crime also makes you look beyond the sensational headlines and separate fact from fiction. In second year Crime & Justice gave a brilliant grounding in the inner workings, and failings, of the criminal justice system. And in third year, the Violence module explores personal and institutional violence, which is especially relevant in current times

The academic criminology book you must read: Becker’s Outsiders and Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics are a must. I also found Hopkins-Burke’s An Introduction to Criminological Theory and Newburn’s Criminology essential reading for first year as well as Finch & Fafinski’s Criminological Skills. For second year I recommend Davies, Croall & Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. If you choose the Violence module in third year you will be grateful for Curtin & Litke’s Institutional Violence. And don’t forget Foucault’s Discipline & Punish!

The academic journal article you must read:
There are so many excellent journal articles out there, it’s difficult to choose! Some of my favourites have been:
'Alphonse Bertillon & the measure of man' by Farebrother & Champkin;
'Bad Boys, Good Mothers & the ‘’Miracle’’ of Ritalin by Ilina Singh';
'Detainee Abuse & the Ethics of Psychology' by Kathryn French;
'Attachment, Masculinity & Self-control' by Hayslett-McCall & Bernard;
'Grenfell, Austerity & Institutional Violence' by Cooper & Whyte;
'The Phenomenology of Paid Killing' by Laurie Calhoun;
'A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists' by J. Arrigo.

The criminology documentary you must watch:
Without a doubt, a must-see is the Panorama documentary London Tower Fire: Britain’s Shame. I would also highly recommend the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment

The most important criminologist you must read:
Of course you must read Lombroso, Beccaria & Bentham. I also enjoyed reading work by feminist criminologists like Pat Carlen, Carol Smart & Sandra Walklate. And of course, Angela Davis is a must!

Something criminological that fascinates me:
What fascinates me is how the powers that be, and a good proportion of the public, cannot seem to realise that social injustice is one of the major factors behind why people commit crime. And the fact that putting more & more people in prison is seen as a ‘good’ thing is mind-boggling!

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
The fact that it is such a diverse subject & incorporates so many other disciplines

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
Question everything! Don’t take anything at face-value. Try to look beyond the attention grabbing headlines to find out the real story. Read, read, read!

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Unfortunately I think there are many pressing problems facing society today, the main ones being social injustice & inequality, systemic racism, institutional violence, and mass incarceration


When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Some people joke that I’m learning how to be a criminal! Others think it’s all about locking people up! I tell them it’s all about looking at the mechanisms in-built in our society that disadvantage & discriminate against whole groups of people, and that, unless we are part of the rich & powerful elite, any one of us could find ourselves in the ‘out’ group at any time. I also tell them to stop reading The Daily Mail, vote Labour, and question everything!!


“A small case of injustice”

Gilbert Baker

Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights.  A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights.  The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights.  In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals. 

This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law.  In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group.  These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all.  This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws.  The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation. 

Take for example “entrapment”.  Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis.  The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society.  The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax.  So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals?  It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.  This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.     

The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction.  As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison.  It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery).  It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category. 

The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced.  Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them.  This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested.  For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) . 

The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing.  During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live.  It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police.  This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.    

In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:

It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”

This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise.  For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts.  The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing.  The struggle continues…    

Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm

The victimisation of one

One of the many virtues of criminology is to talk about many different crimes, many different criminal situations, many different deviant conditions.  Criminology offers the opportunity to consider the world outside the personal individual experience; it allows us to explore what is bigger than the self, the reality of one. 

Therefore, human experience is viewed through a collective, social lens; which perhaps makes it fascinating to see these actions from an individual experience.  It is when people try to personalise criminological experience and carry it through personal narratives.  To understand the big criminological issues from one case, one face, one story. 

Consider this: According to the National Crime Agency over 100K children go missing in the UK each year; but we all remember the case of little Madeleine McCann that happened over 13 years ago in Portugal.  Each year approximately 65 children are murdered in the UK (based on estimates from the NSPCC, but collectively we remember them as James Bulger, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.  Over 100 people lost their lives to racially motivated attacks, in recent years but only one name we seem to remember that of Stephen Lawrence (Institute of Race Relations). 

Criminologists in the past have questioned why some people are remembered whilst others are forgotten.  Why some victims remain immortalised in a collective consciousness, whilst others become nothing more than a figure.  In absolute numbers, the people’s case recollection is incredibly small considering the volume of the incidents.  Some of the cases are over 30 years old, whilst others that happened much more recently are dead and buried. 

Nils Christie has called this situation “the ideal victim” where some of those numerous victims are regarded “deserving victims” and given legitimacy to their claim of being wronged.  The process of achieving the ideal victim status is not straightforward or ever clear cut.  In the previous examples, Stephen Lawrence’s memory remained alive after his family fought hard for it and despite the adverse circumstances they faced.  Likewise, the McGann family did the same.  Those families and many victims face a reality that criminology sometimes ignores; that in order to be a victim you must be recognised as one.  Otherwise, the only thing that you can hope for it that you are recorded in the statistics; so that the victimisation becomes measured but not experienced.  This part is incredibly important because people read crime stories and become fascinated with criminals, but this fascination does not extend to the victims their crimes leave behind. 

Then there are those voices that are muted, silenced, excluded and discounted.  People who are forced to live in the margins of society not out of choice, people who lack the legitimacy of claim for their victimisation.  Then there are those whose experience was not even counted.  In view of recent events, consider those millions of people who lived in slavery.  In the UK, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and in the US the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1863 ostensibly ended slavery. 

Legally, those who were under the ownership of others became a victim of crime and their suffering a criminal offence.  Still over 150 years have passed, but many Black and ethnic minorities identify that many issues, including systemic racism, emanate from that era, because they have never been dealt with.  These acts ended slavery, but compensated the owners and not the slaves.  Reparations have never been discussed and for the UK it took 180 years to apologise for slavery.  At that pace, compensation may take many more decades to be discussed.  In the meantime, do we have any collective images of those enslaved?  Have we heard their voices?  Do we know what they experience? Some years ago, whilst in the American Criminology Conference, I came across some work done by the Library of Congress on slave narratives.  It was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the great depression, that transcribed volumes of interviews of past slaves.  The outcome is outstanding, but it is very hard to read. 

In the spirit of the one victim, the ideal victim, I am citing verbatim extracts from two ex-slaves Hannah Allen, and Mary Bell, both slaves from Missouri.  Unfortunately, no images, no great explanation.  These are only two of the narratives of a crime that the world tries to forget. 

“I was born in 1830 on Castor River bout fourteen miles east of Fredericktown, Mo. My birthday is December 24.  […] My father come from Perry County.  He wus named Abernathy.  My father’s father was a white man.  My white people come from Castor and dey owned my mother and I was two years old when my mother was sold.  De white people kept two of us and sold mother and three children in New Orleans.  Me and my brother was kept by de Bollingers.  This was 1832.  De white people kept us in de house and I took care of de babies most of de time but worked in de field a little bit.  Dey had six boys.  […] I ve been living here since de Civil War.  Dis is de third house that I built on dis spot.  What I think ‘bout slavery?  Well we is getting long purty well now and I believe its best to not agitate”. 

Hannah Allen

“I was born in Missouri, May 1 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.  I had two sisters and three brothers.  One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War, and one died here in St. Louis in 1919.  His name was Spot.  My other brother, four years younger than I, died in October, 1925 in Colorado Springs.  Slavery was a mighty hard life.  Kitty Diggs hired me out to a Presbyterian minister when I was seven years old, to take care of three children.  I nursed in da family one year.  Den Miss Diggs hired me out to a baker named Henry Tillman to nurse three children.  I nurse there two years.  Neither family was nice to me.” 

Mary Bell

When people said “I don’t understand”, my job as an educator is to ask how can I help you understand?  In education, as in life, we have to have the thirst of knowledge, the curiosity to learn.  Then when we read the story of one, we know, that this is not a sole event, a bad coincidence, a sad incident, but the reality for people around us; and their voices must be heard.    

References

Nils Christie (1986) The Ideal Victim, in Fattah Ezzat A (eds) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, London

Missouri Slave Narratives, A folk History of Slavery in Missouri from Interviews with Former Slaves, Library of Congress, Applewood Books, Bedford

%d bloggers like this: